Saturday October 3rd, 2015

The Texas Rangers were one strike away from clinching the American League West on Saturday afternoon. They entered the ninth inning with a four-run lead on the brink of their first division title since 2011. Instead, they lost to the Angels 11–10, keeping the Astros’ divisional hopes alive for at least a few more hours and the Angels’ wild-card hopes alive going into the final day of the regular season. A Houston loss on Saturday night would still give Texas the division, but a Houston win would not eliminate the Angels, who tied the Astros with 85 wins with the victory.

The game started innocently enough, and in a way that seemed to suggest that karma was on the Rangers’ side, when Josh Hamilton started the scoring with solo home run off former teammate and fellow lefty Hector Santiago in the bottom of the second. However, the Angels got that run back by when Mike Trout hit a one-out double in the fourth and scored on a David Murphy single, then jumped out to a 5–1 lead with a four-run fifth inning that drove Texas starter Colby Lewis from the game. Then things got interesting.

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Elvis Andrus drew a four-pitch walk from Santiago to lead off the bottom of the fifth, stole second and scored on a single by second baseman Rougned Odor. Catcher Robinson Chirinos then hit a potential double-play ball to third baseman David Freese, but Freese’s throw to Johnny Giavotella at second base was low and tailed toward the outfield. As Giavotella reached for the ball, Odor, thinking he was trying to break up the double play, slid past the bag, spiking Giavotella in the left shin, taking third as the ball skipped into rightfield. Leadoff man Delino DeShields then hit a looper directly over Giavotella, a catchable ball that tipped of the fingers of the second baseman’s glove for a single in part because Giavotella, nursing his injured shin, wasn’t able to reach maximum height on his leap. That hit drove in Odor to make it 5–3. Shin-Soo Choo then hit a ground ball to Giavotella’s left that the second baseman tried to turn into a double play only to have his throw sink into the runner resulting in what was ruled an error by shortstop Erick Aybar, who was unable to make the catch, leaving the bases loaded with no one out.

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On Thursday night, Angels manager Mike Scioscia faced a very similar situation, also in the fifth inning. He had a slim lead, his lefty starter on the mound, the bases loaded and the righthanded Adrian Beltre coming to the plate. There was one out in that inning, but the jam was more the fault of the starting pitcher, rookie Andrew Heaney, who had walked two and given up two doubles to the four hitters preceding Beltre. Scioscia opted to leave the lefty in the game in that situation, and Beltre hit a bases-clearing double that proved to be the winning hit for Texas.

This time, with Santiago having just induced three balls that should have been outs in the infield, Scioscia, correctly, went to his bullpen, selecting righty Fernando Salas. This time Beltre, who has now hit .420/.485/.682 with 30 RBIs over the Rangers’ last 22 games, only managed a game-tying, two-run single.

Salas worked out of trouble from there, keeping the game tied, and Giavotella made amends for his role in the Rangers’ rally with a two-out RBI double off Chi Chi Gonzalez in the top of the sixth, though Giavotella also made the last out of the inning trying to stretch it into a triple. That 6–5 Angels lead would again be short lived.

Though DeShields, who was due up fourth, had to come out of the game after running into the centerfield wall in pursuit of Giavotella's double, the Rangers scored three more runs in the bottom of the sixth against relievers Mike Morin, Carlos Ramos and Trevor Gott. The rally started when Andrus led off with an infield single that Aybar was unable to corral. The big hits in that inning were an opposite-field single against the shift by Choo that rolled right through the shortstop position to drive in two runs and another RBI single by Beltre, who was 3 for 5 on the afternoon. In the seventh, with Scioscia having already burned through five of his best relievers, late-September addition Mat Latos gave up solo homers to Hamilton, his second of the game, and Odor to make it 10–6 Rangers.

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At that point, the division appeared to be in hand. Deadline pickup Sam Dyson stranded a C.J. Cron infield single in the eighth to hand that four-run lead to closer Shawn Tolleson in the ninth. Friday night, Tolleson had entered the ninth inning with the game tied 1–1 and gave up a leadoff triple to Trout and an RBI single to Albert Pujols to take the loss, but prior to that had not blown a save or taken a loss since Aug. 25 and hadn’t allowed a home run since Aug. 22. He got ahead of leadoff man Aybar 1–2, but on his 2–2 pitch, Aybar hit a wall-scraping home run to rightfield, just his third round-tripper of the season. Kole Calhoun then hit Tolleson’s next pitch much deeper to rightfield to cut the Rangers’ lead in half.

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Figuring his closer, who was pitching for the fourth day in a row, simply didn’t have it, Rangers manager Jeff Banister relieved Tolleson of his duties and called on righty Ross Ohlendorf, a pitcher the team had released on July 31 only to re-sign a week later, to pitch to Trout and Pujols. Ohlendorf got Trout to ground out and got Pujols to hit a flare behind first base, but Odor and Napoli collided in attempting to catch Pujols’s ball, gifting the Angels’ clean-up hitter a bloop double and bringing the tying run to the plate. Ohlendorf then struck out lefty Murphy, but Cron singled to center to bring the Angels within one run and bring Freese to the plate.

Freese, of course, is the man whose two-out, two-strike, two-RBI triple in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series prevented the Rangers from winning their first championship and who, two innings later, won that game for the Cardinals with a walk-off home run to centerfield. Freese didn’t do quite as much damage here, but he did single to left to put the tying run on third. Ohlendorf then got to 2–2 on catcher Carlos Perez, putting the Rangers one strike away from the division title. Perez then hit a broken-bat single to center on Ohlendorf’s next pitch to tie the game, put the go-ahead run on second and silence the crowd in Arlington. Amazingly, Banister, who was so quick to remove Tolleson, let Ohlendorf face yet another batter. That batter was, of course, Giavotella, who fell behind 1–2, fouled off three pitches then singled pinch-runner Kaleb Cowart home with what would prove to be the wining run.

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For their part, the Rangers, who hadn’t blown a four-run lead in the ninth since July 2010, managed only a two-out single by Andrus off Joe Smith, filling in for injured closer Huston Street, in the bottom of the ninth. The final out came when Andrus successfully stole second base only to overslide the bag by about a foot and get tagged out by Giavotella.

The Rangers still have three opportunities to clinch the division, via a win on Sunday or a single loss to the Diamondbacks by the Astros on Saturday or Sunday. However, the possibility of them blowing it entirely still exists as well. If the Astros win their last two games and the Rangers, who have to be emotionally devastated after Saturday’s ninth inning, lose to the Angels again on Sunday, Houston and Texas will be tied at 87 wins and will have to play a one-game playoff in Arlington on Monday to determine which team goes straight to the Division Series and which will have to play the Yankees in Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Game. If that scenario plays out, Saturday’s loss may prove to have been the breaking point in what had become a remarkable season for the Rangers.

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