ARLINGTON -- Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux was asked if the pitching in the first two games of the American League Division Series had exceeded his wildest dreams."I don't know. ... I've had some pretty wild dreams," Maddux said. So have Rangers fans over the past 11 long seasons, especially when it comes to pitching, and those fantastical visions of grandeur are starting to come true. Two convincing victories over the Rays in St. Petersburg have the Rangers one game away from the AL Championship Series, and they'll be going for the sweep on Saturday afternoon at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Game 3 begins at 4:07 p.m. CT with Colby Lewis on the mound, and a sellout crowd -- many outfitted in the latest in "Claw and Antlers" gear -- is expected as the Rangers try to wrap up their first playoff series win in franchise history."That would be great," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "That's the goal, to win this thing as fast as possible. We have our chance tomorrow. It should be a lot of fun." It will be the fifth postseason game at the Ballpark in Arlington and the first since Oct. 9, 1999. The Rangers have never won a playoff game here, losing twice to the Yankees in '96 and one more each in '98 and '99. They did not score a run in Game 3 in either '98 or '99. But in both years, the Rangers had returned home having lost two games in New York. This time they've come back with a 2-0 lead over the Rays after their 5-1 victory on Wednesday and 6-0 win on Thursday. "We hope it's loud and [the fans] bring a ton of energy," third baseman Michael Young said. "As players we prepare the same way, but we're hoping to feed off the crowd's energy." Rangers fans have a tendency to arrive late to games but might consider getting to the Ballpark early on Saturday. The pregame festivities include Johnny Oates II, the 8-year-old grandson of former Rangers manager Johnny Oates, throwing out the first pitch. He will be accompanied to the mound by former Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore, and Rusty Greer, a member of the club's Hall of Fame, will catch Oates' pitch. Country music legend Charley Pride, a longtime Rangers fan and a member of the new ownership group, will sing the national anthem. A flyover of four F-16s from the 301st Fighter Squadron of the Fort Worth Naval Air Station follows the national anthem. All tickets for the game have been sold. And because a college football game will be played down the street at the nearby NFL stadium and the Cowboys have a home game on Sunday, traffic and parking will be complicated -- more reason to arrive early -- but the biggest event in Arlington will be at the Ballpark. "Seeing the way these crowds have been this year has been incredible," shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "Even on Monday and Tuesday, it's almost been packed. [On Saturday], to look out there and see that, it's going to be fun out there. You need that. The fans have been magnificent. ... Tremendous." There will also be a national TV audience watching and getting a chance to see what the Rangers bring to the AL playoffs. And after an 11-year absence from the postseason, the Rangers are flourishing on the big stage. "Now that we're on the big stage, people are realizing we didn't back into this division title," manager Ron Washington said. "We have a good club. As we move forward, people are going to change their minds and perceptions of the Texas Rangers. But in our minds, we're a good club. We're playing baseball." Prior to this season, there were 38 instances in which a team won the first two games of a Division Series. Of those 38 series, only four ended up going five games. In all four cases, the team that lost the first two games ended up winning the series. However, 25 of those 38 series ended up quickly, with a three-game sweep. The Rangers are only the seventh team to win the first two games of a Division Series on the road. Of the first six teams to do it, five ended up winning the series. The 2001 Yankees, going against the Athletics, are the only team to lose the first two games of a Division Series at home and then come back to win three straight. "It is the toughest thing to do, close out," Washington said. "But you have to stay in the moment. I don't know what's going to happen in the next couple of days here, but I do know one thing. We're ready to play." The Rangers have dominated the series to this point, mainly because of the pitching of Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson. A franchise long known for great offense won the first two games by holding the opposition to just one run on eight hits over 18 innings. The pitchers walked five and struck out 23, and the Rays have gone 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position. B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria -- Nos. 2-4 in the Rays' order -- are a combined 2-for-24. Rangers fans have long wondered what would happen if their team had first-class pitching. They're getting a chance to see that right now. "We knew pitching would have to be our backbone if we were going to get where we wanted to go," outfielder David Murphy said. "History has shown the Texas Rangers have had incredible lineups that didn't get to the postseason. Now there has definitely been a changing of the guard. It has been awesome to see how our pitching has evolved." But the pitching hasn't exceeded Washington's wildest dreams. "No, it's exactly what we all knew they were capable of doing," Washington said. "There have been a lot of instances through this year that we've seen this. It's magnified, because it's the playoffs, but C.J. has done that before. It's not like it's the first time for him. Cliff has done that before, it's not like it's his first time, either. We've just pitched well in the first two games." They still have one more game to go. After that comes the AL Championship Series and a possible rematch with the Yankees, who have a 2-0 lead over the Twins in the other ALDS matchup. The Rangers have no thoughts of looking that far ahead right now. "That's the easiest part of our job," Young said. "We do a good job of focusing on the game that day and night. We're going full throttle in Game 3." They expect the crowd to do the same.
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.