Rangers' bullpen shines in Game 1
Whether from the John Grisham novels he devours whenever he gets the chance, or from watching himself portrayed on the silver screen in the recently released
Sticking to the page-turning script that has been written thus far in the 2011 postseason, Washington authored yet another chapter in what has become as scintillating and unpredictable a month of postseason play as baseball has seen in years. In a game featuring all the necessary dramatic elements -- a compelling backstory (the defending American League champions opening the defense of their title against the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander), an unexpected plot twist (both Verlander and Rangers' ace C.J. Wilson were gone from the game before the end of the fifth inning), even an actual thunderstorm, for heaven's sake (two rain delays totaling almost two hours) -- Texas beat the Tigers in Game 1 of the ALCS at Rangers Ballpark 3-2.
The last and most important part of the dramatic narrative, of course, is the hero. On this night the Rangers had five, each of whom saved the day in their own way, namely the quintet of relief pitchers who took over for C.J. Wilson after Mother Nature, not the Tigers offense, knocked him out of the game in the top of the fifth. Starting with left-hander Mike Gonzalez, who retired Alex Avila with the bases loaded to end that inning, Washington ran four more relievers out to the mound and watched them record the last 13 outs of the game while allowing just two baserunners on one hit and one walk while striking out eight.
Neftali Feliz finished the brilliant job begun by Gonzalez, Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver and Mike Adams by rebounding from Ramon Santiago's bunt single to start the ninth to strike out the side with one sizzling 99 mph fastball after another.
It was the ninth one-run game of this postseason, already two more than all of last year combined, and all nine have come in just the past 11 games stretched over all five series that have been played. In other words, this is nail-biting stuff with no end in sight.
It also means that the managers whose tiniest moves can have the biggest impact possible on the outcome are finding even less margin for error than usual. Washington did a masterful job employing his bullpen in this game. He used Gonzalez to get Avila on just two pitches in the fifth then turned to Ogando, who made 29 starts and only two relief appearances starts this season, to cover two full innings in the sixth and seventh. Next came 41-year-old lefty Darren Oliver to face two lefties to start the eighth inning, both of whom Oliver retired. Only then did he turn to Mike Adams, arguably the best set-up man in the game, to get righty Jhonny Peralta, before turning things over to Feliz, saver of 32 games during the season, to finish things off.
Making the outing even more impressive is the fact that the bullpen was not exactly the Rangers' strength this season as they bashed their way to a second straight AL West title behind an offense that led the AL in batting average, second in OPS and third in runs. Texas' bullpen was next-to-last in the league in ERA and in the middle of the pack in strikeouts (10th) and hits allowed (11th).
No one was more essential in that bullpen than the man who wasn't even a part of it for most of the year: Ogando. Before the game, showing he knows how to establish a plot, Washington said he not only wouldn't start Ogando, who was responsible for the only three wins Texas had all year against the Tigers, but that he might use him in "the sixth and the seventh ... wherever we feel like the game dictates that [he] gives us the best opportunity to get the outs we need to win the game."
As Washington predicted, those outs came in the sixth and seventh. Ogando retired the side in the seventh, getting Miguel Cabrera on a harmless groundball and striking out Victor Martinez in what would prove to be the last plate appearances of the evening for the Tigers' two best hitters.
"What a weapon we have," Washington said of Ogando afterward.
He could have been speaking about his entire relief corps, for on Friday, Washington had five equally effective weapons. And that's why the Rangers were able to give their fans what they wanted most after all those dramatics: a happy ending.