The Kingdome was rocking late info the night last Saturday, and the Seattle Mariners were poised for a miracle comeback against the Texas Rangers. With one down in the bottom of the 11th and the Rangers leading 8-6, the Mariners had men on first and second. Seattle's Pete O'Brien hit a high pop foul that was headed into the seats behind home plate. But the ball struck a speaker—one that Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre would later say he had never seen hit before—and dropped straight down into the mitt of Texas catcher Mike Stanley, who made the catch just 15 feet from home plate. One out later, the Rangers had their 12th consecutive win, and it was they who were talking miracles.
After the game, Texas pitching coach Tom House shook his head in amazement at this latest bizarre twist in a streak that had long since passed the when-you're-hot-you're-hot stage and was well into divine intervention. "Something's going on here," said House. "I don't understand it. I've never been a participant on this side of the equation before. But [manager] Bobby [Valentine] told me on the plane the other night, 'Maybe this is a meant-to-be season.' "
And why not? Who cares that the Rangers were picked by some prognosticators to finish sixth in the seven-team American League West? There's no logic to baseball anymore, not after last week, when three managers were canned in three days (page 66); a Philadelphia Phillie pitcher with a total of six wins in three major league seasons threw a no-hitter; and the Atlanta Braves, the surprising second-place team in the National League West, opened a 10-game lead on the last-place San Francisco Giants, who were supposed to contend for the division title. And how can anyone explain the Rangers and the Mariners—the only two teams in baseball that have never played a postseason game, and who started the season 0-4 and 0-6, respectively—being in position last week to go head-to-head for the American League West lead in a series that one gushing Seattle official described as "maybe the biggest in our history."
Texas entered this three-game clash of improbable contenders with a half-game lead over Seattle and Oakland; the Rangers had not held first place that late in a season since 1986. Poor Seattle had no chance against a don't-mess-with-Texas hitting attack that Lefebvre calls "absolutely awesome." In the series opener, the Rangers added Mariners starter Brian Holman to the hit list of pitchers they've shelled, tagging him for six runs in three innings en route to a 7-3 win.
A day later, in the aforementioned Speaker Game, Texas trailed 4-3 entering the ninth. But Seattle closer Mike Jackson, who had retired 47 of the last 54 batters he had faced, gave up a solo homer to designated hitter Brian Downing, his second of the game. Then, with two outs in the 11th, the Rangers scored four runs. Light-hitting Gary Pettis singled in two of them, and Juan Gonzalez, the 21-year-old leftfielder who is Texas's burgeoning star, cracked a two-run homer. Seattle's Jay Buhner hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning before the Mariners' comeback was thwarted by intervention from above. "I usually laugh when the umpires explain the ground rule to me," said Valentine, referring to the fact that any ball that is caught after hitting an object suspended from the Kingdome's roof is an out. "I never thought it would ever happen."
In truth, the Rangers are creating their own luck with their bats. Through Sunday, when they ran their winning streak to 13 with a 6-4 defeat of Seattle (since 1980, only the 1988 Oakland Athletics' 14-game win streak has surpassed the Rangers' surge) they hadn't lost, or stopped hitting, since crushing the Boston Red Sox 12-5 on May 12—Ted Williams Day—at Fenway Park. A few Texas players got to meet Williams, the greatest hitter of all time and the first manager of the Rangers, and they all watched the pregame tribute. "There's a connection," says shortstop Jeff Huson. "We're going to ask Ted to take some trips with us."
The Red Sox have the Curse of the Bambino. The Rangers have the Blessing of the Splendid Splinter. In those 13 games, Texas batted .342, produced at least five runs every game and outscored the opposition 103-52. By week's end, their .290 team batting average was the highest in the majors—by 17 points.
What's most stunning about Texas's success is that its starting pitching—supposedly the Rangers' strength—has been as cold as its hitting has been torrid. Nolan Ryan, who has missed two starts with a right shoulder injury, didn't win any of the 13 games. Starters Kevin Brown and Bobby Witt combined for three victories. Moreover, the faceless Ranger bullpen had only 13 saves all year. Reliever Goose Gossage, 39, who was so washed up last season that he got rocked in Japan, has helped take up the slack: Through Sunday, he had four wins.
The Rangers' 24-14 start was even more astounding considering where they stood on Opening Day. For instance, pinch hitter Denny Walling, backup catcher John Russell and rookie outfielder Tony Scruggs all had to play leftfield until Gonzalez recovered from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup until April 26. What's more, the repercussions from baseball's most controversial transaction of spring training, Valentine's release of leftfielder Pete Incaviglia, were strong. Valentine was booed unmercifully by the home fans. "People were begging for us to fold," says Valentine. "That makes this [streak] more satisfying."
The turnaround began when Gonzalez came off the disabled list and began establishing himself as the best young player in the league. As of Sunday, he was hitting .343 with 30 RBIs. "People ask me how good he's been," says third base coach Dave Oliver. "I don't even want to tell them. That's how good."