For the better part of a month, first-year Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister had played his hot hand like a wizard.
Mike Napoli in left? No problem.
Drew Stubbs for defense in center field? He leapt into the wall and ended the game.
As his come-from-nowhere team ensconced itself in first place in mid-September, Banister became the consensus choice to be named American League manager of the year.
But he’s going to have to explain Saturday. With his team, at various times, handing him 8-6 and 10-6 leads to manage with, Banister monkeyed with the bullpen and the lineup enough that it helped to precipitate a dismaying collapse and an 11-10 defeat.
The Los Angeles Angels scored five times in the top of the ninth and stunned the Rangers, who had been one strike away from claiming the AL West title.
Defiant about his bullpen choices, as he had been the night before in a 2-1 defeat, Banister seemed to suggest that he had the right relievers in the game, “But you’ve got to execute pitches.”
Some did, some didn’t. Starter Colby Lewis opened well, but gave up four straight hits to start the fifth inning and was suddenly gone, trailing 5-1.
As the four-hour game unfolded — unraveled might be the better word — eight more pitchers followed Lewis to the mound.
Chi Chi Gonzalez finished the fifth and pitched relatively well in the sixth, but instead of allowing the rookie to work with an 8-6 lead, Banister lifted him to begin the seventh.
That brought in lefty Jake Diekman, who was allowed to pitch to the right-handed Mike Trout, but not to the right-handed Albert Pujols. That task fell to Keone Kela, whose ailing arm has been an issue at this season’s end.
When Kela couldn’t return for the eighth inning, Banister surprised many by summoning Sam Dyson for the fifth day in a row.
Dyson, however, was up for the challenge, striking out the side. But with a four-run lead, Banister elected to finish the game with closer Shawn Tolleson, even though Tolleson had shown the effects Friday from pitching four nights in a row.
Boom! Boom! Tolleson promptly allowed back-to-back homers to Erick Aybar and Kole Calhoun.
If the Rangers were going to halt the Angels rally and seal the division-clinching victory, the job suddenly was in the hands of veteran Ross Ohlendorf, who had been released by the club July 31.
He failed, surrendering five hits and a crowd-silencing 11th Angels run.
The key play in the visitors’ rally was a pop fly that fell behind first base when Rougned Odor and Napoli couldn’t communicate.
Napoli was at first, because Mitch Moreland was used as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning and removed. And needing a run to tie in the bottom of the ninth, Josh Hamilton — who homered twice — had been replaced for defensive purposes by Will Venable.
Banister, of course, has been making late-inning defensive switches like these for the past month. He probably never expected to need Moreland’s or Hamilton’s bats in the bottom of the ninth.
But if he thought the game was in hand, why did he manage the bullpen so desperately at the end?
The Tolleson thing — five days in a row — was particularly confusing.
“I don’t know if I was apprehensive,” Banister said later, “but I knew that because we had Ohlendorf throwing early that if we got into any trouble, we’d go ahead and make the move.
“Again, it comes down to execution of pitches.”
He will get no argument on that here. But pitching is usually a lot easier when arms are rested and ready.
Plus, it’s reasonable to assume that Kela, Dyson and Tolleson won’t be able to pitchSunday, when the Rangers face a potential do-or-die finale with the Angels.
“We’re definitely stunned by it,” Tolleson said. “It’s not how you want to see it happening.”
In the Rangers clubhouse Saturday, the postgame silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife. You could see where furniture had been moved in anticipation of a celebration.
It was all so Game 6, 2011.
Not entirely, however. On that infamous World Series night, the Rangers were beaten by an excellent St. Louis team with a Hall of Fame manager, playing at home, fighting to stay alive.
On Saturday, let me suggest that the Angels had already given up, down 10-6 as they entered the ninth.
That’s right — given up. Manager Mike Scioscia had used Mat Latos, signed five days ago, to pitch, and even given reliever Jo-Jo Reyes a chance to make his Angels debut.
The Angels must have been as stunned as the Rangers were by the ending.
The difference is that one team Sunday is going to have to deal with squandering a four-run lead.
Angels at Rangers
2:05 p.m. today, FSSW, TBS