Tony Barnette pounded his fist into his mitt and let fly with a few choice words. He could do that now: with the bases so full of Angels that they had begun to resemble the night skies of the first Christmas, Elvis Andrus had received the ball from Joey Gallo for the final out, and thus–after a few tense minutes when it had been scarcer than gasoline in a soccer-mom-driven DFW suburb–a fresh shipment of breathable air had finally arrived at Globe Life Park.
The crowd roared.
The Rangers beat the Angels 7-6, winning the three-game series and heading to Atlanta still three games back in the Wild Card chase, but refusing to die. “That’s who they are,” Jeff Banister said after the game. “That’s their DNA, that’s why I love…” he paused and cocked his head to one side, motioning with both hands to signal a loss of words. “They…” another pause, and six short shakes of the head. Another two-handed bewilderment. “Written off… they’re not giving up.”
Today’s win, I’ll just come out and say it, featured two home runs from Elvis Andrus and two singles from Joey Gallo, so anything was on the table. But if everything is exceptional, nothing is, so baseball first decided to set a test group. Martin Perez struggled in the first inning, and C.J. Cron hit a 2-run double.
But Texas didn’t allow that to stand for long: in the second inning, with two on and two outs, Will Middlebrooks came to the plate. It was his first at-bat at the big league level with the Texas Rangers–the team Middlebrooks cheered for as a kid. After fouling off the first pitch, the former Red Sox, Padres, and Brewers infielder swung again, grounding a ball between third and short for an RBI single.
“That was one of the most special ones for me, in my career, probably,” Middlebrooks said after the game. But if the first RBI was special, Middlebrooks had a much greater moment coming later.
But first, Texas needed to score some more runs. They did so in the third (Elvis Andrus solo homer to tie it) and fourth (back-to-back home runs by Robinson Chirinos and Delino DeShields to make it 5-2) innings. The Angels would take one run back in the fifth when–and I know this sentence is getting old–Albert Pujols drove home Mike Trout with an RBI single.
Then came the sixth, and after a one-out, ten-pitch single by Kole Calhoun drove Martin Perez’ pitch count up to 106, the world expected a Jeff Banister appearance. Instead, there was only Perez, still standing on the mound, waiting for Martin Maldonado to step into the box. Perez struck the catcher out on four pitches, but at 110 pitches for the game, there was still no Banister. Still only Perez, still standing on the mound, waiting now for Cliff Pennington.
On Martin Perez’ 114th pitch, Pennington hit a grounder to third base that went through Joey Gallo’s legs. It wasn’t Perez’ fault, but his day was surely over. Right? Yes, there came Jeff Banister. But wait-- There was no motion to the mound. Instead, there was a vote of confidence. “This is your ballgame,” Banister said to Perez. “This is your guy. Make good pitches.” Then he returned to the dugout. And again there was only Perez.
You could make the argument that pitch #117 wasn’t the best pitch the Venezuelan lefty had thrown all day, but it might have been the best moment of the day: Brandon Phillips hit a 73mph line drive that appeared to be heading for right field. As it passed over the ground where Middlebrooks–playing first base today–was standing, it did so at a height of about ten feet, maybe more. And then it stopped, mid-air, captured in the glove of a man who was closer to the sky than even he realized he could go. After the game, Middlebrooks admitted that he had even surprised himself. “J-Up and Brandon asked me later, ‘When did you learn to jump like that?’” the Texan chuckled. “I said ‘I have no idea.’ I have no idea where that came from.”
Maybe it came from the same magical place as Andrus’ second home run, which followed a Delino DeShields walk in the bottom half of the inning. At that point, the score was 7-3. Nick Gardewine pitched a tempestuous-but-ultimately-scoreless seventh inning, Jason Grilli pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, and in the ninth, needing just three outs to clinch the series win, the big vacuum began to swiftly pull the air from the stadium.
Brandon Phillips singled, then Mike Trout doubled. Banister called on Tony Barnette to face Justin Upton. But Barnette walked Upton to load the bases, and now he would be facing Albert Pujols, who was 7-for-13 with two walks in the series, but 0-for-8 with a hit-by-pitch in his career against Barnette.
Make it an even .500 and an even .000, respectively. Pujols popped out to second base.
Andrelton Simmons ...did not. His double cleared Nomar Mazara’s glove in left field and bounced off the wall, scoring two and turning the stadium vacuum up. Gravity loosened its grip on the inhabitants of the stadium. With runners at second and third, Barnette struck out C.J. Cron, but then Banister opted to intentionally walk Calhoun for the second out. It was 7-5, and the bases were loaded. Again.
Hot dog wrappers began to float out of the aisles
Barnette walked Caleb Cowart. 7-6. One man’s glass eye popped out of his head. A baby attempted to scream, but the sound stuck in her throat, finding nary a molecule of oxygen on which to ride.
Called strike. Foul ball. Ball one.
A popcorn stand exploded.
A grounder to third.
Gallo fielded it cleanly and carefully threw to second base, the ball arriving just ahead of Cowart.
They’re still alive.