Friday, April 1, 2011
For openers, this gets a glittering review
By Jim Reeves ESPNDallas.com
ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Opening Days go, this one will rank right up there with the best in Texas Rangers history. And if there were a few nagging concerns nibbling at the more astute fans' noggins in a 9-5 Rangers waltz over the Boston Red Sox on Friday, they quickly melted away under a glorious first-day-of-April sun and a bounteous offense that made everything seem perfectly A-OK.
Nolan Ryan and some guy named Dubya spent the game chatting away as if they didn't have a care in the world, and, come to think of it, at least one of them doesn't anymore.
The Air Force B-52 buzzed the stadium just after MercyMe's stirring national anthem brought chill bumps to complete attention for more than 50,000 fans who came to celebrate the Rangers' first raising of the American League flag on a pole high above left field (and just above the Chick-fil-A cow ad). More than three dozen former Rangers, including first-pitch honorees Charlie Hough and Jeff Burroughs, marched onto the field to add a hint of nostalgia as fans wondered, "Who are those old guys?" and the team's new owners flashed massive new AL championship rings.
David Murphy helped send Rangers fans home happy with a clutch pinch-hit double in the eighth inning that gave Texas the lead.
"It's a beauty, isn't it?" Fort Worth oil and gas magnate Bob Simpson said, slipping his off for a moment, presumably to let me hold it but I suspect more to give his arm a rest than anything else.
The players will get theirs in a pregame ceremony Saturday night, but they had a preview of the jewelry at Thursday's welcome home banquet.
"I've never owned anything like that," Friday's starting pitcher, C.J. Wilson, marveled. "It's the coolest thing I've ever seen. If you held it up to the sun like this [he held his hand above his head], you could probably see it from the moon."
Of course, getting the monster above their heads might be the biggest challenge yet.
Hough, still the winningest pitcher in Rangers history (and yes, he threw a knuckler to Darren Oliver during the first-pitch ceremony), and Burroughs, the team's first MVP back in 1974, weren't the only nods to the Rangers of yesteryear.
The game sort of had that feel, too, which is why a few fans might have gone home -- after a hefty 3 hours and 28 minutes -- wondering whether they're all going to be like this one.
They won't be, but until the Rangers can get their pitching lined out and we see how youngsters Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando do as the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters, you might want to plan on bringing your jammies to night games so you'll be all ready for bed as soon as the game ends ... assuming it eventually will.
The Rangers won this one because Red Sox starter Jon Lester and the Boston bullpen simply couldn't cope with the Texas offense. Trailing 4-2 after 3 1/2 innings, the Rangers popped the Sox with a three-spot in the fourth, thanks to Mike Napoli's "Hello, Texas!" three-run dinger, and then snapped a 5-5 tie with a four-run outburst in the bottom of the eighth centered around David Murphy's two-run, chalk-dust double.
Wilson, victim of center fielder Julio Borbon's two-base error on the game's first play that led to two unearned runs, kept his cool and pitched into the sixth. But it took 110 pitches to get there, and Ron Washington used four relievers -- half of his bloated eight-man bullpen -- to get it the rest of the way.
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Ironically, Oliver, who had given up David Ortiz's game-tying solo homer in the top of the eighth, got the victory. Oliver and Arthur Rhodes, the Rangers' new over-40 left-handed bullpen tandem, each worked an inning. Neftali Feliz came on in a non-save situation in the ninth to nail it down with a 1-2-3 inning, striking out two much to the delight of the fans, who provided an electric atmosphere that made it seem as if the World Series had never ended.
"Every pitcher in here looks at our lineup and goes, 'Heh, heh, heh.' We know we're going to score runs," Wilson said.
That they will, but as Rangers teams of the past have so diligently proved, winning 9-8 every night can be a wearying and trying experience at best.
Washington played his bullpen and his bench cards pretty much perfectly, particularly in sending Murphy to the plate to hit for Borbon in the eighth. The Rangers had "speedsters" Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba on second and first, respectively, with one out.
Murphy was ready in the dugout, but until Torrealba's line single to right moved Napoli to second, he wasn't sure he'd get his chance.
"I thought if there wasn't a guy in scoring position, [Washington] would have let Julio hit," Murphy said.
But as Murphy said, Borbon is the guy who scores runs. Murphy drives them in.
Facing Red Sox right-hander Daniel Bard, Murphy knew what was coming.
"A guy like Bard is a power guy," he said. "I was pretty much looking for the fastball the whole at-bat. He got me out in front with a changeup on his second pitch. But I got into a 3-1 situation, and with a guy like that, you figure he's going to throw fastball."
Murphy was looking for the heater on the outside of the plate. Bard's pitch might have been wide of the strike zone, but because Murphy was looking away, he still got his bat on it, looping the ball to left.
"I wasn't sure it was going to be fair," he said. "My first reaction was that it would slice foul. But I was rounding first and saw it kick up chalk and just kept running."
By the time Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford could corral the ball in the corner, Napoli and Torrealba had both scored.
"Sometimes you'd rather be lucky than good," Murphy said.
Murphy seems to have a penchant for being both, which continues to pose an interesting conundrum for Washington and the Rangers: Find a spot for him in the starting lineup or continue to use him as a "most valuable" fourth outfielder. Murphy won't verbally lobby Washington to start him.
"I think the way that I play is my campaign," he said. "He knows the way I play and he's going to get me out on the field."
Murphy realizes he probably could start for virtually any team in baseball, but he will accept whatever role the Rangers ask him to play.
"I do it for my teammates," he said. "I love my teammates. I trust my coaching staff, and as much as I want to start, I'll do whatever they think is best."
It's that kind of attitude that permeated the Rangers last season and helped propel them to an AL championship in 2010.
On Saturday night, if they can help each other out a little more, they'll wave the jewelry to prove it. Prepare to be blinded.
As openers go, this one was just fine, thank you very much. And if the formula looks a bit too familiar, nobody who left the ballpark Friday night gave even a moment's thought to throwing it back.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.