Rangers' trusty bullpen can't deliver
Implosion in eighth inning against Yankees stuns normally reliable unit in Game 1 loss
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Darren Oliver stood at his locker in the corner of a Rangers clubhouse quieter than some libraries and shrugged his shoulders.
The 40-year-old veteran of six playoff runs isn't surprised by much these days. But the Rangers' bullpen implosion in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday -- a group effort that turned a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit before they could even get an out in the eighth inning -- left Oliver stunned.
"I'm sure innings like that have happened before," Oliver said. "I just haven't seen it."
One by one, four Rangers relievers walked to the mound in the eighth inning only to have the ghosts of playoffs past -- cloaked in road navy blue and gray -- haunt them like it was 1999, or '98 or '96. The Yankees quickly dispatched of those Rangers teams, including a pivotal Game 3 comeback in Arlington in 1996 that Oliver wants to forget.
After a sterling start, Oliver allowed back-to-back hits -- yes, one of those to then-rookie Derek Jeter -- and the Yankees ended up scoring two runs off the bullpen in the eighth inning to take the lead and get the ALCS win. They went on to win the World Series and begin a run of dominance.
Friday's collapse was much larger. The Rangers were six outs away from a commanding 1-0 lead, if there is such a thing in a seven-game series. With Cliff Lee looming in Game 3, the Rangers were poised to put all the pressure on the Yankees in Game 2.
Instead, the normally reliable Rangers relief corps couldn't get the job done. The Rangers tied an LCS record with five pitchers in one inning on Friday, four of them out of the bullpen. And their inability to get outs dropped the Rangers to 0-7 all-time in home playoff games.
"We all picked a bad night to have a bad night," Darren O'Day said.
The absence of injured set-up man Frank Francisco in the postseason has forced Rangers manager Ron Washington to mix-and-match in the eighth inning. Once again, it made things difficult on Friday.
After left-handed starter C.J. Wilson put the first two batters on base, Washington went to the bullpen. He brought in the lefty Oliver, his most experienced postseason pitcher, to throw to switch-hitters Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira.
Oliver went to 3-2 counts twice. And both times he couldn't get fastballs over for strikes.
"I don't know the last time I walked two guys in a row," Oliver said. "I didn't have the command. I just didn't have it."
The walks loaded the bases for former Ranger Alex Rodriguez, who was booed lustily all evening. Washington decided to bring in right-handed submariner O'Day to pitch to him. A-Rod had seen O'Day twice in his career and had struck out both times. He didn't wait around to get into a bad count this time.
"That's a hitter's dream -- bases loaded, no outs and nowhere to put you," Rodriguez said. "I felt if I could just get a good pitch to hit, just hit it hard somewhere."
The first pitch was the one Rodriguez liked and he hit a line drive just off the glove of third baseman Michael Young, scoring Jeter and Swisher to cut the Yankees' deficit to one run.
"I wanted to get a ground ball and he hit it harder than I wanted and to the wrong spot," O'Day said.
O'Day's night was done after one fateful pitch. Washington turned to lefty Clay Rapada to get left-handed hitting Robinson Cano. Rapada was put on the playoff roster mainly to pitch to Cano. And like O'Day, his outing lasted one pitch.
"I know against me with runners on base, he has taken the first pitch," Rapada said. "So I felt confident in throwing a sinker away. It was away, but not as low as I wanted it."
Cano hit it to center field, scoring Teixeira to tie the score. That brought up the seventh hitter of the inning, Marcus Thames, against new pitcher Derek Holland. Thames hit a flare to left field, allowing Teixeira to trot home with the eventual winning run.
Washington used an LCS record-tying five pitchers in the same inning and none of them could get any of the first seven batters. The result was a 6-5 deficit and a crowd of 50,930 that looked like deer in the headlights when they sported their antlers.
The question now is whether the Rangers bullpen has the confidence to bounce back. They struggled with a 5.27 ERA in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, blowing a 2-1 lead after seven innings in Game 3. If they had preserved that win, Lee would have started on Friday night opposite CC Sabathia.
Now the bullpen has let two of the past three home games get away. They may get a quick chance for redemption. Texas and New York start at 3:07 p.m. CT for Game 2, less than 24 hours after Game 1 even started.
"This is a tough one, that's for sure," O'Day said. "It happens. There's no added pressure. Everybody feels good. There's really no explaining it. We have to forget about it. There's no choice. That's what we'll do and get back after it. We all have to be ready when we get the ball again and we will."