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Rangers face Golden opportunity in St. Pete

Rangers face Golden opportunity in St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG -- In two weeks, the Rangers will celebrate their Golden Anniversary.

That's right, it was on Oct. 26, 1960, that the American League awarded an expansion franchise to Washington D.C. after the old Senators deserted the city for Minnesota. The Rangers and the Angels were the 17th and 18th franchises to enter into Major League Baseball.

Fifty years and one move to Texas later, the Rangers are about to play the biggest game in franchise history. Because, 50 years later, the Rangers remain the only one of the now 30 franchises to have never advanced to the League Championship Series.

The Rangers, once again, have a chance to change that when they play the Rays in Game 5 of the ALDS at 7:07 p.m. CT Tuesday at Tropicana Field. Cliff Lee pitches for Texas against Tampa Bay's David Price, a 19-game winner. It is the Rangers' third and last shot at wrapping up the series.

"Everybody looks good, everybody is upbeat and everybody is ready to go," pitcher Darren Oliver said Monday at Tropicana Field.

If the Rangers win, they will open the ALCS against the Yankees on Friday night at the Ballpark in Arlington. Lose and there will be much soul-searching on how they let a 2-0 series lead slip away against the Rays, especially when they needed to win just one of two games at the Ballpark.

The Rangers won the first two games at Tropicana Field last week, but the Rays stormed back to win twice over the weekend in Arlington. It is now a best-of-five reduced to one game.

"Well, we're ready to go," manager Ron Washington said. "We won here; they won at our place. We've got two of the best pitchers going tomorrow, and when it's all over, the team that scores the most runs will get it. And I hope it's us."

This is easily the biggest moment in franchise history. Certainly, the Rangers have been in the playoffs before, losing three times to the Yankees in 1996 and 1998-99. But they lost in four terrific games in '96 and were swept in three games in 1998-99.

Never have they been in a situation where they have been one game away from advancing to their first ALCS. Never have they had three chances to win that one game and missed on the first two.

This is the first "win-and-advance, lose-and-go-home" game in franchise history.

"We're not really worried about what the franchise has accomplished, what's happened in the past," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "It really has no bearing on what we're doing right now. We're just trying to win a game and move on. I mean, that's basically it.

"When it comes down to Game 5, honestly there's really no pressure. You either play well or you go home. You know, that's what we're trying to accomplish. We're trying to move on and we'll see what happens."

The closest the Rangers have ever come to a situation this dire was on Sept. 21, 1996. Trying to nail down the first division championship in franchise history, Texas had lost nine of 10. In the course of 10 days, their lead in the AL West had dwindled from nine to one game over the Mariners. They were tied in the loss column.

Then John Burkett beat the Angels, 7-1, on Saturday, Sept. 21, and Ken Hill followed with a 4-1 victory on Sunday. Those two games remain the two biggest victories in Rangers history. Texas held on to win the division and avoided a collapse of historical proportions that could have easily haunted the franchise for years to come.

A loss on Tuesday night certainly might be no more than a bump in the road ahead. Go back to 1995 when the Yankees, in the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, won the first two games of the ALDS against the Mariners, then lost three straight and were eliminated. The Yankees certainly recovered from that by winning four World Series titles in the next five years.

Maybe CEO Chuck Greenberg is prophetic when he says the Rangers' future is only getting better. But losing to the Rays after holding a 2-0 lead is not the way the Rangers want their season to end, not when so many moves were made this summer to assure they not only win their division, but, as many put it, "go deep into the playoffs."

"When we started, it was a five-game series. It ended up being a five-game series," Washington said. "This is what it's about now. They have the right person they feel that's going to be throwing tomorrow, and we certainly feel the same way.

"So it's a matter of going out there, getting Cliff some runs, and if we get him some runs, he'll take it to the finish line. That's what it's all about."

The Rangers caught a late-morning charter flight to St. Petersburg on Monday. They checked into their hotel, and many players went to Tropicana Field for an optional workout. Then it was back to the hotel, dinner and whatever other preparations need to be made.

"We're pretty loose in there," outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "Today was pretty much an optional workout. And I think if you go in there, I think every player is here for the most part, especially position-player-wise, you don't really want to take a day off hitting before going into tomorrow.

"We had an opportunity to close out at home. We're obviously disappointed that we couldn't do that. ... At the same time, if you go before the series and you say we'll have Cliff on the mound in Game 5 with a chance to win, I would have taken it, and I'm sure a lot of the guys in that clubhouse would. It'll be a lot of fun tomorrow night."

It could also be historical, possibly the biggest moment ever for a franchise about to turn 50.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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