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Monday, October 25, 2010
How Rangers became an October power

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the visitors' clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, after the Texas Rangers had ended the New York Yankees' World Series title defense, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman stood in a hallway deflated, glum in the face of a new, unexpected reality.

Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton batted .350 with four home runs and seven RBIs in the ALCS.

From disparate corners and various degrees, a sliver of grudging credit here, an enthusiastic revelation there, the full scope of their accomplishment had finally come into full focus, the truth forcing skeptics and believers to the same place.

The Rangers won the pennant for the first time in their 38-year history by putting a historical beatdown on the Yankees. The postseason surge has engineered a sudden reappraisal of the Rangers, from being considered a team beneath the class of Tampa Bay and New York to, of all things, something of a favorite to win the World Series.

If the Rangers were not in the conversation as one of the great teams of the regular season and began the ALCS more in the shadow of what the Rays did not do during the American League Division Series, Texas nevertheless enters the World Series on Wednesday night in San Francisco playing without a weakness.

"For me, it was a question of mental toughness," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "This time of year is never easy, and you will find out a lot about yourself. These guys play baseball. Whatever it takes. We don't wait around for a three-run homer. We play baseball. If we need to steal a bag and get something started, we can do that. Whatever the style of that day may be, we can adapt to it."

At both first glance and from a distance, the six-game series with the Yankees was a bludgeoning, and in the process the Rangers revealed a team coming into its own. The Yankees used that old championship magic to erase a 5-1 eighth-inning deficit in the opener, sending a reminder of their historical pedigree and challenging the Rangers to perform at an elevated October altitude.

The Rangers responded by demolishing the Yankees four times by scores of 7-2, 8-0, 10-3 and finally for the champagne, by 6-1.

Rarely had the Yankees been made to look so bad: Rangers pitching suffocated them to a .201 batting average for the series, their third-worst average in a playoff series in their 107-year history. The Rangers outscored the Yankees 38-19, the worst run differential ever for the Yankees in a playoff series.

The MVP of the series, Josh Hamilton, had so intimidated the Yankees that in the sixth game New York manager Joe Girardi had his team intentionally walk Hamilton three times, in the finale as early as the third inning and later when already trailing by four runs, and each time with Vladimir Guerrero, one of the most dangerous hitters of his generation, hitting behind him.

Instead of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, the venerable fall legend Reggie Jackson spent more time in the postgame talking about young Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz (who hit .350 for the ALCS) as the difference-maker in the series, perhaps even beyond Hamilton.

Ron Washington These guys play baseball. Whatever it takes. We don't wait around for a three-run homer. … If we need to steal a bag and get something started, we can do that. Whatever the style of that day may be, we can adapt to it.

-- Rangers manager Ron Washington

And then there was Cliff Lee, who only pitched once in the series but was so dominant, his legend as a historic playoff performer growing so quickly, that the prospect of facing him in a deciding seventh game seemed as much a foregone conclusion as if one of the great ghosts of the fall -- Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson -- would be taking the mound.

"That they whacked us like that is surprising, because we have some thump, too," Cashman said. "But we couldn't get anything going. They were better. They got us out. They did what they had to do."

During the division series and ALCS, when the championship points were played, it was the Rangers, not the defending champions or the team with the best record in the AL, that won them. The Rangers saw four moments that transformed them.

Small ball

Game 5, American League Division Series
First inning, and the Rangers must play a deciding game at Tampa Bay having lost two chances at home to end the series, a rematch of Game 1 aces Lee and David Price. Elvis Andrus singles to right and then steals second to avoid the double play after Price strikes out Michael Young. Hamilton grounds to second and Andrus advances to third and keeps running, scoring from second on a routine ground ball, surprising Price. Washington executed the same play a few innings later to the same result. The Rays are reeling. Lee strikes out 11 in a 5-1 win.

"That's what I mean by playing baseball," Washington said. "Sometimes, the best way to respond to pressure is by creating it for the other team. Elvis made a great play. It shook us from whatever we might have been feeling from losing the two previous ballgames and focused us on winning this. It also sent the message to Cliff Lee that we weren't going to sit back and expect him to win the whole ballgame for us."

Muscle

Game 3, American League Championship Series
Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, couldn't believe his eyes. In a 3-0 game in the bottom of the ninth, waves of the 49,840 who had packed Yankee Stadium were heading for the exits. The mass exodus is another graduating step for his club, which is melting away the layers of October pressure with fearless play.

Lee had been terrific through eight innings, fanning 13, but what Daniels saw next -- a decisive six-run ninth that turned a 2-0 game into an 8-0 rout -- told him the Rangers were playing at a higher level.

Daniels appreciated his club's ability this postseason to deliver the knockout blow. In Game 5 against Tampa, the Rangers put two runs on the board in the ninth to turn a 3-1 game into a 5-1 blowout. Now, against the Yankees, the Rangers did it again.

The next night, his Rangers did it a third time, changing a 5-3 game into a rout with five runs over the final three innings, and in the process demoralizing a Yankee bullpen.

"It was the kind of response that you really like to see," Daniels said. "Especially when you have a 5-1 lead disappear in Game 1, the guys were able to keep adding runs. That is big."

Star search

Game 4, American League Championship Series
Tommy Hunter continues his struggles and lasts just 3 1/3 innings. The Yankees lead 3-2 in the sixth and with two out, the Yankees intentionally walk seventh hitter David Murphy to get to Bengie Molina -- the same Bengie Molina whose power broke the Yankees in the 2005 division series when he was a member of the Angels; the same Bengie Molina whose brother Yadier crushed the Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series while playing for the Cardinals. It is the same Molina of whom, just before the critical sequence, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica said "You're going to pitch to a Molina? In New York? The name is like a crime family in this town."

Molina, in the Bronx, hits a three-run homer. The Rangers lead 5-3. The final score will be 10-3.

Things like this happen, they say, when it's your year. The starting pitcher can't get out of the fourth inning. It wasn't Hamilton or Cruz or Young or Guerrero -- but the Rangers were looking for a hero and found one in Molina, and another in reliever Derek Holland, who bails out Hunter by pitching 3 2/3 shutout innings of relief.

"I don't know. I don't see who I'm facing," Molina said. "I'll tell you that. I've been blessed, I thank God just giving me good games against them. I don't see it like, 'Here come the Yankees, I'm going to have a great game.' I don't see it that way. It's not bad for a fat kid that everyone makes fun of when he runs."

Pride

Game 6, American League Championship Series
Hamilton will not win the pennant for the Rangers tonight. Joe Girardi, the Yankees' manager, has seen to that. In a 1-1 game with one on and two outs in the fifth, Girardi walks Hamilton intentionally for the second time, leaving Guerrero at the plate. Guerrero is 35 years old. In 15 big league seasons, he has driven in 100 runs 10 times. But now the Yankees have decided he's the weaker link, and tonight he's proving them right, already having stranded three runners in two at-bats. Phil Hughes awaits.

To be considered a Hall of Fame player -- at least by no other judge but the mirror -- Guerrero must succeed. As a member of the Angels, he did a year ago, ending the Red Sox's season in a ninth-inning rally that wrested the Boston hex from the franchise.

Here, against Hughes, Guerrero crushes a two-run double to break the tie and make it 3-1. He will score one batter later, when Cruz bombs a long home run to make it 5-1 and bring the pennant closer. Vladimir Guerrero -- who has a career .320 batting average, 447 doubles, 436 home runs and 1,433 RBIs -- has been challenged one time too many.

Bengie Molina
Bengie Molina's three-run home run in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS propelled the Rangers to a 10-3 win over the Yankees.

"I'm thinking, 'Get mad, Vlad,'" Hamilton says afterward. "When I took off my pad and jogged to first, I could see it in his eyes. When you've done what he's done over his career, you just have too much pride to not want to come through. You could just see it. He wasn't going to miss this chance."

Said Washington: "Sooner or later, you don't keep challenging Vlad."

The Giants await, and the Rangers, though on a roll, must be concerned. They've hit .281 with 17 home runs and 59 runs scored during the 11 playoff games but it is awfully difficult for a team to stay hot for three straight rounds. The Rangers' closer, Neftali Feliz hadn't saved a game in the LCS because he didn't have to -- the Rangers were that good -- but Feliz hasn't had a true pressure moment in two weeks. Washington's reliable set-up man, Darren O'Day, finished the LCS with a 13.50 ERA.

But few teams have entered the World Series hotter than the Rangers, especially without having a long layoff to cool them off. Unlike in the LCS, Cliff Lee and his aura (3-0, 0.75 ERA in three postseason starts in 2010) will open the Series, and may have a chance to close it as well.

"Hang together. Stick together," Washington said. "Be tough mentally. Don't give the opposition anything. Make them earn what they get. You do those things, and I think you'll be all right."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42