ALDS, Game Two: Texas 6, Tampa Bay 0.

It was 2004, a season that qualified, on the scale of this franchise’s lifetime success, as storybook.  The Buck Showalter Rangers won 89 games, fourth most in the club’s history (more, in fact, than one of their playoff teams).  Never mind the third-place finish — that was a gold star, considering Texas had finished fourth the previous four seasons (three with Alex Rodriguez).  The Rangers were three games back when the season ended, having drawn to within two games a week and a half earlier, when David Dellucci’s double past a laid-out Jermaine Dye completed an impossible comeback and a sweep of the A’s.

Dellucci’s walk-off liner to right instantly etched itself as one of the most famous plays in franchise history, earned the part-time outfielder a permanent place in Texas Rangers lore, and led to front office strategy sessions from which the “managed expectations” mantra emerged as a marketing message for 2005.

That season was Michael Young’s first season at shortstop, the second of his five straight years of 200 base hits, the first of his six straight All-Star Game appearances, and an eighth-place finish in the MVP vote.  His highlight moments of the season were a 10th-inning, walkoff single in the Rangers’ 16-15 win over Detroit, a game in which Texas trailed by 10 runs, and a 4 for 5 effort in the most important game of that season, including a pair of doubles, the second of which came ahead of Dellucci’s Double.

It was also a huge year for another shortstop, 22-year-old Ian Kinsler, who in his first full pro season hit .402 for Low A Clinton and .300 for AA Frisco, earning a starting spot on Baseball America’s Minor League All-Star Team and the Rangers’ Tom Grieve Minor League Player of the Year Award.  

Had it not been for August 2003 Tommy John surgery, 23-year-old lefthander C.J. Wilson would have been Kinsler’s RoughRider teammate that summer of 2004.

On Thursday, six years later, Young and Kinsler had the biggest hits of their lives, Wilson pitched the game of his life, and Dellucci and 2004 are no longer pet rocks that we as Rangers fans guard with our life.

I hope you’ll find a way to forgive me if I don’t have any idea how to handle this.  I believed in this team, its players and coaches, its front office, and its future, and if pressed before the season I would have agreed that this could be the year for things to come together, for Step Five to arrive.

But even once the Magic Number hourglass ran out, I don’t think in my most optimistic moments these last couple weeks that I allowed myself to imagine bringing two road wins home to kick off the playoffs.  These couple days in St. Petersburg will stick a lot longer than the Dellucci double, surreal in so many ways, to the point at which I’m oddly content, rather than frenzied as I feel like I probably should be.

This is a damn good baseball team.  With all kinds of winning intangibles outside the lines.

Yes: Young probably swung at the 3-2 Chad Qualls pitch before getting another life, destroying the next pitch 427 feet away to dead center to extend a 2-0 lead to 5-0.  That was a bad break for the Rays.  But (1) there was only one out, and though Randy Choate might have come in to face Josh Hamilton had Young fanned, and maybe three of the next four hitters wouldn’t have singled under changed circumstances, it’s not as if the check swing call would have ended the inning had it gone differently, and (2) that was a 2-0 game before the disputed call, in a game in which the Rays never did put a run on the board.

I’m not faulting Rays fans for being upset about the call.  I would have been if that were my team trying desperately to stay in that game, and in this series.  (Know what I’d like to see, at least in the playoffs?  A camera positioned at each foul pole, to give us a vantage point similar to the corner umpires for calls like that.  Let us see what the ump sees.)

But Young wasn’t rung up, and all that meant was the at-bat continued.  Young still had to do something with the pitch, and that he did, demonstratively.  He would say, after the game, that he felt no different after his home run/single/three-RBI performance from the way he did after his 0 for 4 in Game One, because his team won each time, but make no mistake: That was the biggest hit of Michael Young’s career, because it contributed in a big way to a huge win, and given when it happened and under what circumstances, it seemed to kill Tampa Bay’s will (and composure).  

Act like you’ve been there, and all that, but if it’s all the same I’m going say, despite the controversy of the moment, that that missile over the center field wall felt not only like a small piece of redemption for Young, who has had his struggles in the field and at the plate at times this year, but also a bear hug to fans like us who have hung with this team, in some cases, for a lifetime, even in the best years, of not quite getting it done.

Thankfully, no longer will we have to see an All-Star Game triple as the SportsCenter highlight of Young’s career.

As for Kinsler, whose fourth-inning home run preceded Young’s and whose RBI single later in the Young fifth were instrumental in the win as well, I have two words:

Bat path.

Man, I love that Ian Kinsler.

Then there’s Wilson.  Remember that stat from yesterday morning that I shared — that Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and B.J. Upton came into the game 0 for 16 lifetime against Wilson?

On Thursday, the entire Rays lineup was 2 for 22 (with two walks and hit batsman) off the lefthander.

Wilson would say after the game that he picked some things up from Cliff Lee on how to attach the Tampa Bay lineup (and that he was inspired watching both Lee and Roy Halladay on Wednesday), adding that Lee is a better version of himself.  Yesterday, Wilson was just about as good.  The league’s leader in bases on balls, he had terrific command of his four-seamer, slider, and cutter in particular, working in and out all day, changing speeds and keeping the Rays off balance, and in a noticeable departure from 2009, when things got a little sticky, he rose to the challenge rather than imploding.

The set-up reliever who talked the Rangers’ decision-makers into a spring training chance to prove he could pitch every fifth day has done more than prove the decision right.  He won’t face the Rays again this series, and if Texas succeeds in closing this thing out and moving on, he should not only get the ball in Game One or Game Two against New York (at home) or Minnesota (on the road), but also give us all confidence that it will be a game the Rangers have a solid shot to win.

ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian said before yesterday’s game that Wilson’s the best number two starter among the American League playoff teams, and Thursday he backed it up, in the biggest game of his life, with one of the best performances of his career, blanking Tampa Bay on two hits and two walks in 6.1 innings, fanning seven.  Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver were masterful in relief, stranding the two Wilson runners left in scoring position — the only runners Texas allowed to get past first base all day — and not allowing a hit over the final 2.2, nailing down Texas 6, Tampa Bay 0.

In that fluky 2004 season, Texas used 17 starting pitchers, getting the most starts out of 39-year-old Kenny Rogers, Ryan Drese, Chan Ho Park, R.A. Dickey, Joaquin Benoit, and John Wasdin.  The latter four of them had ERA’s between 5.46 and 6.78.  

This year, the Rangers have started only 10 pitchers, and of course it’s a dramatically better corps.

Michael Young still probably believed that 2004 team was capable of getting to the post-season, in spite of the pitching and even though Alex Rodriguez was no longer around.  The way he’s wired, until there’s
an “X” in the standings or the 27th out’s been recorded or a check swing is ruled as strike three, he’s still focused on getting it done.  The All-Star Games and 200-hit seasons never meant much beyond the respect of his peers and his ability to stay on the field, all taking a backseat to winning.  He talked yesterday about his teammates emptying the tank in Games One and Two, and how that’s the plan Saturday as well.

Young never went into a season thinking Texas wasn’t capable of being a playoff team, and certainly didn’t manage his own expectations after those 89 wins in 2004, thinking every season would end at 162 until 2010.

He wouldn’t admit this either, not yet, but he and his team are accomplishing something special right now, something that has taken a long time for him, and for us, to be part of.  I don’t know where this is all headed, and there’s still that conditioned reflex that’s probably got most of us waiting for a bubble to burst, but I’m going to try hard to let this all sink in and understand what’s happening here, as I fight through what’s going to feel like a hundred hours before Colby Lewis throws pitch one tomorrow afternoon.

Emptying the tank
Leave it out there, bring it home
Win one more: Move on

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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