Rangers learn tough lesson

ST. LOUIS -- Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington has a popular phrase that summarizes the fickle and occasionally arbitrary nature of the national pastime. "That's the way baseball go," Washington is fond of saying.

But when the story of the 2011 Rangers is revisited in coming years, a different phrase will be recited ad nauseam: One strike away. Twice.

The Rangers set a franchise record with 96 victories this year, and drew a single-season high of 2,946,949 fans. They held sole possession of the American League West lead for the final 85 days of the regular season, and played 46 straight games over the past two months without suffering two losses in a row. Baseball journalists around the country have written odes to team president Nolan Ryan, general manager Jon Daniels and Washington for their contributions in turning the Rangers' organization into one of the elite operations in the game.

But with a 10-9, 11-inning defeat Thursday in Game 6 and then a 6-2 loss to St. Louis in the deciding seventh game of the World Series on Friday, the Rangers know that history isn't going to judge them so kindly. They have to deal with the emotional pain and the stigma of failing twice on the game's biggest stage.

After Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig squeezed David Murphy's fly ball for the final out of the 2011 Series, the Texas players filed into the clubhouse for the final time this season and received an uplifting message from Washington. He told them how proud he was of their effort, and said he considers them champions even though they failed to achieve the ultimate prize. The message clearly resonated with the Rangers.

"It brought me absolute joy to come to the field and be around these guys and see how much they loved the game and loved each other," outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "It really is like a family here."

Oakland general manager Billy Beane famously observed that the postseason is a "crapshoot," and no one understands that better than the Rangers. Last year they made it to the World Series for the first time, only to fall short against Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a loaded San Francisco pitching staff. This year they lost out to David Freese, Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter and St. Louis' improbable Rally Squirrel-driven mojo.

When the Texas players have time to take a step back and reflect, this loss will sting more than the 2010 World Series setback because they were so close. The Rangers carried a 7-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6, but failed to seal the deal behind closer Neftali Feliz. Freese and Berkman were both down to their final strike before delivering run-scoring hits to save the Cardinals' season and prolong the Rangers' agony.

Upon arrival at Busch Stadium on Friday afternoon, the Texas players cranked up the music and bantered as though it were business as usual. But acting as though they had regrouped and actually mustering the energy to compete for nine innings were two different things.

"We probably needed an extra day to come back from that game," reliever Mike Adams said. "It was so emotionally draining. I was so tired, and I threw three pitches. There's a lot more to it than just the physical part of it."

The Rangers' bullpen, such a team strength during earlier in the playoffs, ultimately fell victim to attrition. Alexi Ogando, a dominant force in the LDS against Tampa Bay and the LCS against Detroit, allowed 14 baserunners via hit or walk in 2 2/3 innings in the World Series against St. Louis. He wasn't the only reliever running on fumes. Adams, a midseason trade acquisition from San Diego, made 86 total appearances and racked up 82 innings combined between the regular season and the postseason. Those totals obliterated his previous career highs.

"Playoff baseball is nothing like regular-season baseball," Adams said. "It's so much more intense. Every pitch means so much. One inning in the postseason is the equivalent of four or five innings in the regular season."

The Rangers also failed to hit up to their usual standards against St. Louis. They batted .254 as a team in the World Series, and the Cardinals found a way to minimize the damage from Hamilton, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz in the middle of the order.

About an hour after Game 7, the Rangers straggled out of the clubhouse for a charter flight that would ultimately carry them to different time zones and disparate personal agendas. They have 3 1/2 months to recover before spring training beckons in Arizona, and some days are bound to seem longer and emptier than others.

Young hopes to ease the pain of two straight World Series losses by spending a lot of time with his two young sons. Hamilton plans to go hunting, but first he'll travel to Philadelphia for tests to determine if he needs surgery on a possible sports hernia.

"I'm going to let the doctors check me out, do some scans and stuff," Hamilton said. "And if something needs to be fixed, we'll fix it."

The always entertaining C.J. Wilson has the usual array of activities on his plate. As Texas' union representative, he's playing an active role in Major League Baseball's labor negotiations, which are nearing the finish line. And he will soon discover how popular he is with the 29 other franchises when he takes his 16-7 record, 2.94 ERA and 223 innings pitched onto the free-agent market.

But first, over the next week Wilson has some less ambitious items on his schedule. "I'm going to my buddy's wedding and getting a tan, and I'm getting rid of this ridiculous frickin' beard," he said.

History shows that it will be extremely difficult for the Rangers to make another World Series next year, much less win one. The last team to get to three consecutive World Series was the New York Yankees, who did it four straight years from 1998 through 2001.

The last team to lose twice in the Series and come back the next year to win a title? The Babe Ruth-Wally Pipp Yankees. They fell short in 1921 and '22, and returned to beat the New York Giants in six games in 1923.

However long the historical odds, though, when you peruse the roster it's clear the Rangers are in good shape. The Rangers' offense, third in the AL with 855 runs scored this season, should return intact. Although Wilson's departure would leave a significant void in the rotation, the Rangers have Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Ogando back as starters. And there's always the option of shifting Feliz from the back end of the bullpen to the rotation.

"We have good players, and good players win games," Young said. "Not to mention that this team has got some [guts]. I'll take that any day of the week."

The playoffs are such a grind these days, the Rangers deserve credit for surviving two rounds through two straight Octobers to advance to the World Series. Nevertheless, it's a given that some critics are going to label them as the baseball equivalent of the Buffalo Bills -- or the new Atlanta Braves.

To paraphrase Ron Washington, that's the way life go.

"I can't control what people are going to think," Murphy said. "But this group of guys knows how difficult it is to do what we've done. We like to do things that people are impressed with or proud of, but in the end that's not our main goal.

"We play for each other. We play for our teammates. We play for our coaching staff. Hopefully that will result in a championship at the end of the year. Getting here twice is pretty impressive. We're proud of it. But it hurts right now."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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