ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Texas Rangers mobbed Cliff Lee in front of the pitcher’s mound before trotting off to the clubhouse for a celebration 50 seasons in the making.
Champagne was on ice, but first the AL West champions slipped on red t-shirts, fitted themselves with goggles and toasted the first playoff series victory in franchise history with plastic bottles of ginger ale.
The bubbly flowed only after Josh Hamilton left the room.
The major league batting champion, who overcame alcohol and drug problems to revive his career, appreciated the show of support.
“I’m speechless. This is so unbelievable,” Hamilton said Tuesday night after the Rangers beat Tampa Bay 5-1 in the decisive Game 5 of the AL division series.
“For my teammates to understand why I can’t be part of the celebration, for them to adapt it, it’s amazing,” he added. “It shows a lot about them.”
Cliff Lee added another impressive line to his sparkling October resume, striking out 11 in a six-hitter that stopped the Rays from finishing an improbable comeback in a series in which the road team won every game — a first in major league history.
“It was a lot of fun, I know that much,” Lee said. “We had our back against the wall today and we came out and performed.”
The Rangers will host the defending champion Yankees in the opener of the best-of-seven ALCS on Friday night. Texas’ three previous playoff appearances ended with first-round losses to New York, in 1996, ’98 and ’99.
The teams split eight games during the regular season, including Texas’ three-game sweep at home in September. Lee beat the Yankees twice in last year’s World Series for Philadelphia.
“It’s something a lot of these guys have never been a part of, I’ve never been a part of, so it’s exciting,” Hamilton said. “We’ll be ready.”
Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning for Texas, the only active major league franchise that hadn’t won a playoff series.
Lee improved to 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA and three complete games in seven career postseason starts, striking out 54 and walking six in 56 1-3 innings. He had 21 strikeouts and no walks in 16 innings against Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think you can ask any more of a guy,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
The left-hander, acquired from Seattle in July, allowed just two baserunners after working through a third-inning jam and retired his final nine batters.
“He was the Cliff Lee that everybody is used to seeing and he got the job done tonight,” said Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, who might have played his last game with Tampa Bay because he can become a free agent after the World Series.
When B.J. Upton popped out to shortstop for the final out, Lee didn’t even watch the ball drop into Elvis Andrus’ glove. He simply walked toward catcher Bengie Molina and the two hugged as Rangers players poured onto the field to mob them.
“It’s a dream come true,” said outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who was acquired in a trade from the New York Mets on Aug. 31.
“I always wanted to know what it would be like to play in New York in October,” Francoeur added. “I wished it was with the Mets at first, but now I’ll be up there playing the Yankees.”
The Rays had the AL’s best record this season, giving them home-field advantage in the playoffs. But they lost all three games at Tropicana Field, managing only two runs.
“We had our hearts set on winning the World Series,” Crawford said, “so to lose in the first round is definitely disappointing.”
Lee, meanwhile, delivered exactly what the Rangers have been expecting since they acquired him in a six-player trade.
The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner allowed five hits in the series opener and beat Price 5-1. He struck out Carlos Pena six of the seven times he faced the Tampa Bay slugger in the series and finished with an AL division series-record 21 Ks in two games.
“We got him to help us win ballgames. We also got him to do what he did tonight,” Washington said. “But he can’t do it by himself, and the guys backed him up.”
The Rangers gave Lee an early lead, catching the Rays napping after Andrus led off the game with a single and stole second base. Price coaxed Hamilton into hitting a grounder to first base, and Andrus — running on the pitch — scored from second base when Pena flipped the ball to Price covering the bag and the pitcher didn’t turn to check on Andrus in time.
Texas remained aggressive on the bases. The slow-footed Molina stole second on a full-count pitch in the third, his first steal since Sept. 9, 2006, with Toronto.
In the fourth, Nelson Cruz doubled off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, narrowly missing his fourth homer of the series. He put the Rangers ahead 2-1 when he brazenly stole third — with two outs — and continued home on a throwing error by catcher Kelly Shoppach.
An alert play by Guerrero gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead in the sixth.
With runners at first and second and one out, Kinsler hit a grounder to Pena. The first baseman fielded the ball and threw to second for a force out, but the relay throw to Price covering first was not in time for an inning-ending double play.
Guerrero took off for home, surprising Price, who looked at the umpire for a call before throwing a bit wide toward the plate. Guerrero slid across headfirst to avoid the tag by Shoppach.
“Those kind of things … you don’t see them very often, much less three times in one game,” Lee said. “A lot of credit goes to our guys for continuing to hustle and not giving up.”
The reward is a chance to play for the AL pennant.