ARLINGTON, Texas -- There was the legend, standing in the middle of a baseball field strewn with empty bottles of ginger ale and red, white, and blue confetti. His Texas Rangers had been American League champions for nearly an hour now, and it was all beginning to sink in. "The fans here have just waited a long, long time for this," said Nolan Ryan, already donning the commemorative blue Rangers hat and the commemorative red t-shirt. "Looking back to spring training, I just felt like this team was on a mission. There was a lot to overcome, but this is a resilient team, an unbelievably resilient team. It's a credit to the organization. It's just ..." -- he paused for a moment and gazed up into the stands, where 50,000 fans were still standing and cheering, then continued -- "... very, very rewarding."
The tableau was unimaginable only seven months earlier, when it all seemed to be unraveling for the Rangers. Seven months ago the future of manager Ron Washington was on life support after he admitted to cocaine use during the 2009 season. Debt-ridden owner Tom Hicks could find no takers for a financially mismanaged franchise that would, in May, become the first major league club in 17 years to file for bankruptcy. Supplanting the Angels atop the AL West? That was the least of the club's worries.
But now here they were, headed to their first World Series in franchise history, and celebrating a complete dismantling of the defending champion Yankees in an ALCS that was more lopsided than the record will show. Yes, the Yankees were one win away from forcing a Game 7, but they were outplayed in nearly every facet in a series in which the Rangers outscored the Yankees 38-19.
On Friday night, the Rangers officially arrived as an American League power. How did they do it?
There was Colby Lewis, pitching the game of his life. Lewis, the 31-year-old Japanese import who a year ago was making his home starts at Mazda Stadium in Hiroshima, outpitched Phil Hughes for the second time in this series. Lewis kept the Yankees off balanced with a heavy dose of sliders and curveballs. He faced the minimum 12 batters through four innings. He struck out Marcus Thames with a filthy 85 mph slider to end the fifth and put a stop to a potential Yankees rally. He was the first starting pitcher to beat the Yankees twice in an LCS since Tim Wakefield did so in 2003. Yes, the Rangers do have shut-down pitchers not named Cliff Lee. "Colby Lewis was outstanding," Washington said. "You know, I knew there were some doubters out there, but we watched this guy pitch for us all year and we knew he was capable of throwing the type of game he went out there and threw tonight."
There was Vladimir Guerrero, making the Yankees pay for giving an intentional walk to Josh Hamilton by slamming a curveball from Hughes for a two-run double in the fateful fifth inning. As he stood on second base, Guerrero, the aging All-Star the Angels didn't want anymore, lifted his helmet to acknowledge the chants of "VLAD-Y! VLAD-Y! VLAD-Y" echoing across the ballpark after his hit gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead. "You pitch around Josh Hamilton and you've got Vlady staring at you in the face," Lee said. "That's not a position you want to be in if you're a pitcher. And that's what makes our lineup so tough. It was just a matter of time before Vlad came up with the big hit." (For the record, Yankees manager Joe Girardi intentionally walked Rangers hitters eight times in the series. Texas hitters responded with six RBIs after those walks.)
There was Nelson Cruz, scorching a home run over the center-field wall off a fastball from Dave Robertson. The homer sent the red-pom waving crowd of 51,404 into a frenzy. "Huge," outfielder David Murphy said of the hit. "Just huge. That's Nellie. People talk about Josh and Vlady, but he kind of gets overlooked. All he does it just get big hits for us." In what's been a star-making postseason, Cruz extended his hitting streak to 11 games.
And there was Neftali Feliz, Texas' baby-faced rookie closer, taking the mound with Alex Rodriguez at the plate. It was just past 10 o'clock in Texas. The rookie fired an 83 mph slider past the former Ranger for a called third strike on the outside corner. Of course it had to end this way, with an emphatic strikeout of the player who for so long had symbolized the failures of a once-inept franchise.
And with that pitch, an era was over, 50 years of failure were over, and the Rangers were headed to the World Series.