A Pennant is won — ALCS, Game Six: Texas 6, New York 1.

Though for reasons that I’m sure will begin to become more clear before long, the late-’90s playoff run never felt like this one.  Part of it was that this club’s previous Mark Teixeira, slugger Juan Gonzalez, was reportedly not going to sign long-term for Larry Walker money ($75 million over six years), and at about this time in 1999, following the club’s third playoff season out of four, the Rangers decided to explore the idea of trading Gonzalez.  He was shipped to Detroit in November.

What followed in 2000 was a 71-win season, the club’s worst in 12 years.

Texas then signed the best young player in baseball to the record-obliterating $252 million deal that was supposed to shoot the club right back into perennial relevance.

That contract was for ten years.

Starting in 2001.

And ending in 2010.

We can all make a list of a dozen reasons that last night’s result was fitting.  One that we’ll all talk about well after his own date in Cooperstown is that the instant that Alex Rodriguez’s 2010 season ended, the season that was supposed to conclude a landmark Rangers contract that would be the centerpiece of a World Series-contending roster, at that very instant Texas earned its first-ever World Series berth, not with him but against him and, in a way, in spite of him, as at least one of the “kids” he disparaged and deserted six years ago and many others who weren’t around yet leaned forward, facing him, as were 50,000 of the millions who had once imagined big things with him in a Rangers uniform, and had been abandoned ourselves.

A-Rod was looking out at the team he couldn’t bear to play with, and then with a 1-2 count he was just looking, as Kid Neftali followed 100-99-99 with a picturesque 83-mph slider, a buckler that broke 11 inches and once and for all broke the hearts of a thousand New York writers convinced that the Rangers were merely invited to the Yankees’ progressive dinner that began in Minnesota and would continue in a National League park on Wednesday.

In a season that could never have been scripted – never – that last pitch, freezing Alex Rodriguez and sending this team to a place it had never been, a place that 10 years ago it had hoped with a pile of cash that A-Rod would help take them to, couldn’t have been scripted any more perfectly.

Dial back to the eight innings before that moment, and to the year before A-Rod signed with Texas, and you find Colby Lewis.  Drafted by the Rangers in the supplemental first round in 1999, Lewis was on a fast track to join a pretty good baseball team, and probably felt pretty good about the future of the franchise he was part of when A-Rod arrived after the 2000 season, when Lewis had just finished his first full pro season, in High Class A.  The superstar shortstop was only four years older than Lewis, after all.

But it then fell apart for the A-Rod Rangers, who finished all three of his seasons here (2001-03) in last place in the division, getting Lewis’s first 30 big league starts and a handful of relief appearances the last two of those seasons.  His ERA over 161.1 innings was a bloated 7.08.

A-Rod was traded right before camp in 2004.  Lewis lasted only a little bit longer, making three starts in April before being shut down with what was diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff.  He was done as a Ranger.  For six years, that is.

Alex Rodriguez wasn’t supposed to be somewhere else in 2010, and Colby Lewis wasn’t supposed to be back, pitching in a Rangers playoff rotation.

But they were, facing off over the last week six times, for the first time in their careers.  

A-Rod went 1 for 6 against Lewis, one of the kids he ran away from six years ago.

Not that that matchup stood out in the six-game series for either Rodriguez (who hit .190 overall) or Lewis (who held New York to a composite .196 ALCS average, after holding Tampa Bay to a .118 clip in his one ALDS start against the Rays).  But, given A-Rod’s importance to the Yankees attack, and the history here, it sure was sweet, particularly as he got rung up by Feliz on the final pitch of the series, and New York’s season.

When I predicted Rangers in six games a week ago, I didn’t expect the Yankees to hit .201 or post a team ERA of 6.58.  I didn’t expect Texas to rack up more extra-base hits (24) or more stolen bases (9) in the series than any playoff opponent ever had against the Yankees, or score the second-most runs (38) of any New York playoff opponent – trailing only the 41 that Boston scored in the 2004 ALCS, a series that went seven games rather than six.

Texas, which hit .304 with an .890 OPS (the second highest ALCS OPS since the series went to the best-of-seven format 25 years ago) and pitched so well most of the time, dominated this series, plain and simple.

In that same October 15 report, I wrote: “This I think I know: Over the next week and maybe for the rest of my life, I will harbor an irrational hatred for Nick Swisher, there will probably be a home plate ump or two whose name I’ll remember forever, and not fondly, and there will be several moments and images that will push all other moments and images down in my mental sports scrapbook.”

All of that is true, and there was that moment in the fifth inning last night when Swisher and home plate ump Brian Gorman threatened to make Rangers history, as Gorman ruled no contact on a clear hit-by-pitch, allowing Rodriguez to trot home on a wild pitch and tie the score, 1-1.   

After Swisher grounded out on a 10-foot dribbler fielded by Lewis, Jorge Posada doubled to right, and that would have scored Rodriguez anyway, and maybe even Swisher – but in any event would have at least sent him to third with one out rather than two – but there’s also the theory that the pitch sequence to Posada might have varied, and maybe he doesn’t double at all.  And even if Posada put the same pass on the ball, with Mitch Moreland holding Swisher on first, maybe he gloves the shot that instead eluded him with the bases empty.

But two points about the above.

First, that wasn’t the key Swisher punk moment.  There was an ESPN report on Thursday that, as reporters asked a few Yankees players for comment about Cliff Lee, Swisher fired off a tirade for all in the clubhouse to hear: “You guys are talking about Cliff Lee?  Who cares?  I can’t wait to hit against his ***!”

April 16, buddy.

Second, last night’s omen.  

There was a little sense of dread that crept in on the blown hit-by-pitch call, as three balls had been barreled that inning (Rodriguez’s double to the wall in left center, Lance Berkman’s sacrifice fly to right center that might have gone out on other nights, and Posada’s double to right), and there had been outs earlier in the game that New York had squared up on as well.  Lewis had lost command in the sixth inning in Game Two, and with New York having tied the game in the fifth last night, and starting to hit the ball hard with regularity, the game didn’t feel very good.

With Posada on second, and Derek Holland starting to get loose in the pen, the batter was Marcus Thames.  On the third pitch, he fouled an inside Lewis fastball straight up, a mile high, and I knew I’d have a play on it from my seat.  I can remember thinking the play needed to stay on my left shoulder, as our six-year-old Max sat to my right.  The ball ended up hitting my hand and the hand of the gentleman to my left at the same time (I call pass interference), and a woman sitting behind us came up with the ball – and gave it to Max.  

After that?  Two more strikes to Thames, a foul tip and a swinging strike three.  

After that?  Texas erupted in the bottom of the inning for f
our two-out runs, blowing the game open and making it OK to start thinking about the words “World” and “Series” in earnest, to start to really believe that those “little town” blues were, once and for all, melting away.  

After that?  Eleven up, nine down over Lewis’s next three innings, culminating with possibly the worst swing of Derek Jeter’s career, before Feliz was summoned to slam it shut in the ninth.

Game-changer.

max_ALCS_foul_ball.jpg 

And a lot better than the omen I was really worried about – the dual cloudbursts just before and right at gametime, far too reminiscent of October 2, 1998, the lone home game of that year’s ALDS sweep at the Yankees’ hands.  Texas blanked New York in eight of nine innings that night, but the four-spot the Yankees scored in the sixth off Aaron Sele made it feel like 40-0 (as the Rangers had scored just one run in the first two games combined), particularly when a three-hour sideways-rain delay followed New York’s four-run inning by minutes.

Speaking of rain, can you imagine if Texas was pushed to a Game Seven tonight, and this lousy weather we had today ended up halting the game for such an extended period that Cliff Lee was forced out early due to inactivity?

Another what-if: If Joe Girardi hadn’t flipped Andy Pettitte and Philip Hughes, lining Pettitte up to pitch Games Two and Six rather than games Three (which he dealt in but lost to Lee) and Seven, would last night have gone differently with Pettitte on the mound?

As Max and I walked through the concourse an hour after the game ended, I heard someone singing, “Start spreading the noose.”  I smiled.

A little misleading, I guess.  I was smiling for about two hours straight by that time, just as Max was as he fell asleep in the car on the way home, lullabied by a cacophony of celebratory car horns that sounded oh-so-sweet.

You must read what Peter Gammons wrote about the Texas Rangers today.  You just have to do it.

Here’s some other entertaining reading from the last week.

Filip Bondy (New York Daily News): “Ryan’s no-hitters aside, this ALCS represents one of sports’ great historical mismatches, 40 pennants versus zero.  The Yanks should win this series just by throwing their pinstriped uniforms onto the field and reading from a few pages of The Baseball Encyclopedia.  If only Bud Selig would agree to waive a few silly postseason rules, the Bombers might send their Scranton/Wilkes-Barre roster to Arlington for the first couple of games, make this a fair fight.”

Neil Best (Newsday): “We have had four decades to get used to it, yet ‘Texas Rangers’ still doesn’t sound quite right.  It’s a mixed marriage between a football state and a hockey nickname, one that has produced a reliably mediocre baseball franchise.  Now, thanks mostly to a pitcher passing through on his way to the Bronx next season, the uninspiring Rangers are all that stand in the way of a World Series capable of distracting Football Nation.”

Mike Greenberg (Mike & Mike Show, ESPN Radio), on Friday morning: “Even if you’re a Rangers fan, you’re hoping for a Game Seven with Cliff Lee.”

Rob Neyer (ESPN): “I don’t think the Rangers will let Daniels get away.  And it sure sounds like the Mets like Sandy Alderson.  But if I grew up in Queens and somebody offered me a chance to escape Texas and run the New York Mets . . . .”

Good grief.

There’s more, but leave those guys alone, especially the New York writers, in their time of mourning.  Lay off.  They’re having to deal with the illicit taking of a birthright.  Hold a good thought.

All those intentional walks to Josh Hamilton last night were the in-game equivalent of the Angels telling Vladimir Guerrero last winter that he couldn’t get it done any more.  Big Mad Vlad.  Love it.

Mitch Moreland: A Starter Is Born.

Texas didn’t clinch the West at home, and didn’t win the ALDS at home, so nailing the ALCS down at home was extra-awesome, and I keep telling myself, with some amount of resignation but not too much, that it will never be the same again.  At least not after the next week and a half.

The crowd last night was extraordinary.  Really.

It’s been written in several places the last couple days, but people are noticing a parallel between Cal Ripken’s passing of the torch to Derek Jeter in 1996, and what might be happening now between Jeter and Elvis Andrus.

The Rangers/World Series commercial that Fox is running tonight gives me chills.

Speaking of tonight’s game, I’m pulling for the Phillies but then I want the Giants tomorrow.  I want this thing going seven, which of course sets up Texas better in terms of pitching matchups.

Too soon to focus on the World Series roster, especially before knowing the opponent, but is Jorge Cantu’s spot in jeopardy? 

Way too soon to think about the off-season, but what do you do with Nelson Cruz, who has three arbitration years coming up?  Do you dare offer him a long-term deal that extends beyond that?  Remember, despite his moderate service time, he’s already 30.

Lee told Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports on Friday: “I love this situation I’m in.  I love this team.  I love my teammates.  It’s been a fun ride.  It’s been an unbelievable experience. . . . It’s the closest to home I’ve ever played.  This is great for my family, to be this close to home. . . . I would like to think there were a lot of Arkansans watching this game.  Hopefully we can make them proud and bring home the World Series championship.”

Not much need to add to that, is there?

Not now, at least.

Two months ago, Morosi tweeted this, as noted in a Newberg Report Trot Coffey delivery: “One rival exec describes Rangers as ‘very active’ lately.  ‘They’re trying to win the World Series,’ the exec says.”  Whether Morosi’s note was in reference to the Rangers’ rumored pursuit of Manny Ramirez, who was conveyed to the White Sox two days later, or Jeff Francoeur, whom Texas acquired five days later, or something else the club was working on, the point was made.

This front office – and we must remember that John Hart brought Jon Daniels here, and Tom Hicks both entrusted a huge job to Daniels and brought in Nolan Ryan – is what Kevin Goldstein described to us at Newberg Report Night as “scary smart,” and while I think this fan base is unusually cued into that, I hope we don’t take it for granted.  Just as Jimmy Johnson wouldn’t have been as successful as he was without bringing Norv Turner, Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Dave Campo, and Tony Wise aboard, Daniels will be the first to credit his directors and advisors and scouts, as he did on the trophy stage behind second base on Friday night. 

Among the finest moves the Daniels crew has made, even if not as heralded as the Teixeira Trade or the Cliff Lee Trade or Volquez/Hamilton or the shift of C.J. Wilso
n to the rotation, was the almost unprecedented guarantee given to a Japanese export invited to return, a unique commitment to Colby Lewis, whose career arc, unlike Alex Rodriguez’s, has been marked not by landmark dollar amounts but by a pioneering scouting effort.

Scary smart has made this baseball team scary good when it’s healthy and clicking, and right now Texas is both.  I don’t mind these few off-days before we get rolling again, facing off against Bengie Molina’s former teammates or Cliff Lee’s, but I can’t wait to sit back and watch what’s next, making me no different from you, millions of other Rangers fans, and Alex Rodriguez.

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

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