ARLINGTON, TEX. — Before Saturday night, a statewide drought had gripped Texas for months. Grass had either turned yellow-brown or dried up and disappeared. Cowboys and ranchers had started shipping their starved cattle north — seriously — to places like Nebraska and Wyoming so they could eat. And the Texas Rangers had not hosted a rain-delayed game since May.
Sure enough, rain returned Saturday night and wreaked havoc on the American League Championship Series and the best-laid plans of the Rangers and Detroit Tigers. The skies opened, delayed the game twice, spoiled a stellar pitching matchup and ensured Game 1 would not end until after midnight. Hours after Justin Verlander and C.J. Wilson had been forced from the mound — and likely after East Coast viewers had gone to sleep — the Rangers seized control with a 3-2 victory at Rangers Ballpark.
The rain provided a major annoyance and 1 hour 50 minutes of total delays. But forcing their bullpen into the game early proved to be the best thing that could have happened to the Rangers. Texas won because of its relievers’ electric performance.
Five relievers retired 13 of the 15 batters they faced and allowed only one hit — a leadoff bunt single by Ramon Santiago in the ninth — in 41 / 3 innings, all with a one-run lead, when “every pitch is a pressure situation,” Wilson said.
Once Santiago reached, flamethrowing closer Neftali Feliz struck out the next three hitters, including Austin Jackson on a 101-mph fastball. The Rangers bullpen struck out eight, all of those coming in the final 11 hitters of the game, and did not allow a runner into scoring position past the fifth inning.
“That was the key to the game, the bullpen,” Rangers set-up man Mike Adams said. “We have as close to a shutdown bullpen as there is. I hope they feel that they can’t get to the bullpen. I know some teams, they don’t like when they get to the bullpen, because the bullpen is dominant. They think once they get to the bullpen, their chances are very limited.”
The Rangers’ bullpen dominance began when Mike Gonzalez squirmed out of a bases-loaded jam immediately following the second rain delay — “the biggest out of the game,” Adams said. It ended with Neftali Feliz’s flame-throwing, 1-2-3 ninth inning. Alexi Ogando, a starter in the regular season, tore through the sixth and seventh, throwing 98-mph fastballs and wipeout sliders, striking out three of the seven batters he faced. Ancient lefty Darren Oliver and right-hander Adams, a trade deadline addition, handled the eighth.
The Tigers, on paper, held one clear advantage in the series, and that was having Verlander while the Rangers had not found a true ace to replace Cliff Lee. But Verlander did not provide an outing typical of his 24-5, 2.40 ERA season and Wilson fit the bill for the first four innings of his truncated starts.
The Tigers had also grown tired of the Verlander narrative. “Everyone ask us about Verlander,” second baseman Ian Kinsler snapped afterward. “We’re worried about ourselves.”
Verlander, the presumptive AL Cy Young winner, allowed three runs on five hits — including David Murphy’s RBI triple and Neslon Cruz’s solo home run — in four innings while throwing 82 pitches. Like Game 1 of the AL Division Series, rain cut Verlander’s start short.
“His control was not very good,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “He didn’t really have his curveball going for strikes. He had a tough time with it. I think probably he was trying to overthrow it a little bit.”
Verlander faced some issues outside of his control. Center fielder Austin Jackson dropped a routine fly ball in the first inning, which forced Verlander to throw an extra 10 pitches. Close pitches called balls may have hurt Verlander, too. During the third inning, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg tweeted on his @stras37 account, “Verlander is getting squeezed big time!”
Rick Porcello, the scheduled Game 4 starter, replaced Verlander and retired all six batters he faced. The Rangers had scheduled Verlander to make his next start in Game 5, but with him throwing only four innings and Porcello also receiving action Saturday, Verlander could return for Game 4 instead. That opens the possibility of Verlander starting a possible Game 7 on three days’ rest.
While Verlander scuffled, Wilson rolled. Wilson loaded the bases with one out in the first inning and thought about something his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, says often: “You’re only one pitch away from greatness.” He threw Magglio Ordonez a cutter, which started a 5-4-3, inning-ending double play.
Wilson struck out the side in the fourth inning it gave him six strikeouts for the game. “I was in a groove,” he said. When Cruz led off the bottom of the inning with a deep home run to left off Verlander, the Rangers had a three-run lead, Wilson was cruising and the series, with Verlander on the ropes, had already turned.
And then it turned again by forces outside either team’s control. Wilson showed his first sign of struggle when Santiago led off the fifth with a double to left. And then a slight drizzle turned into a downpour. Umpires called the players off the field and, after a summer-long drought, Rangers Ballpark had its first rain delay since late May.
When he returned from the 41-minute rain delay, Wilson’s start unraveled. In a span of four runners, Wilson allowed two runs on Jackson’s double, consecutive walks to Ryan Raburn and Miguel Cabrera and a wild pitch. Wilson recorded his second out with a comebacker, then intentionally walked Magglio Ordonez to load the bases.
“You just get stiff,” Wilson said. “My control was a little bit off, and that really made all the difference in the world. If I was able to bury that breaking ball to Jackson, I get out of that inning with no runs.”
As Alex Avila walked to the plate, another downpour arrived and delayed the game, 13 minutes after the first delay ended. The second delay knocked Wilson out of the game, and when the game resumed with the base loaded and two outs 1 hour, 9 minutes later, lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez entered and ended the rally by inducing a groundout by Avila.
The series received a jolt in the afternoon when the Tigers took injured right fielder and No. 3 hitter Delmon Young off their roster. Young, a trade-deadline acquisition who hit three homers in the first round, strained his left oblique in the Game 5 clincher over the New York Yankees.
Young is eligible for the World Series if the Tigers reach, but without him Cabrera moved from cleanup to third in the lineup. The Tigers replaced him on the roster with Danny Worth and planned to rely more on Brandon Inge, Raburn and Don Kelly. Losing Young’s powerful, right-handed bat against a Rangers rotation with three left-handed starters affects the Tigers.
“With Delmon out, it changes things,” Leyland said. “It obviously hurts a little bit. . . . I think the public sometimes has a tendency to think that when you play your regulars every day, they win every game. It doesn’t work like that. That’s why you use your whole roster.”