Playoff races are rarely without bumps
Here's a little warning for Rangers fans who are first-time sufferers of pennant fever
Fair warning to those who are experiencing their first ever pennant race: Do not get comfortable.
You'll know whether you've caught a full-fledged case of pennant fever by the obvious symptoms:
Sound familiar? Got you pegged? I figured as much.
Now back to that warning, and this is as much for the players in the Texas clubhouse as it is for the fans: Don't start thinking that just because the Rangers enter Friday with a cushy 8½-game lead in the American League West that this thing is in the bag. It's not; far from it, in fact.
Seems to me there's a hint of 1996 about this unfolding season -- the faint odor of sweaty armpits and the wet, whispery sound of tightening Adam's apples -- and if I'm right, that means you're going to want to buckle your seatbelt and get a good grip on your emotions, because the bottom is about to drop out at any moment.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think the Rangers are going to blow this, but it is going to get very interesting again at some point, and that's when we'll find out what they're really made of, just like in '96.
"What's going to happen is, [the lead] is going to come back to three or four, or even two games, at some point. They just have to know they're going to win and just go out and play," said former Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore, who was an integral piece on the first Texas team to win a division championship in '96. "I don't think they're going to win by 10 games. They're playing well, but it happens to every team. That lead will shrink. They just can't panic when it does."
The '96 Rangers not only had to hold off the charging Seattle Mariners in the final month of the season, but they had to beat their own history, too. The franchise had existed for 35 years, 24 in Texas, without ever winning anything. Fighting those ghosts was almost as difficult as battling the Mariners.
Here's the short version of what happened that September: Holding a nine-game lead on Sept. 11, the Rangers proceeded to lose nine of 10, including four straight in Seattle, where the series drew almost 158,000 fans to the Kingdome to watch the surging Mariners, who were in the midst of a 10-game winning streak.
When the Rangers opened a three-game series with the California Angels in Anaheim by losing 6-5 in 10 innings, their once "comfortable" nine-game lead had shriveled to one.
"I'm well aware that a nine-game lead in the last couple of weeks of the season can shrink pretty quick," said Rusty Greer, the young starting left fielder on that '96 team. "There's a difference between April baseball and September baseball. No lead is safe until everybody's mathematically out.
"There's no question that the pressure gets ratcheted up a bit. You do your best about trying to control it. You come out in a tight game and you feel the pressure. You want to be the one who gets the big hit, and when you don't you feel like you've let the team down a lot more than in April and May."
The pressure the Rangers were feeling when they arrived at Anaheim Stadium on Sept. 21 was enormous, even with veterans like McLemore, Will Clark, Dave Valle and Mickey Tettleton doing their best to keep the clubhouse calm.
"The pressure was starting to mount," McLemore said. "We handled it well, though. We didn't panic. If we'd panicked we wouldn't have won in the end.
"We were trying to put a band-aid on it. We knew we would come out of it, but we wanted it to be sooner, not later."
What they needed was a pitching performance that took the pressure off everyone else. They got it that day from John Burkett, who went out and beat the Angels 7-1 to halt the five-game losing streak. The Mariners also won, so the lead was still just a single game, but at least the Rangers could breathe again. The next day it was Ken Hill stepping up, beating the Angels 4-1.
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The Rangers returned to Arlington with a two-game lead and led by 3½ games with four to play when the Mariners, who dropped six of their last eight, fell in Oakland, making the Rangers' 4-3, 15-inning loss to the Angels a moot point. They had won their first division championship.
"One of the things we did very well in '96 was block everything out," McLemore recalled. "Nobody was reading the papers, nobody was watching ESPN. All that would have served as a distraction, and we were focused on winning.
"What got us through was having so many veteran guys, so many guys who had been through it or been around the league long enough."
Like this year's Rangers team, that '96 club had unusually strong starting pitching depth. Hill and Bobby Witt each won 16 games. Roger Pavlik won 15, Darren Oliver 14 and Kevin Gross 11. And Burkett, acquired on Aug. 8, was 5-2 during the team's stretch run.
"The one thing that's going to help this team that we didn't really have is Cliff Lee," Greer said. "He's going to help this team as much as anybody. Having him on the mound, that negates any long losing streaks, or at least gives you a chance. That's a big plus they have going for them. He's the showstopper."
They are in a good place, these Texas Rangers. But comfortable? Not by a long shot.
Enjoy the race, but don't say I didn't warn you if there are some excruciating nail-biting moments still to come.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.
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