In the 50 years as a Major League Baseball franchise, the first 11 as the Washington Senators, the Texas Rangers had appeared in the playoffs only three times prior to this season. All came in the 1990s (1996, 1998, 1999) and all were first-round losses to the New York Yankees.
The Rangers will take on the defending World Series champion Yankees once again, but this time in the American League (AL) Championship Series. With a win, the team can break its nine-game post-season losing streak to New York, and a series win would earn them a spot in the World Series.
Yet with all the recent success, the past year has been anything but a smooth ride for the Texas Rangers.
Josh Hamilton, the team's best player, relapsed from his substance abuse recovery and in August, 2009 pictures of him at a bar went viral on the Internet.
In March of this year, manager Ron Washington admitted using cocaine and offered to resign, but management decided to keep him. And in August, the team went bankrupt and was auctioned off to an investment group led by Hall of Fame pitcher and team president Nolan Ryan.
Despite these struggles, the Rangers emerged with a 90-72 record to clinch their first AL West Division title in 11 years. And in the first round of the playoffs they beat the Tampa Bay Rays in five games to get the club's first-ever playoff series win.
Washington, who guided Texas to second-place finishes the previous two seasons, was thrilled after the team's first round playoff victory over Tampa Bay. "I'm just lost for words because those guys in that clubhouse were so resilient. And we certainly played the type of baseball that we're capable of playing. Every part of the game we can think of, we did. We ran the bases, we pitched, we played defense, and at the end we showed some power," Washington said.
Outfielder Josh Hamilton rebounded from his own controversy with a stellar season that has him as a frontrunner for the AL Most Valuable Player award. In 133 games this season, he hit a stellar .359, with 32 home runs and 100 runs batted in. But because of past substance abuse problems, Hamilton sat out the team's division-clinching party last month in efforts to avoid baseball's tradition of champagne and beer shower celebrations.
However, after the Rangers won their playoff series against the Rays, the team surprised him with his own special shower using bottles of ginger ale. "To come in, that was totally unexpected. They said the guys were waiting on me, I had no clue for what. So I got a little worried there to tell you the truth. But it says a lot about the team, understanding my circumstances and why I can't participate. For them to do that, it just says a lot, and I really appreciate it," Hamiton said.
The team also welcomed a new addition to the squad in late July in All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee.
Lee starred for the World Series runner-up Philadelphia Phillies last season but was traded to the Seattle Mariners. Texas then got him from the Mariners just before the league's mid-season trading deadline. The acquisition of Lee has paid dividends for the Rangers as he became one of only four starting pitchers in history to lead his team to wins in his first seven post-season starts.
In the deciding game five against the Rays, Lee struck out 11 batters and walked none to give him 21 strikeouts for the series, an AL first round playoff record. There have been eight playoff starts in which a pitcher struck out 10 batters and walked none, and remarkably Lee has made four of them.
Lee was glad he could help the Rangers get out of the first round of the playoffs and is looking forward to taking on the New York Yankees. "It was a lot of fun, I enjoyed it. We are on the next stage and I can't wait to face the Yankees," said Lee.
Even though the Texas Rangers will be facing the reigning World Series champion Yankees, it will be a welcome challenge after a year filled with off-the-field drama. And after all they have overcome this year, this is another battle the Rangers seem poised to win.