ST PETERSBURG, FL - OCTOBER 04: Adrian Beltre #29 of the Texas Rangers celebrates with teammate Yorvit Torrealba #8 after Beltre hits a second inning solo home run off pitcher Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Four of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field on October 4, 2011 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Beltre slugged three homers, Ian Kinsler added a fourth, and the Rangers' arms kept the Rays quiet as Texas eliminated Tampa Bay in four games and moved on.
The first angle: the Texas Rangers became the Texas Rangers in 1972. They didn't win their first playoff game until 1996. They didn't win their first playoff series until 2010. Now they've won three playoff series in a calendar year.
The second angle: it was less than a week ago that Jonathan Papelbon melted down and, minutes later, Evan Longoria ripped a walk-off home run to send the Tampa Bay Rays to the playoffs on one of the most dramatic nights in baseball history. As the Rays celebrated on the field, a number of people took to referring to them as a team of destiny.
The third angle: Adrian Beltre!
Tuesday afternoon, before a non-sellout crowd in Tropicana Field, the Rangers had an opportunity to eliminate the Rays in four games. They seized that opportunity, winning 4-3 and becoming the first team to advance to the second round.
The Rangers took the lead almost instantly, and never looked back. The second pitch of the game was an elevated changeup that Jeremy Hellickson threw to Ian Kinsler, and Kinsler pulled it into the left field bleachers for a leadoff home run. It was the 21st leadoff home run of Kinsler's career, if you wish to combine regular season and playoff statistics.
An inning later, Hellickson made another mistake. This time - again on his second pitch of the frame - he threw a thigh-high fastball over the inner half to Adrian Beltre, and Beltre crushed it out to left. That doubled the Rangers' lead, and, of course, it wasn't the last we'd hear from Beltre on the day.
Minutes later, the Rays got that run back. With Sean Rodriguez running from first base, Matt Joyce clubbed a double to right, bringing Rodriguez all the way around. He had to survive a wicked collision with Mike Napoli, but he jarred the ball loose, nobody died, and the Rays trimmed the score to 2-1.
The score held that way into the top of the fourth, when Beltre stepped in for a second time and went deep for a second time. This time Hellickson worked him away instead of inside, but Beltre rode an outside fastball out on a line to right-center field. The Rangers were up 3-1 on the strength of three solo homers.
The Rays responded once more in the bottom half. Rodriguez again got himself on base and again came around, this time on a two-out single by Casey Kotchman. Even though to that point the Rays had struck out nine times against Matt Harrison, they'd still produced enough offense to stay alive.
It was 3-2 in the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth, before Beltre provided some insurance for Texas to lead off the seventh. Having entered earlier in relief of Hellickson, phenom Matt Moore challenged Beltre with a first-pitch high fastball, but Beltre caught up to it and launched the ball out to left. It wasn't just a crucial solo home run - it was Beltre's third home run of the game.
Those were the first three playoff home runs of Beltre's career. It was the first time Beltre's ever hit three homers in a game. It was also just the seventh time a player has hit three home runs in a game in the playoffs, with the most recent instance before Beltre being Adam Kennedy in 2002. So now Adrian Beltre and Adam Kennedy have more than one thing in common.
Derek Holland and Mike Adams protected that 4-2 lead in the seventh, and Alexi Ogando protected it in the eighth. After Wade Davis worked out of a jam in the top of the ninth, the Rays were down to their last licks against Neftali Feliz in the bottom. They put together a rally and Rodriguez scored his third run on another Kotchman single, but with the tying run on base, Matt Joyce popped out and Desmond Jennings bounced a routine grounder to second. Kinsler flipped the ball to Elvis Andrus, and six days after they were declared a team of destiny, the Rays were done, and the Rangers were celebrating on the Tropicana turf.
The Rangers obviously don't yet know who they'll face in the ALCS, or where they'll go, but they know they'll get started this coming Saturday, and they know they'll have everyone all fully rested. It's good to be Texas.