ARLINGTON, Texas -- "I believe in the game being complete," Ron Washington was saying one afternoon in September. He was sitting in the visiting manager's office at Tropicana Field before a game with the Rays. There was a stack of Winstons on his desk.
"I always told myself if I ever got the chance to be a big league manager," he said, "that I want to play the game completely. I want to pitch. I want to hit. I want to be able to steal bags. I want to be able to bunt, I want to be able to have my players move the runner, I want to be able to squeeze, I want to be able to hit and run, I want to be able to go first to third, I want to look for balls in the dirt. I want to be able to take advantage of every opportunity that's given to you in the game of baseball. I want to be ... complete."
Ron Washington waited a long time to become a major league manager. He was a coach with the Mets and A's for 16 years before the Rangers hired him in 2007. And now here he is, two wins away from a second straight World Series, leading the kind of baseball team he always envisioned: a baseball team that can beat you in every way imaginable.
In an epic four-hour, 24-minute game -- "Watching it, I thought my beard would turn gray," Texas' Scott Feldman said -- the Rangers took control of the ALCS with a rousing 7-3 win over the Tigers.
A warm, sun-rinsed afternoon had turned into night when Nelson Cruz stepped up to the plate to face Ryan Perry with the bases loaded and no one out in the bottom of the 11th. Cruz was already having a good day: he had doubled earlier and hit a tying solo home run in the seventh. The crowd was on its feet, waving white towels when he started his at bat against Perry by fouling off a slider and a 94 mph fastball.
"First two pitches I was too aggressive --- foul ball, foul ball," he said. "So I told myself just slow down and try to hit a fly ball to the outfield." He took the next pitch, an 84 mph slider outside the zone. Then he saw something he liked: a hanging 85 mph slider, a pitch he drilled into the left-field seats, a 369-foot blast that was the first walk-off grand slam in postseason history.
Just how scary is this Ranger offense? Cruz, who now has nine home runs and 17 RBIs in 22 career postseason games, hit seventh in the Texas order on Monday. The lineup has homered at least once in its last five postseason games and, going back to 2010, has gone deep in 18 of 22 games.
But we already knew coming into October that the Rangers could hit. We knew they could run. We knew they could field. We knew that their rotation was deep and talented. We knew they did the small things to win games. What we didn't know was just how good the bullpen was.
After he used five relievers to get 13 outs without giving up a run in Game 1, Washington had to turn to his bullpen in the third inning of Game 2, with Rangers starter Derek Holland struggling to locate his fastball. ("I just couldn't get my fastball down," said Holland, who in 2 2/3 innings allowed four hits, four walks, and three runs. "I'm a fastball pitcher --- that's what I am, and I couldn't throw it for strikes.") Washington then turned to Scott Feldman, Alexi Ogando, Mike Gonzalez, Neftali Feliz, and Mike Adams, who combined for eight strikeouts and just one walk in 8 1/3 scoreless innings.
The new-look bullpen is the reason why these Rangers are better than they were in 2010. "They've been awesome," says Holland. "They've bailed us out, and every night it's a different guy."
The signs are bad for the depleted Tigers. Since the start of the best-of-seven LCS in 1985, 21 teams have taken a 2-0 lead. All but three (the '85 Blue Jays, the '85 Dodgers, and the '04 Yankees) advanced to the World Series. In Game 3 on Tuesday, Detroit faces Colby Lewis, who is 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in the postseason and was a far better pitcher on the road this season (3.43 ERA) than at home (5.54).
There's also this working against the Tigers: the team they're facing is the most complete team in baseball. As Ron Washington always imagined they'd be.