- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- October baseball is a crap shoot, in the words of Oakland general manager Billy Beane, and in recent years it's become a dicier proposition than ever. Between faulty Doppler forecasts, three rounds of competition, the inevitable twists of fate and exhausting travel, winning teams don't blaze through October so much as try to navigate the obstacles and hope to emerge physically and emotionally intact.
Two straight World Series appearances in this day and age? In the words of Ron Washington's character in the movie "Moneyball," "It's incredibly hard."
Which brings us to the Texas Rangers, the closest thing you'll find to a model of continuity in the American League. The claw-and-antlers phenomenon is passe, Chuck Greenberg's ownership stint is history, and Cliff Lee began a new chapter of his professional career this season in Philadelphia, but the Rangers have discovered that one baseball truism endures: Any series that ends with players wearing protective goggles and the walls, carpets and locker stalls encased in plastic wrap is a good thing.
Three days after Victor Martinez woke up and discovered he wasn't dead -- and two days after a haunted third-base encounter at Comerica Park threatened to sap their spirits -- the Rangers put an end to Detroit's season and advanced to play for the biggest prize of all. They sent 14 men to the plate in a nine-run third inning and rolled the Tigers 15-5 to capture the American League Championship Series in six games.
The Rangers' second consecutive pennant marks another step in the growth of a franchise that seems to be doing everything right, from top to bottom. The Phillies made it to the World Series in 2008 and 2009, but the Rangers became the first AL club to achieve the feat since the New York Yankees did it in four straight seasons from 1998 to 2001.
After first baseman Michael Young squeezed Brandon Inge's pop fly for the final out, red, white and blue confetti streamed down from the upper decks at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Team president and CEO Nolan Ryan received the league championship trophy from honorary AL president Jackie Autry amid thunderous applause, outfielder Nelson Cruz picked up his ALCS Most Valuable Player hardware, and joyous Texas players hugged their wives and kids in the infield.
Jon Daniels, who was 28 years old when the Rangers named him to replace John Hart as general manager in 2005, stood smack in the middle of the diamond, on the pitcher's mound, and reflected on where this all began for him. He believed the team was possessed with reaching this moment after losing to San Francisco in the 2010 World Series.
"I remember walking through the clubhouse on my way home, and most of the guys had stayed and were sitting there and kind of digesting it, and you got a sense that it was instantaneous -- that they had shifted their focus to next year," Daniels said.
The Rangers return to the World Series with essentially the same core of players who came so close in 2010. They made a spirited effort to re-sign Lee, only to lose out to the Phillies' $120 million offer. But they signed third baseman Adrian Beltre as a free agent, and acquired catcher Mike Napoli from Toronto in a trade in January, and both players had a major impact on the offense. They endured a potential clubhouse disruption amid a flurry of Michael Young trade rumors last offseason. And when the trade deadline arrived midsummer and the team needed some upgrades in the bullpen, Daniels responded with deals for Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Mike Gonzalez.
After going 96-66 and winning the AL West by 10 games, the Rangers had a demanding road through the playoffs. In the Division Series, they vanquished a Tampa Bay team that finished strong enough to chase Terry Francona and Theo Epstein out of Boston. In the ALCS, the Rangers survived Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, baseball's resident chain-smoking oracle in Jim Leyland and a roster-full of Detroit position players who were seemingly oblivious to oblique strains, creaky knees and intercostal muscle pulls.
The Rangers won behind Cruz, whose eight hits in the series included six home runs and two doubles. The right fielder hit .364 against the Tigers and slugged 1.273 for the series.
They won behind Young, whose recent mini-slump prompted reporters to keep asking Washington -- the realRon Washington -- whether he had considered removing Young from the cleanup spot in the order. Each time, Washington responded that he had faith in Young's ability and wasn't going to be swayed by a short-term blip. In Game 6, Young responded with a homer, two doubles and five RBIs.
"We have a lot of trust in this clubhouse," said second baseman Ian Kinsler. "This is a very family-oriented clubhouse. Sometimes I think you [reporters] try to come up with things to talk about because you need something to write about. Michael Young is a great hitter. We all know that. He was going to be in that same spot, and he was right in the perfect spot for us tonight."
The Rangers like to think of themselves as a more well-rounded aggregate than the Texas teams of old, and the numbers bear it out. Texas' young starting rotation posted a 74-40 record during the regular season and ranked third in the American League with a 3.65 ERA. These aren't the old Juan Gonzalez-Pudge Rodriguez-Rusty Greer Rangers who would club you over the head and pray for the best.
Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison threw a combined 28 2/3 innings over six games and posted a 6.59 ERA. So it was up to the bullpen, led by Alexi Ogando, Scott Feldman, Adams and closer Neftali Feliz, to carry the load. The Rangers' relievers threw 27 1/3 innings and posted an ERA of 1.32 in the series. And two of the four runs they allowed came on mop-up-time homers surrendered by Uehara.
In the end, the Rangers had enough pitching and quick-strike ability to do what they needed to do. A year ago, there was lots of talk here about the franchise's "tortured" history and the Rangers' quest to carve out a more prominent place amid the football-crazed mindset in the Metroplex area. If one World Series appearance could help turn Dallas-Fort Worth into more of a baseball market, what can a repeat appearance do? The Rangers drew a franchise-record 2,946,949 fans this season through a searingly hot summer, and now this place is hotter than ever for the summer game.
"I don't know if we'll ever replace the Cowboys, but I guess you can call us the new wave -- or the new Cowboys," Kinsler said. "It's unbelievable what we've been able to do. The town has reacted incredibly. It seems like everyone loves us. It was just a lot of fun to be a part of this. The crowd tonight was as good as it's ever been."
Josh Hamilton, who is playing with a painful groin injury but still found a way to hit .308 in the series and make a stunning, wall-banging catch Saturday night, thinks there's enough passion in the city for Dallas to be both a football and a baseball town -- with some love thrown in for the NHL's Stars and defending NBA champion Mavericks as well. Dirk Nowitzki doesn't have a lot on his plate these days, so Dallas sports fans need something to do besides scrutinize Tony Romo's quarterback rating.
"Why can't it be both?" Hamilton said. "I'm a Cowboys fan. I always have been. This is good for the city -- period."
Now it's a matter of sitting back and basking in the glow of a job well-done. While the Cardinals and Brewers resume their National League Championship Series on Sunday night, Washington is giving the Rangers the day off to spend some time with their families. For what it's worth, Hamilton said he has no plans to watch Tony La Russa's and Ron Roenicke's teams slug it out for the right to face the Rangers in the Series. He plans to spend the off-day watching "hunting shows."
The Cardinals have the Rally Squirrel. The Brewers have Tony Plush. And the Rangers have the caterpillar on Holland's upper lip that's posing as a mustache, and a sense that their destiny this year consists of something more than simply making it to the World Series.
Is this year's Rangers team better than the 2010 version? Daniels, the Rangers' young architect, isn't ready to bite on that question just yet.
"I'll tell you in about two weeks," he said.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.