ARLINGTON, Texas -- The field was strewn with empty bottles of ginger ale and red, white, and blue confetti. The white banner was already hanging over the steel façade beyond center field: 2011 AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONS, it said. The stadium speakers were blaring "We Are The Champions." The faithful were in the stands, still on their feet. It was nearing 11 p.m. in the heart of Texas and the celebration was just getting started at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. But as Nolan Ryan walked off the field to the roar of the crowd, the team president and CEO barely cracked a smile.
"We haven't finished what we set out to do," Ryan said. "We've still got four more games to win."
While they haven't won a World Series in their 51-year history, the Texas Rangers have officially arrived as an American League superpower. For 50 years they were one of the worst organizations in all of professional sports -- until last October, they were the only major league franchise never to have won a playoff series. Now here they are, headed to a second straight Fall Classic after their 15-5 romp over the Detroit Tigers in Game 6 of the ALCS. George W. Bush and Dirk Nowitzki were among the 51,508 in Arlington to watch Texas become the fifth AL team to win back-to-back pennants since the introduction of the LCS in 1969. New York, Boston: step aside.
"They proved in this series that they were the team that should represent the American League in the World Series," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We're a class organization. They are a class organization. And I tip my hat to them."
From the first day of spring training these Rangers were on a mission to prove that their magical 2010 season wasn't a fluke. They went on to win a franchise-record 96 wins during the regular season and, after rolling over the Rays and Tigers in the first two rounds of the postseason, are now only the third AL franchise other than the Yankees over the last 40 years to reach the World Series in consecutive years (the Blue Jays in '92 and '93 and the A's dynasties of the early '70s and late '80s are the others).
It didn't look good for Texas in the early innings of Game 6. Miguel Cabrera got the scoring going in the top of the first, ripping a 96 mph fastball from Derek Holland for a home run over the right-field wall, just beyond the reach of Nelson Cruz. In the top of the second, Jhonny Peralta hit another opposite-field home run to right field.
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Then came the fateful bottom of the third. With two men on, Michael Young drilled a slider from Max Scherzer down the left-field line for a two-run double to tie the score. Adrian Beltre then broke a 0-for-13 slump with an RBI single, and the Rangers took a 3-2 lead. After Scherzer walked Cruz to load the bases, Leyland decided he'd seen enough from his starter.
Leyland then made a decision that will haunt him all winter: he decided that Daniel Schlereth was the man he wanted on the mound with his team's season on the line. Schlereth's last appearance was on Oct. 4 in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Yankees. He struggled with his control all season, with 31 walks in 49 innings. But here he was, in a one-run game, with the bases loaded, one out, and everything on the line. On a 2-1 count, Schlereth threw a sinker that didn't sink and David Murphy lined it to center field for a two-run single. Game over. Series over.
Now the Rangers await the winner of the NLCS, with three days off until the start of the World Series. There will be many questions leading up to Game 1, of course. Will Ron Washington keep Cruz, the hottest player on the planet, hitting seventh in the order? Can the Rangers keep winning without a starter tossing a quality start? Will Derek Holland finally give up on his moustache?
There are no more questions about this team's place in the American League. With a talented core of young players, with one of the smartest front offices in the game, with a monster TV deal, the Rangers are positioned to rule the American League for years to come. But there remains unfinished business this October. "We're happy to go to the World Series right now," says Young, the longest-tenured Ranger. "But we've still got a lot of work to do."