The Texas Rangers might be moving slowly Tuesday night when they play the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth and deciding game of their American League Division Series. The Rangers will be carrying the weight of five decades of failure. It's a heavy load.
Born as the second version of the Washington Senators in 1961, the Rangers are the only major league franchise which has never won a playoff series. That's oh-for-a-half-century. It's a lot of weight.
The Rangers/Senators are one of the most mocked teams in major league history. They suffered through four 100-loss seasons in their early days. They went 35 years before they got a taste of October baseball. They made trips to the ALDS in 1996, 1998 and 1999, losing to the Yankees each year, compiling an aggregate record of 1-9.
This year was supposed to be different. Backed by the front office leadership of Lone Star legend Nolan Ryan, the Rangers easily won the American League West. There were all about Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler and a player named Elvis. Manager Ron Washington pushed the agenda of Ryan, ignoring pitch counts and letting starters go deep into games.
It looked like it was all coming together perfectly when the Rangers took the first two games against the Rays in St. Petersburg. They went home to the Ballpark at Arlington, flashing antler signs, ready to celebrate the franchise's first playoff series victory. When Kinsler KO'd Tampa's Matt Garza with a seventh-inning go-ahead homer in Game 3, it looked like the Rangers were finally on the verge of wrapping up their first postseason series victory.
Texas was five outs away from wrapping it up when things fell apart in the beautiful ballpark between Dallas and Fort Worth. With one out in the top of the eighth, the Rangers led, 2-1, and the Rays were batting .144 for the series, hitting .105 (2-for-19) with runners in scoring position.
Then it unraveled. Texas southpaw Darren Oliver surrendered the tying run on hits by left-handed batters Dan Johnson and Carlos Peña. The Rays haven't stopped since. Tampa Bay came back with 6-3 win in Game 3, then a few hours later and took a 5-0 lead in Game 4 en route to a 5-2 series-squaring win.
Now all the pressure is on Texas. In this odd series in which the road team has won every game (there has never been a five-game series in which the road team won every game), the Rangers have been outscored 11-2 since coming within five outs of closing the deal.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is playing with purpose and urgency. Pena and Carl Crawford know that every elimination game has the potential to be their last game with the Rays. The Rays want to meet the Yankees in one last bout for AL East supremacy and a trip to the World Series.
Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver defined momentum as "tomorrow's starting pitcher" and the Rangers are well-served in this regard because they've got lefty Cliff Lee pitching Game 5. However, the Rays have a rested David Price which makes this the best matchup of the 2010 baseball season thus far.
Washington was asked about using Lee in Game 4 on three days' rest to clinch the series, but said he did not want to panic. Then he appeared to panic when he lifted Game 3 starter Tommy Hunter after Hunter had thrown only 73 pitches (trailing, 3-0) through four innings.
There were other signs of panic. In Game 4, Kinsler dropped a pop-up, allowing an unearned run. Bengie Molina let a pitch clang off his glove for an uncharacteristic passed ball. Vlad Guerrero struck out with the bases loaded.
The weight of the past can be an awful burden. Today's players will always tell you that what happened before them doesn't mean anything, but it's not true. Fans view their teams as continuous entities. Today's Cubs, are, in fact, the progeny of the 1932 Cubs and the 1969 Cubs and the Cubs who were five outs away in 2003.
In Boston it's always about the past. When the 2003 Red Sox blew a 5-2 lead at Yankee Stadium in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the ALCS, they were reminded of Bill Buckner in 1986 and Bucky Dent in 1978 and Enos Slaughter beating them with his mad dash home in St. Louis in 1946.
The Red Sox were 3-1 favorites to win that '46 World Series, but failed. It was the only postseason appearance for Ted Williams and the greatest hitter who ever lived batted only .200 in the seven games.
After retiring as a ballplayer, Williams went on to become manager of the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers. Teddy Ballgame is part of Rangers history. Part of the dark past they'll be lugging into Tropicana Field on Tuesday night.