ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- As soon as Elvis Andrus caught the final out, a harmless popup, to give the Texas Rangers their biggest win in franchise history, Nolan Ryan stood up, clapped and shook his head.
Ryan, the club president and part-owner, knew that what he had witnessed was the biggest win for a franchise without many big wins since arriving in Arlington in 1972. The 5-1 victory Tuesday over the Tampa Bay Rays in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the ALDS means the Rangers are no longer the only organization in baseball without a playoff series win. That streak went back to when the organization was born in 1961 as the Washington Senators.
"I thought about the history of this organization and how important a step this was because we've never done it," Ryan said moments after congratulating manager Ron Washington on the Tropicana Field turf with a big hug. "But I was also just a nervous wreck."
Ryan, who made a Hall of Fame career out of making batters nervous, wasn't worried about Cliff Lee.
"He never wavered," Ryan said. "But because of what happened Saturday, they [the Rays] are the type of club with their speed and bullpen that you can't take anything for granted. But Cliff just went right at them."
Lee was the story Tuesday, throwing a complete-game gem that included 11 strikeouts and no walks, an amazing achievement that he made look easy. He used all his pitches, including a devastating slow curve, to keep the Rays off the bases and the Rangers' relievers in the bullpen. The outing made the Rangers the first team to capture a series with all its wins on the road.
It was impressive enough that Ryan wanted to be sure he pulled Lee aside on the field and had a word with him.
"I told him I thought that was two of the best performances I've seen in a long time," Ryan said. "And I told him I appreciated him stepping up the way he did. Tonight was the exact reason we went out and got him."
The staff members who made that trade and so many others that were key components in building the 2010 Rangers sat behind the visitors dugout and, for once, didn't do much texting. They were transfixed on the diamond to see whether the team they assembled over a five-year period could knock down four decades of history.
Wednesday was validation for general manager Jon Daniels and his young and energetic staff. They built a team designed to be more versatile than the AL West-winning versions of the late 1990s. Those teams bashed their way to division titles only to exit the postseason with a whimper when the bats failed and the pitching couldn't quite get it done.
Daniels took a chance on a first-time manager in Washington and his ability to motivate a team. Washington stressed aggressive baserunning and an opportunistic offense that could hit the long ball but move runners over when needed, too. It took some time to develop it, but all of that came into play in Game 5.
Texas scored three runs thanks to aggressive baserunning by Andrus, Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero that forced the Rays into mistakes. Ian Kinsler provided a cushion with the long ball, and Lee did what he's done throughout his brief but impressive postseason career: win. Lee is now 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA in seven postseason starts. His teams have won all those outings.
The players who helped the Rangers win Game 5 were all acquired by Daniels' troop.
Guerrero was an offseason signing, a deal sealed when Washington and Daniels flew to his California home in January to make the sales pitch personally.
Lee was quick to credit catcher Bengie Molina for calling a good game on Tuesday. Molina teamed up with Lee for both of his victories in the series and arrived in Texas about a month before Lee in a trade with the Giants.
And, of course, there's Lee. Daniels pulled the trigger on the biggest deal of the season in early July, including highly rated prospect Justin Smoak. There can be little doubt about how big a trade that is now for this franchise.
"This win helps everything," said Scott Servais, the Rangers' senior director of player development. "It just gives us so much more credibility in the game in who we are and what our group has put together.
"When you go to the winter meetings and in a house to sign kids, you seek to create a winning tradition. This is the group that's going to start that. You have to have your homegrown guys; you have to trade some of those guys to get pieces. It's a tremendous club with great makeup, and they play as a team."
Michael Young celebrated with his teammates, wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the many bottles of champagne poured on his head. He always believed he would do something special in a Rangers uniform.
"Right now this is the best team in franchise history," Young said. "It's a good team from top to bottom, an incredible group of guys, guys who believe in the guy next to them, and it's not going to stop now. We knew it was a matter of time. It's too special a place to play, too good a group of fans. I can't wait to get back to our home ballpark. They deserve a league championship series, and they're going to get it now."
In the middle of a crazy celebration that started, by the way, with ginger ale so that Josh Hamilton could be a part of it, stood managing general partner Chuck Greenberg.
He doesn't have the history of some of the longtime members of the organization who were in attendance Tuesday, such as former GM Tom Grieve and radio play-by-play man Eric Nadel. But the outpouring of support he's received since going head-to-head with Mark Cuban and winning in an August auction has given him an understanding of the franchise's past. He was doused with champagne and beer in a soaking clubhouse at Tropicana Field.
"I know how much this means to people," Greenberg said. "I know how much people had their doubts after the weekend. History doesn't matter. History doesn't throw a ball. History doesn't swing a bat. History belongs to those who make it. Our guys made history today. This is our history now."