Manager Jeff Banister knew his Texas Rangers were a good team, but it took him more than three months to figure out whether they had the intangibles to make a deep playoff run.
The players answered whatever questions Banister had during a long, wet June evening against the New York Yankees in the Bronx. The Rangers survived a three-and-a-half-hour rain delay and the Yankees' vaunted bullpen to notch a come-from-behind win in the wee hours of the morning.
"The one game I really believe showed their thirst for winning baseball games," Banister said. "[Aroldis] Chapman is on the mound and I've got a group of guys that want that challenge, and when they got pulled off the field there was some extreme disappointment and anger, but they stayed engaged until 3:30 in the morning and couldn't wait to get back out there on the field to complete the task.
"You saw the excitement -- I got to live it -- inside that dugout and on that field when nobody but friends and family were in the stands, and they couldn't have been more excited about winning a baseball game at 4 o'clock in the morning."
The Rangers took the first step this season toward winning their first championship -- Adrian Beltre said anything else will be a disappointment -- when they clinched the AL West title on Friday night with a 3-0 win at Oakland.
It's their second consecutive division title and fourth in the past seven seasons. They earned a wild-card berth in 2012, so getting to the playoffs is no longer enough for this franchise. They want a ring, and they're equipped to get one.
They've won 90 games for the fifth time in seven seasons and lead the Cleveland Indians by a half-game and Boston Red Sox by one game for the best record in the American League. If the Rangers hold on to the top seed in the American League, they will play the wild-card game winner in the first round of the playoffs.
The Rangers have the AL's best record because they're 36-11 in one-run games, winning an MLB-best 20 games in their final at-bat and coming from behind to win an MLB-best 47 games.
They've done it despite getting virtually nothing from Prince Fielder or Shin-Soo Choo, each of whom was expected to make an impact. A herniated disk in his neck forced Fielder to end his career this season after 89 games with eight homers and 44 RBIs. Choo has been on the disabled list four times, limiting him to just 45 games. A broken forearm is expected to keep Choo out until at least the AL Championship Series.
Cole Hamels and Ian Desmond were named to the All-Star Game and carried the Rangers in the first half of the season. At the trade deadline, general manager Jon Daniels traded for catcher Jonathan Lucroy, designated hitter Carlos Beltran and reliever Jeremy Jeffress. Lucroy and Beltran have each played a significant role in the Rangers' second-half surge that pushed their lead to a season-high 10.5 games on Sept. 3.
"This is a really talented team, but it's a hard-working team," Lucroy said. "It's not always about having the best players, it's having guys who know how to win."
Rougned Odor (31), Beltre (31), Desmond (22), Mitch Moreland (22) and Nomar Mazara (20) have each hit 20 or more homers. Hamels and Yu Darvish give the Rangers the best 1-2 combination of starters in the AL, and Banister has plenty of options in the bullpen with closer Sam Dyson, Matt Bush, Jake Diekman and the emergence of Tanner Scheppers over the past two weeks.
Then there are the intangibles.
"We've come from behind so many times this year," Moreland said, "that we always believe we can win."
But what Banister enjoys most about this bunch is that they're a team. At various points this season, every player has contributed to their success.
"They're a damn good team. That's why," Banister said when asked how the Rangers have won 90 games again. "All the parts have worked extremely well together.
"When you think about all the different players that have come through, the injuries, the trades, the ebb and flow of different production from players -- just how well they've complemented each other at different times to where you can distinctively look at different parts of the season where guys have been hot, somebody steps up and gets hot, collectively they got hot and the same things on the pitching side, whether it was the rotation or the bullpen got hot.
"It's the complement of everything together and they're talented and they have a love for winning that I believe is unmatched."