Wednesday October 5th, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG -- You could hear the bass thumping and you could smell the champagne. The party was just getting started inside the visitor's locker room at Tropicana Field, but standing outside the clubhouse in the dark stadium tunnel was the famous CEO, dressed impeccably in a jacket and tie. "We've got a ways to go still," Nolan Ryan said moments after Texas' 4-3 win over the Rays in Game 4 of the ALDS, barely cracking a smile. "They view this as a three step process, and they just accomplished the first step."

October celebrations are becoming such common occurrences for the Rangers that it's easy to forget they were a franchise on the verge of unraveling not so long ago. In the spring of 2010, debt-ridden owner Tom Hicks could find no buyers for a franchise that would become the first major league club in 17 years to file for bankruptcy. That same spring manager Ron Washington's future hung in the balance with the revelation of his cocaine use during the 2009 season. Entering 2010, the Rangers had never won a postseason series. They'd won over 90 games just twice in their history.

But here they are now, the defending American League champions headed to a second straight ALCS after winning a franchise-record 96 games in the regular season and now beating the Tampa Bay Rays in four games in the ALDS. After their second 4-3 win in two days, the Rangers players danced in their champagne-drenched clubhouse. But, like their CEO, the players are hungry for more. "We started spring training with the goal of getting back to the ALCS --- and beyond," said outfielder David Murphy, as he rubbed his stinging eyes. "We still have a lot we want to accomplish."

There were many heroes for Texas in this ALDS and three of them weren't with the Rangers last October. There was Adrian Beltre, who in Game 4 became the seventh player in postseason history to hit three home runs with solo shots in the second, fourth and seventh innings. Within three weeks in January, the Rangers added Beltre (signed to a six-year, $96 million deal) and traded for Mike Napoli, who hit the go-ahead home run in Game 3.

And there was Matt Harrison, who in his first career postseason start on Tuesday, allowed two runs and struck out a career high nine in five innings. Left off the roster after a disappointing 2010 season, the 26-year-old lefthander spent last October watching the playoffs on TV from his couch. "It really hit me hard and it was really frustrating for me to be sitting there watching," he recalled on Monday. "I am cheering for my teammates, but I would have liked to have been out there on the field, too."

Sitting on a table next to Harrison's couch were a stack of books --- The ABC's of Mental Pitching, The Mental Game of Baseball and the Tao of Sports --- that had been collecting dust. "I had them for a year or so and never even picked them up," he says. "And I think it kind of hit me hard when I saw those highlights and I wanted to be in that experience this year. So I picked those up and it opened my eyes to a lot of different sides of the game."

The takeaway from the series? This year's Rangers team is better built for October, with a deeper bullpen and a deeper starting staff to complement a devastating lineup that Rays pitcher David Price labeled "Five Longorias." "There were a lot of unknowns [last year]," says Ryan. "We had a very good ballclub last year, but it wasn't a postseason experienced ball club. This is a more balanced ball club."

Texas is positioned to be an American League juggernaut for years to come. GM Jon Daniels, in his four years in Texas, has turned the Rangers minor league system into one of the game's deepest and talent-rich. The Rangers' monster $1.6 billion TV deal with Fox Sports Southwest last September will finally allow them to spend like a big-market team.

But forget the future. The Rangers are ready to win now. "Last year, it was a first time experience for a lot of the players," says Ryan. " It was a young ballclub. There was a lot uncertainty. This was the first step, and they're ready to take the next step."

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