Josh Hamilton overcomes, hits his stride

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Was that a grin or a teeth-gritting grimace?

"Both, baby, both! Both! Both!" Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said, this time flashing a smile brighter than the video board in the left-field wall he crashed into making a sensational catch to end the fifth inning. "Any ball that's hit out there you want to catch it, whether it's a close game, a blowout, whatever."

Same goes for that near-Bartman moment along the left-field wall in foul territory that Hamilton also -- perhaps ill-advisedly -- careened his body into trying to make a play even though it was too high and out of his reach.

But Hamilton made the catch that counted while smashing the entire right side of his 240-pound frame into the wall to rob Ryan Raburn of a double. And Game 6 of the ALCS wasn't a total blowout, at least not yet. Yes, it was 9-4 at the time and the Rangers ran away with a 15-5 victory, but Austin Jackson had just pumped a little life into the Detroit Tigers with a two-run homer.

If Hamilton doesn't make the leaping grab, Raburn's on second with Tigers masher Miguel Cabrera, who homered in the first and then again in the eighth, coming up.

And then, well, who really knows what can happen?

Hamilton made sure that it wouldn't matter. Just add the catch to his highlight reel and the crash to his laundry list of aches and pains, including his ridiculously sore left groin that he said is limiting his agility in the outfield and his stride at the plate, even if he makes it difficult to tell.

Two innings earlier, in the amazing nine-run third, Hamilton singled, scored and then after batting around was walked intentionally. In the fifth he drove in a run on a sacrifice fly to right, a ball he just got under or he might have had a mammoth three-run shot.

"He's fought through a bunch of difficult things that a lot of people don't know about," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "He's become mentally tougher as a player, just as a person, and it's incredible to watch him. "

A year ago, Hamilton ran away the ALCS MVP, piling up outrageous stats as if he were a self-contained video game: .350 batting average, four homers, seven RBIs, a 1.000 slugging percentage, a 1.536 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and eight walks, a handful intentional because of the Yankees' fear factor.

This time, Nelson Cruz handled the unbelievable with a record-setting six home runs and 13 RBIs in the series. Hamilton? He didn't hit one home run, possibly a byproduct of that groin. All he did do was hit .308, churning four doubles among his eight hits, knocking in five runs and doing so by going 2-for-4 in at-bats with runners in scoring position.

What seems to have gone somewhat overlooked about Hambone's season heading into a second consecutive World Series is not only the physical strain he's played through -- starting with the hairline fracture of his upper arm on the controversial tag-up early in the season -- but the unfathomable mental hurdle that could shatter any man.

On July 7, Brownwood firefighter Shannon Stone died shortly after falling head-first over the left-field bleacher railing at Rangers Ballpark. Stone reached out to catch a baseball that Hamilton tossed up to him for Stone's 6-year-old son Cooper seated next to him. Hamilton is the youngster's favorite player and the outfielder wanted to give him a souvenir to take home.

Throughout it all, as one young son lost his father, Hamilton's wife, Katie, was pregnant with their fourth daughter. Stella Faith was born Sept. 9.

"I would be lying to you if I told you it wasn't tough. It was," Hamilton said. "That's what my faith in God is all about."

Everyone knows Hamilton's own ghosts and no one in the organization could say there wasn't some concern how Hamilton might sort through such a tragedy.

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels just shook his head and called Hamilton a "special player, a special talent," who overcame adversity few ballplayers, few people, ever must.

His teammates witnessed it first hand. They saw him make sense of it. They same him continue on and to overcome. And they've seen him succeed.

With his wife and three of his daughters smiling and dancing on the field as fireworks exploded into the championship sky, they saw him soak in a very long and stirring season that has yet another glorious week or so to go.

"It wasn't an easy situation for him to deal with," Kinsler said. "You know, talk-radio people talked about it here because it's Josh Hamilton -- is he going to go off the deep end and stuff? That's just ridiculous to me. He's an incredible guy. He's made huge strides this year and I'm glad he's my teammate."