Commentary

Rangers' lineup shows Tigers its depth

Bottom of order does damage against Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander in Game 1

Updated: October 9, 2011, 9:34 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Now we know. If even Mother Nature can't stop the Texas Rangers, what chance does a mere mortal like Justin Verlander have?

[+] EnlargeNelson Cruz and David Murphy
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Rangers' pop against Justin Verlander came from the bottom of the order in the form of David Murphy and Nelson Cruz.
Maybe Verlander, who won 24 games this season and not only is a shoo-in for the American League Cy Young but is very much in the conversation for MVP, isn't really mortal at all. It didn't matter Saturday night at The Ballpark in Arlington.

The Rangers, who handed the remarkable Verlander one of only five losses on his ledger during the regular season, nicked him for three runs in the game's first four innings and arguably the best bullpen in baseball made it stand up en route to a twice-rain-delayed 3-2 victory in Game 1 of the ALCS.

OK, all you folks out there who have been praying for rain in drought-stricken north Texas, 'fess up. Who would have thought those prayers would finally be answered during the first game of the ALCS?

While the timing may have been rotten, all of Ranger Nation will happily take both the rain and the opening victory over Verlander in the best-of-seven series, which continues with Game 2 on Sunday night.

That the Rangers scratched out a win over the Detroit Tigers and their ace on a night when the top four hitters in their lineup -- Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young -- were a combined 1-for-14 may surprise TV viewers tuning in to watch the Rangers for the first time this season, but not die-hard Texas fans.

This is one of the many things that makes the Rangers such a dangerous team. Some nights it's Hamilton, or Young, or Adrian Beltre doing the damage. Some nights it's Kinsler, Andrus or Mike Napoli. But on any given night it might also be David Murphy or Nelson Cruz, as the Tigers learned the hard way.

Murphy, batting eighth, keyed a two-run Rangers second by driving a Verlander changeup to deep right-center for a run-scoring triple. Two innings later, Cruz -- mired in a deep postseason slump -- crushed a Verlander fastball into the left-field seats for what would prove to be the winning run.

Old-timers -- and I mean real old-timers -- might remember a line from Tennessee Ernie Ford's popular song from the '50s, "Sixteen Tons" … "if the right one don't get ya, then the left one will."

That's exactly what the Rangers bring to the table each and every night. They come at you with all guns loaded and blazing. They're no one-trick pony, that's for sure.

"They're the defending American League champs," noted Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the postgame interview room. "They're a very good team from top to bottom. Murphy came through [in] the one big inning for them, which was big, no question about it.

"That's what a team is all about. When the big guys don't do it, somebody else picks them up."

In the Rangers' case, at one time or another it seems as if everyone in the lineup qualifies as a "big guy."

"We knew we had a challenge with Verlander," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Murph got us on the board, but it took everyone and it took a good fight."

A fight, we've learned by now, is something the Rangers don't back away from, no matter who they're facing.

[+] EnlargeDetroit's Justin Verlander
Tim Heitman/US PRESSWIREThe Rangers cleared a big psychological hurdle by beating Tigers ace Justin Verlander in Game 1.
That they caught Verlander on something of an off night was clear. The big right-hander, who won the AL's triple crown of pitching this season by leading the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250), made just enough mistakes to let the Rangers get an early lead. He was ready to continue the battle after the first 41-minute delay, but when the second one ran more than an hour long (1:09), Leyland wasn't going to risk him again.

"That made it a no-brainer," said Leyland, who had watched Rangers starter C.J. Wilson struggle with his control after the first rain delay.

"That sucked," said Wilson, who was hoping to redeem himself after an uncharacteristically rough start against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. "I felt like I was in a groove. After the first inning, I felt like I'd kind of settled in a little."

Indeed, after surrendering two hits in each of the first two innings, Wilson found his curveball and struck out the side in the fourth. One batter into the fifth, the skies opened up. When he came back after the delay, Wilson once again struggled to find his command.

The Tigers scratched out two runs before the rains came again in the same inning, but Washington dipped into his bullpen for left-hander Mike Gonzalez to get a big out in a bases-loaded matchup with the lefty-swinging Alex Avila. Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver, Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz took it from there.

Napoli had skipped a single through the right side leading off the second against Verlander. One out later, with Verlander also struggling to get his breaking ball over, Murphy reached down to catch a changeup and sent it soaring into the gap in right-center. Kinsler's two-out single to right, the only hit the Rangers' top four collected, gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead.

Cruz, 1-for-15 in the ALDS and hitless in his last nine at-bats, provided a huge and necessary insurance run when he pounded Verlander's 2-0, 93 mph sinker deep into the left-field seats.

"As soon as I hit the homer I thought it should be good enough, the way C.J. was throwing and with the bullpen we have," Cruz said.

The one big edge the Tigers were expected to have in this playoff series was Verlander. That the Rangers were able to beat him in Game 1 is huge psychologically, but there's still a long way to go. If the Tigers can get a win behind Max Scherzer on Sunday night, they can still take the series back to Detroit with a split, and that's all they want at this point.

"We need to have the same level of focus against their other pitchers as we had against Verlander," Murphy said.

The Rangers' game plan against Verlander was similar to the one they employed against Rays ace James Shields. Make him get the ball over the plate; swing at strikes; be patiently aggressive.

"He had good stuff," Murphy said in reflecting on his big second-inning at-bat. "More than anything, I was just trying to slow the game down in that situation. I didn't do that with the first two pitches and fell behind 0-2.

"When everyone's pretty much already conceded him the Cy Young and it won't even be given out for another two months, you know he's had some kind of special season."

Special, yes. Unbeatable, no. It was the Rangers' No. 7 (Cruz) and No. 8 (Murphy) hitters who hurt him the most Saturday night.

"It just speaks to the depth we have up and down our lineup," Murphy said. "It's something we've talked about all year, something we knew we'd have coming into spring training."

It is, in fact, one of the most prominent calling cards of this Rangers team.

You can't fool Mother Nature, and an opposing pitcher gets no breathers when he's facing the Rangers' lineup.

It's so simple, Tennessee Ernie spelled it out more than half a century ago.

If the right one don't get ya, then the left one will.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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