Rangers on verge of return trip to ALCS thanks to run prevention
The Rangers edged out the Rays 4-3 in Game 3, moving one win from the ALCS
The Rangers continue to use the blueprint that got them to the 2010 World Series
Starter Colby Lewis held the Rays to one hit, and the bullpen gutted out the rest
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. --- There's something that happens before games at Tropicana Field that's unlike anything at any other ballpark, and it says almost everything you need to know about the Rays, the most unconventional organization in baseball. Before they introduce the starting lineups, they play a video clip on the big screen above the right-field seats to get the home crowd going. As loud music blares, Rays manager Joe Maddon appears on the screen, pushing buttons and moving graphics around with his arms on a giant computer interface, just like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." Clips pop up of Rays players hitting home runs, making great plays in the field and running the bases as words flash on the screen. RUN HARD. WORK TOGETHER. RUN PREVENTION. SMART AT BATS. THE RAYS WAY.
Chances are the buzz words RUN PREVENTION aren't used at any other ballpark to pump up a crowd, but the team the Rays have run into this October, the Texas Rangers, could give it a try.
The Rangers have a deep and scary lineup of, as the Rays' David Price put it, "Five Longorias," but the real reason why the Rangers have become American League beasts over the last two years is their dramatic improvement in run prevention. And so it was appropriate that in their 4-3 white-knuckle win over the Rays in Game 3, a win that put them on the cusp of a second-straight ALCS appearance, the Rangers used the blueprint that got them to the World Series a year ago and a franchise-record 96 wins this season.
Yes, there was Mike Napoli's jaw-dropping two-run home run in the seventh inning that put the Rangers up 2-1.
"I was just trying to put the ball in play," Napoli said, "and I got a pitch I could handle."
Napoli has had the Rangers' two biggest at bats of the series. In Game 2, he faced James Shields in the Rangers' five-run fourth, perhaps the most pivotal inning of this series. On a 3-2 count, the catcher fouled off three straight pitches before ripping a slider into left for the game-tying single. And on Tuesday night, he homered off a 2-2 pitch from Price in a seven-pitch at bat.
"This is the year of the Napoli, man," Maddon said after the game. "He is just hot. And he got a pitch."
But besides Napoli's big blast, there was also six dazzling innings from starter Colby Lewis, who allowed just one hit (a home run to Desmond Jennings) before handing the game to a bullpen that gutted through the game's final innings, which Rangers manager Ron Washington called "three of the toughest innings that we experienced all year." There was Neftali Feliz, the Rangers closer who has rediscovered his mojo after a rocky first half of the season, shutting the door in the ninth.
And there was also the Rangers' defense. In the bottom of the eighth, with a Rays comeback brewing, Napoli took a pitchout from reliever Mike Adams and gunned down B.J. Upton trying to steal second with the Rays down a run.
"You know Upton will try to run and get to second, a one-run game," said Napoli, who got the pitchout sign from bench coach Jackie Moore. "Mikey gave me a good throw to handle, and just put the ball on the money."
And then, with a runner on first and Feliz on the mound, with the cowbells clanging and another magical Rays rally in the works, Adrian Beltre started a 5-4-3 double play on a Kelly Shoppach grounder to third, and the game was over.
"That was about as stressful a game as I've sat through," exhaled Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan as he stood outside the Rangers clubhouse.
Ryan always envisioned building a team built around pitching and defense. The Rangers, whose team ERA was fourth in the league and defense was the sixth best in baseball as measured by UZR, allowed the fifth fewest runs in the American League in 2011. There was a time not long ago when the Texas Rangers were merely the best slow-pitch softball team in baseball; now they're built to win games like Game 3.
"You used to think of Texas and you'd think of home runs and the offense," says reliever Mike Gonzalez who arrived in Texas from Baltimore in August. "Now it's a complete team. We have pitching. The defense is ridiculous. I didn't appreciate it until I got here, and it's amazing -- every game someone makes a play."
One win away from another ALCS, the Rangers turn to Matt Harrison, who was left off last year's playoff roster and turned to Harvey Dorfman's "The Mental ABC's of Pitching" this winter. Harrison (14-9, 3.39 ERA) had a breakout season in 2011 while spending the entire year in the rotation. Texas will need a big performance from Harrison in Game 4 when he faces right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. Pitching and defense: it's the Rangers way, too.