We like to periodically ask ourselves the question of what else the game can possibly throw at us that we've never seen before and that we'll never end up forgetting after we've seen it ... and though this may be a bit presumptuous on my end, I'm going to go ahead and state that Game 3 of this year's Rangers/Rays ALDS was a game that we're not going to forget for a surprisingly long time. In the 40-year history of this franchise, in fact, I'm not sure that there has ever been a more tense game played with more at stake than the one we watched unfold last night. Yes, even including last year's playoff run.
This little story ends with a heart-stopping, game-ending, around-the-horn double play that left Texas needing only nine more good innings to advance to its second consecutive ALCS (a feat that only the Red Sox and Yankees have accomplished in the last 10 years), but it begins with the pitcher that we never did find ourselves completely trusting this year -- a developed apprehension that came about simply because he never gave us sufficient reason to trust him this year. Between the coming-and-going fastball command, the extreme homer proneness at the Ballpark and backsliding strikeout rate, the pause-generating outbursts of frustration, and the mysterious but apparently long-term hip problem that may well have been a contributing factor to all of his ills, it was damn hard to begrudge anyone their rightful share of frustration with Colby Lewis.
And yet for all of that frustration, Lewis still pitched at the level of a decent No. 4 (or very solid No. 5) starter for a championship-caliber team -- and then, yesterday, he goes and pulls that out of his hat. From 1903 up through the beginning of Monday's games, major league pitchers had made 2,602 individual post-season starts. Only 17 of those starts comprised six or more innings in conjunction with one or fewer hits allowed, with the most recent of those being Roy Halladay's successful no-hit bid against the Reds last October 6th. Lewis is now the 18th member of that exclusive club *, by virtue of having slung six innings of one-run, one-hit, six-strikeout, and two-walk baseball yesterday.
[* Amazing fact No. 2: Lewis is only the eighth pitcher in baseball history to record a post-season start of six or more innings while recording six or more strikeouts and one or fewer hits. The other seven pitchers constitute very select company: Halladay (during his no-hitter last October, as already mentioned), Roger Clemens (9.0 IP, 1 H, 15 K in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS), Orlando Hernandez (7.0 IP, 1 H, 10 K in Game 1 of the 1999 World Series), Kevin Millwood (9.0 IP, 1 H, 8 K in Game 2 of the 1999 NLDS), Mike Mussina (8.0 IP, 1 H, 10 K in Game 6 of the 1997 ALCS), Tom Glavine (8.0 IP, 1 H, 8 K in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series), and Don Larsen ... well, that one speaks for itself.]
If you dig around enough through the mound of post-Game 3 articles this morning, you'll find that the predominant media narrative around Lewis concerns him surpassing Cliff Lee as baseball's best post-season pitcher over the last two seasons. I'm not sure how good I'll feel about that lofty distinction carrying over against the Tigers or Yankees (particularly if a home start at the Ballpark is required, given his far inferior strikeout-to-walk and home run numbers in his own house), but that's a concern that's probably best scrutinized another day. Lewis delivered as he needed to in one of the most important games of his professional life, and he deserves every plaudit that gets thrown his way.
The other predominant media narrative surrounding this game concerns Mike Napoli, for whom I've just about run out of appropriate superlatives. He's already pulled off a regular-season campaign that ranks among the greatest offensive campaigns from a catcher in baseball history (on a rate basis, at the very least), and now he's trying to drag this sputtering Rangers offense kicking and screaming into the ALCS all by himself. Aside from his script-flipping two-run shot in the seventh inning that undid all of the good work David Price had done up to that point, Napoli executed a successful pitchout caught-stealing on B.J. Upton (then the tying run) with no outs in the eighth inning, and then, moments after failing to corral a Neftali Feliz wild pitch, called for and smothered an inning-ending Feliz slider in the dirt with both the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position. Honestly, I don't know what else you can say -- the man just does it all.
At the risk of being swallowed up by my own hyperbole, Napoli may be the single most dangerous position player taking the field for any of the eight remaining playoff teams, and even if that bold claim doesn't quite stand up to more rigorous testing, he's still a damn fine answer to any one of Miguel Cabrera or Ryan Braun or Curtis Granderson. It has literally gotten to the point where if Napoli is bound and determined to get to the World Series, I expect that he'll carry this entire damn team on his back in order to do it. I realize I'm beginning to steer into a realm of hyperbole usually reserved only for Michael Young, so I'm going to slam on the brakes now ... but, seriously, what a damn player.
This has been such a sunshine-and-lollipops post that I hate to bring down the room even for a moment, but I have to say this: what the hell was that out of Mike Adams? Bear in mind that I'm not granting Darren Oliver a free pass here, because yielding hits to three out of the four left-handed batters you're charged with mowing down isn't an acceptable outcome (even if one of those hits was largely a product of Mitch Moreland diving for a ball that he should have given up to Ian Kinsler), but Adams was hopelessly atrocious. How atrocious, you ask? Out of 5,450 individual post-season relief appearances from 1903 up through Sunday's games, Adams now stands out as just the second pitcher ever to allow at least three walks and at least one home run while recording less than three outs during a single playoff relief appearance. The other? Baseball's Michael Jackson. Adams cannot afford to even come close to pulling something like that again.
You can say that's mostly on Ron Washington and Mike Maddux for not pulling the plug on Adams sooner, but I don't really fault them for trusting in their wipeout eighth-inning man that had been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball up until that exact moment in time -- and, really, I think they did a very good job of handling the matchups and managing the pitching staff last night. If you disagree, then maybe you have a legitimate gripe that I'm not assigning enough weight to ... or maybe, just maybe, you're setting an impossibly high bar that no other coaching staff in the league would meet with the exact same personnel on hand. I'm down with either possibility.
I'm also down with Matt Harrison slamming the door shut on this thing this afternoon, and I'm feeling really damn good about that eventuality coming to pass. Because being classified as a "team of destiny" isn't really so helpful when you're running up against the will of Mike Napoli.