ARLINGTON, Texas — The Texas Rangers are quickly altering how they’ve been viewed their entire existence.
They’re not just bashing, they’re getting timely hits. They’re not just cobbling together a pitching staff, they’ve got a rotation filled with solid starters. And defense is emphasized by their manager.
After using all of that in two impressive road victories in the division series against Tampa Bay, the AL’s top regular-season team, the Rangers are on the cusp of winning a postseason series for the first time in their 50-season history.
“All year we’ve tried to play baseball according to the way it’s been presented to us, which means you have to win all different ways,” said fourth-year manager Ron Washington said Friday. “But I think as we move forward and things continue to fall into place, I think people will start changing their minds and their perceptions of the Texas Rangers.”
The AL West champions play their first home playoff game in 11 years Saturday needing only one more victory to clinch the best-of-five series. They are the only current major league team that has never won a postseason series.
Texas had won only one playoff game ever — in 39 seasons in Texas and 11 as the Washington Senators — before their two wins in Tampa this week.
“We had some different guys have big moments in those games,” said Michael Young, a six-time All-Star and the longest-tenured Ranger in his 10th season. “The common theme was pitching. If we keep pitching well, we’re going to find a way to win games. I think that’s what you’ve seen so far. That’s what we’re going to need to continue to have.”
Left-handers Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson won the first two games, when the Rays were limited to one run and eight hits while striking out 23 times. Colby Lewis, drafted the same season (1999) that Texas had last been to the playoffs, starts Game 3 against Matt Garza.
“He is not going to be intimidated by the moment,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Garza, who won Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS over Boston.
If the Rays can win two games at Rangers Ballpark this weekend — Game 4, if needed, is Sunday afternoon — a series-deciding game would be Tuesday at Tropicana Field.
With a lot of influence from Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the team president who this summer added the title of part-owner, Texas had a 3.93 ERA that was the lowest since 1990 while setting a record with 1,181 strikeouts.
While they still hit homers (four in this series) and have batting champion Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero in the middle of the lineup, the Rangers do more than slug away now. They led the majors with a .276 average, while their 162 homers were their lowest total since 1992, and they had fewer than 1,000 strikeouts for the first time since 2000.
“History shows there have been plenty of Texas Rangers teams who have had incredible offensive lineups and weren’t able to get to the postseason,” said outfielder David Murphy, expected to start Game 3 after missing the first two games with a strained left groin. “There were plenty of four-hour games, plenty of 11-9 games that just took forever.”
Not too many anymore, thanks to a still-productive offense without having to try to outscore everybody because of bad pitching.
“When your pitching staff is your backbone, you’ve got to like your chances,” Murphy said.
Their all-around approach now is certainly making for better results than their last two playoff appearances, when the Rangers were swept both times by the New York Yankees. The Rangers’ lineup filled with the likes of Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro suddenly went cold in the postseason.
In the 1998 division series, the Rangers hit only .141 — still the lowest team average in any postseason series. They then hit .152 the following year and were outscored 23-2 in those two series.
So far, Tampa’s offense has been worse than that. The Rays are hitting .125 (8 for 64) this series and the only run came on Ben Zobrist’s homer in Game 1.
“Everybody has been struggling offensively, but we just came across two really good pitchers,” Carl Crawford said. “We have to give credit when it’s due.”
Despite Tampa Bay’s desperate situation, Maddon — ejected from Game 2 when Young’s three-run homer came after a check swing that could have been the final out of the inning — said his team has to do nothing extraordinary at this point.
“It’s just about being ourselves and playing our game. I prefer keeping it very simple,” Maddon said. “I want nothing other than just going out there and having pretty much a good old time and really not overanalyzing anything. Just go out there, be yourself and come out (Saturday) and just play a good game of baseball. That’s all I’m looking for. ”
The Rays know they have to win three games in a row to advance to the ALCS. They have already had 12 winning streaks of at least three games this season.
Crawford said the mood of the team is no different from usual. He said guys are loose and loud, and there were still plenty of pranks and music on their flight to Texas.
But a Rangers clubhouse filled with plenty of playoff novices is handling things pretty much the same way.
“This is as good of a team as I’ve ever seen about walking the line of being loose and locked in at the same time,” said Young, who played 1,508 regular season games before his playoff debut this week. “Too loose, you’re not going to be good. Too serious, you’re not going to be good. This team does a good job of staying in the middle.”
One more win, and they will finally come out on top in a playoff series.