BALTIMORE — On the last day of the regular season, with the Texas Rangers trailing the Seattle Mariners 1-0, Marcus Semien came to the plate. Ahead of him to lead off the frame, Evan Carter, the phenom in his first month in the majors, had singled. Semien, representing the go-ahead run, couldn’t help but consider the stakes.
“I hit a homer, I get to go home,” he thought to himself.
He did not hit a homer. Instead, Semien struck out, and two batters later, the Rangers lost the game and lost the American League West to the Houston Astros. In the span of a few hours during which every team played Game 162, the Rangers dropped from the 2 seed to the 5 seed in the AL. After six losing seasons, Texas was headed back to the postseason; but after spending 139 days in first place, the Rangers’ mediocrity over the final month of the regular season saw them fall to the wild card.
If Semien had homered, if they had won, the Rangers would’ve earned a bye to the Division Series. From Seattle, they would’ve gone home to await whichever team advanced out of the wild card. After finishing the season on the road, they would’ve had a chance to relish their advantageous position — and to rest.
Instead, the loss sent them straight from the somber clubhouse to a five-and-a-half-hour flight to Tampa, where they would take on the 99-win Rays in the best-of-three wild card.
“Everyone in the locker room just kind of sat there for a minute, like, ‘Damn, we literally just let that slip through our fingertips,’” said Josh Jung, the Rangers’ third baseman who made the All-Star team his rookie season but was 1-for-13 in the final series in Seattle.
At that point, the Rangers had been away from the Dallas-Fort Worth area for a week. That one loss would wind up doubling the length of their road trip. The team chartered a flight for the players’ families to meet them in Tampa. But not everyone could travel.
For instance, Nathaniel Lowe has a 12-week-old German shepherd puppy named Mondo. He’s exceptionally cute but probably not well-suited to spending the day at a ballpark. And then there’s Semien. His wife is 38 weeks pregnant with their fourth child. She did not make the trip to Tampa with the rest of the families.
“Obviously, I miss my kids and miss my wife,” he said. “Just trying to get back to her before anything happens.”
Given the real-life implications, no one would say that the loss on the last day of the season was the best thing that happened to the Rangers this year. And yet, they haven’t lost since.
“For me, it was a wake-up call — like, now it’s do-or-die time. You either do it, or you don’t do it,” Jung said. “So I think that’s what really got us going.”
The Rangers swept the Rays in decisive fashion. They eked out a 3-2 nail-biter to open the series in Baltimore, leaning on a couple of swingmen pushed into postseason service by injuries to the rotation.
On Sunday, it wasn’t especially pretty. Jordan Montgomery — who, in hindsight, was the most impactful player moved at the trade deadline — hadn’t given up more than a run in each of his previous four starts. But against an Orioles lineup that had gone quietly in Game 1, he gave up five in four innings before turning things over to the historically unreliable Texas bullpen, which gave up another three in the ninth.
But the lineup did what this lineup does when the Rangers win: Rake.
On five hits and a couple of walks, they scored five times in the second inning, driving out Baltimore’s flame-throwing rookie, Grayson Rodriguez, who was making his first playoff start. The following frame, the Orioles’ reliever issued three straight walks to bring up Mitch Garver, who was also making his first start of the playoffs.
A postseason grand slam in a packed opposing ballpark is a strange moment to see live. Necessarily, the bases are loaded, and thus, the tension is high. The stadium is buzzing, the attention rapt. Something big is about to happen. The batter swings, the ball is in the air, and then — wait, where’s the reaction? Without the swell of a pandemonium — from hopeful to delirious — to accompany it, the flight of the ball seems to take forever. And then, the tension is just … gone.
By scoring nine runs before the Orioles even came to bat for the third time, the Rangers quieted the crowd — for a time, anyway, before a futile, ninth-inning rally brought them back to life — and, crucially, gave themselves enough of a cushion to secure an eventual 11-8 victory.
Either way, they were boarding a flight home Sunday night. But, “if you’d told me we’re gonna go home 2-0 after playing a really good Baltimore team that won 101 games, after beating them twice in Baltimore,” Jung said, “I’d have said you were crazy.”
It has been two weeks since the Rangers were last in Texas. Jung said he’s pretty sure he left his truck at the airport. He can’t wait to do laundry, though he might not wash the polo he was wearing the day he went 3-for-4 with a couple of runs scored in Tampa. He has been wearing it every day since — out of necessity, but also because ballplayers are loath to mess with any routine that’s working.
They’ll take their chances, though, that the mojo they’ve found on the road will follow them home.