ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few seconds after second baseman Rougned Odor flipped the ball to Mitch Moreland for the final out, clinching the American League West title for the Texas Rangers, pitcher Cole Hamels disappeared in a sea of blue-clad teammates.
They doused him with ginger ale, yanking off his cap to make sure he was soaked head to toe, as they bounced excitedly on the infield grass celebrating the most unlikely division title in the club’s 44-year history.
"The reason they made the deal for me was for a day like this. I wanted to be out there. We all believed." Rangers' Cole Hamels, on clinching the AL West on the final day of the season.
Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, showed us exactly why he's called an ace.
With the bullpen shot and the Rangers needing a win in Game 162 to win the division and avoid the wild-card round, Hamels delivered a marquee performance in a taut game before the Rangers scored six runs in the seventh inning.
Hamels, acquired at the trade deadline for moments just like this, threw a complete-game three-hitter with two walks and eight strikeouts for a 9-2 Texas victory fewer than 24 hours after the Rangers blew a four-run, ninth-inning lead in a one-run loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
“The reason they made the deal for me was for a day like this,” Hamels said. “I wanted to be out there. We all believed.”
The Rangers will begin a five-game AL Division Series at Toronto on Thursday, which means the bullpen will get some much-needed rest and manager Jeff Banister can set up the rotation he wants.
We shouldn’t be surprised the Rangers found the mental fortitude to play well after Saturday’s debacle.
They didn’t quit on May 3 when they were 8-16 and owned the AL’s worst record. And they didn’t quit on July 28 when a 21-5 loss to the New York Yankees put them five games under .500. And they didn’t quit on Aug. 12 when an 11-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins left them 55-57 and 5 1/2 games out of first place behind the Houston Astros.
All they did was go 33-17 in their past 50 games.
The Rangers succeeded because the foundation of this club is built with mentally tough players -- and it all starts with Adrian Beltre, who has played the past four months with a sprained thumb and index finger on his left hand. He wears a protective mitten when he’s on the bases.
Beltre’s two-run, opposite-field homer in the fifth inning gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead, their first of the game.
“He’s Batman,” Prince Fielder said. “Every team needs a superhero, and he’s ours.”
Colby Lewis won a career-high 17 games this season just two years after career-threatening hip surgery, and a year after neck-fusion surgery, Fielder hit .305 with 23 homers and 98 RBIs.
They’re equally important parts of this team’s foundation. This is a team where Delino DeShields, a Rule 5 draft pick, evolved into a prototypical leadoff hitter and offensive catalyst. He went 2-for-3 with two runs scored Sunday.
Catcher Chris Gimenez, a 32-year-old journeyman, joined the club on July 31 because the Rangers had placed both of their catchers on the disabled list. Now, he’s Hamels’ personal catcher, and the Rangers are 26-10 when he starts.
This team has used 12 left fielders, including Josh Hamilton, the prodigal son. The Angels essentially gave him to the Rangers in June, agreeing to pay virtually all of the $75 million left on his contract if he would go away. Hamilton’s RBI single made it 7-2, and he scored the game’s final run when he scored from first on Elvis Andrus' double to left.
This is a team of battlers who bought into the manager’s #nevereverquit philosophy about baseball and life.
“I never stopped believing in this team,” Banister said. “They welcomed a rookie manager with open arms. We’ve had our backs to the wall a lot of different times this season, and every time we did, we’d fight and kick and scratch to get off the wall.”
Hamels had pitched at least six innings in each of his 12 starts since the Rangers acquired him and reliever Jake Diekman from Philadelphia for a litany of prospects.
Hamels retired the game’s first two batters, then Mike Trout doubled and Albert Pujols followed with a homer to center for a 2-0 lead. Hamels retired the next batter and stalked off the mound muttering profanities to himself as he headed to the dugout.
He allowed one hit in the final seven innings.
“His career-high pitches was 134. He was our guy today,” Banister said. “You could see the look in his eyes. I saw it three days ago. Big guys step up in big spots.”
It’s the reason the Rangers recently shuffled their rotation to ensure their ace would start the season's final game.