The amazing first half of this Rangers season got me thinking about all thirty three Rangers teams that I have had the opportunity to cover. Since 1990 I have been on this beat and from those 33 teams, three will make the medal stand. All have something in common.
Let’s start with the 1996 team. I will never forget Johnny Oates telling me during spring training that year that, “All we need is each of our starting pitchers to win 15 games and we will be right in the hunt.”
Mind you in 1995 they had only one pitcher who won 15 or more, that was Kenny Rogers who won 17. So to say we were skeptical would be an understatement. When it was all said and done they had gotten 16 wins from three spots in the rotation, 15 from one and 14 from the other.
Johnny was right, they won the division, made the playoffs and earned a date with the New York Yankees. The series started in the Bronx at venerable Yankee stadium. What a place for the first playoff game in the history of a franchise. This Rangers team was undaunted. This was a team that had Juan Gonzalez. Mark McLemore recalls Juan telling the team to get on his back that series and he would carry them to victory. He did in Game 1. Gonzalez hit a three run home run as part of a five run fourth inning and the Rangers won their first ever playoff game 6-2.
The heartbreak came in Game 2. It was a great pitching matchup as Ken Hill faced off against twenty one game winner Andy Pettitte. This time Juan hit two home runs and the Rangers had a 4-1 lead after three innings. The Yankees tied the game in the 8th. So they kept playing and playing and playing. The Yankees finally got a run in the 12th. They won in dramatic walk off fashion and never looked back.
Still we knew that the Rangers were so close to winning the first two in New York. If they had this might have been a different series with a different outcome. Buoyed by that success the Rangers won the division in two of the next three years. Although they lost to the Yankees in the ALDS each time.
More than a decade later this franchise is still looking for its first playoff series win. Three moments stand out from the 2010 season which is another of my three favorite Rangers teams. First, the front office went all in, they traded a package of prospects to Seattle for Cliff Lee.
A move that inspired Ian Kinsler to jump for joy and dance down the hall leading to the clubhouse shouting, “we’re going to the playoffs.”
The players were sure this was the final piece they needed to be a true contender. They were right. Which leads to the second most memorable moment of that season. The Rangers went to Florida to begin the ALDS against the Rays. Lee was given the ball in game one. He was dominant, allowing one run on five hits, he struck out ten in seven innings of work. The Rangers won both games in St. Petersburg and it looked like advancing was a foregone conclusion.
Not so fast. Tampa Bay won both games in Arlington which forced a game five back at Tropicana Field. Lee took the ball again and never handed it back to Ron Washington that day as the Rangers ace went nine innings allowing one run on six hits and he struck out eleven.
The Rangers had won their first playoff series! They had earned their way to the ALCS and a date with the Yankees (uh-oh). Could this time be different? The Rangers got a three run homer from Josh Hamilton in the first inning and took a 5-1 lead to the eighth inning of game one. But the Yankees scored five runs in the eighth and won 6-5 and those of us who were around in the 90s were worried.
Fortunately the players were not. The Rangers won game two, Lee pitched eight scoreless innings in game three which Texas won 8-0. The two teams split the next two in New York and came back to Arlington for game six.
Friday October 22, 2010 still lives as the best day in Rangers history in the mind of many fans. Behind a great pitching performance by Colby Lewis the Rangers beat the hated Yankees 6-1. When Neftali Feliz struck out Alex Rodriguez on that chilly October night, the Rangers had qualified for the World Series.
Two great teams that have something in common with this year’s team. The offense is putting up numbers that rank with the best offensive teams in the history of MLB the rotation is better than it has ever been. But the thing this team has in common with 96 and 2010 is the joy. These guys are having so much fun. They love coming to the ballpark every day. They love being around their teammates, they love winning.
All winning teams share those things. Yet somehow when a team starts winning after a long stretch of futility there is a novelty and a joy that does not exist when teams are expected to win. This team has that. Let’s see where it leads.
Sports columnist John Rhadigan is an anchor for the Bally Sports Southwest television network.