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Rangers' best reliever didn't get chance
Four runs ahead. Six outs to go. And it turned into a loss for the Texas Rangers.
The final count — 6-5 — was gone from the scoreboard at Rangers Ballpark within an hour after the game. The scars might not heal until the spring.
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The collapse was shocking and predictable at the same time. The New York Yankees can do this, especially in October. Inexperienced opponents with iffy bullpens are particularly vulnerable.
Check and check.
Now the Rangers trail in this American League Championship Series, one game to none. Their home-field advantage is gone. The larger problem: The next time they take a lead, Texas fans will avert their eyes on any ball hit to right field.
After Friday, they can’t look at the bullpen without feeling ill.
“Looked like we had it all wrapped up,” lamented reliever Darren O’Day. “What were we? Six outs away?”
How did it happen? Why did it happen? Let’s start with someone whose name can’t be found in the Game 1 boxscore: Neftali Feliz.
Feliz, despite his struggles in the first round, is the Rangers’ best relief pitcher. He saved 40 games during the regular season, a rookie record in the major leagues. On six occasions, he threw more than one inning.
On Friday, he didn’t throw a pitch.
When the top of the eighth began, Texas held a 5-1 lead. When it ended, Rangers manager Ron Washington had used five pitchers, tying an ALCS record. One of them, left-hander Clay Rapada, had never pitched in a postseason game and was left off the Division Series roster.
In the quiet Texas clubhouse, I asked Feliz if he was surprised that he didn’t get in the game. He said no. Washington told reporters that he didn’t give any thought to asking Feliz for a six-out save, reasoning, “He's never done anything like that.”
But the fact remains: The Rangers let a four-run lead — and possibly their season — slip away without their best relief pitcher having a chance to affect the outcome.
With the exception of Oliver, they haven’t done anything quite like this, either.
“The guys we have in the bullpen, they need to get a little more comfortable and make better pitches — for themselves, you know? To build confidence in themselves,” said C.J. Wilson, the man we should be talking about right now. “We have confidence in them. They have to make the most out of the opportunity that they’re getting, to pitch on this big stage.”
Wilson wasn’t bitter. As a Taoist, that’s not his style. But given the circumstances, some snark would have been understandable. Wilson had pitched brilliantly for seven innings. Cliff Lee couldn’t have done it any better.
When the eighth inning began, Wilson stood on the mound with a 5-1 lead.
The trouble started immediately.
The lead was 5-2. Washington was on his way to the mound. And Wilson was worried.
“Dinky hit, jam-shot down the line for a double, I was like, ‘Ooh, that’s not good,’” Wilson said. “At that point, they had momentum. They had two hits in a row. The way I was pitching today, two hits in a row was momentum.
“I didn’t get a chance to work out of it. And we didn’t work out of it as a team.”
Oliver’s failure was the most surprising. He is 40 years old. He appeared in 17 previous postseason games. He was signed for his experience in precisely this sort of moment.
O’Day: Alex Rodriguez singled on the first pitch.
Rapada: Robinson Cano singled on the first pitch.
Holland: Marcus Thames singled on a 2-2 pitch.
By then, the Yankees were ahead. To stay. They have Kerry Wood. They have Mariano Rivera. They have a clear advantage over the Rangers in the late innings, in a way that some observers (myself included) did not fully comprehend before the series began. O’Day called Friday’s performance an “aberration.” I’m not sure that it is.
The series would be different if Texas reliever Frank Francisco was healthy. A onetime closer, he suffered an injury late in the regular season and hasn’t pitched in the playoffs.
Francisco’s absence didn’t cost the Rangers in the first round against Tampa Bay. It might now.
“You’re going up against guys that are experienced and maybe know what to expect a little bit more,” Wilson acknowledged. “The experience gap, you can’t coach it. You just have to go out there and play.”
He’s right. And for seven innings, the Rangers did. They just played.
But as the game tightened, they did something very dangerous. They started thinking — maybe about all the folklore surrounding that team in the other dugout.
“You have to take the uniform out of the equation,” O’Day said. He’s right. I’m just not sure if that’s possible.
And when New York’s best hitters came to bat in the fateful eighth, the Rangers’ best reliever was nowhere to be found.
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