Gil LeBreton

Rangers pop the corks on a vintage season

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Nick Martinez (middle top) leaps to celebrate with Rangers' teammates following their 9-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels.
Texas Rangers starting pitcher Nick Martinez (middle top) leaps to celebrate with Rangers' teammates following their 9-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels. Special to the Star-Telegram

For the record, the beer was Budweiser.

The champagne was Michelle Sparkling Brut — $14.99 a bottle.

The spraying celebrants were the Texas Rangers, vintage 2015.

A touch flat at first taste, the 2015-vintage Rangers proved to be stubborn and well-rounded, with a salty blend of young and mature grapes.

Very intoxicating, as it turned out.

And on a sunny, final day of the regular season, as befit their resilient nature, they popped the cork on the American League West title Sunday by defeating the Los Angeles Angels 9-2.

In the celebrating clubhouse, co-owner Ray Davis wore his new gray T-shirt with “The West is Ours” proclaimed across the front. He was soaked with champagne, just like his team.

“I’m just happy for the whole organization,” Davis said behind a broad smile. “The scouts, the coaches, the front office and these players — just the whole organization.

“It’s been a great year.”

He was right, but the Rangers of 2015 weren’t always so easy on the palate.

“We talked to them in spring training, when Yu Darvish went down,” manager Jeff Banister said, “and we reminded them that nobody in baseball feels sorry for anybody else.”

Darvish’s season was over before it began. He underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in March.

Left-hander Derek Holland lasted just one inning of the home opener before he, too, suffered an injury that would sideline him for four months.

The first month of the season was no elixir. On May 3, the Rangers lost to the Oakland Athletics 7-1 to drop their record to 8-16, last place in the division and 9  1/2 games behind the Houston Astros.

“But they were determined to get this done,” Banister said Sunday. “They proved early on that they were resilient.

“Nobody believed they could do this, but these guys kept behind one another. Then, the front office went out and got the help for us.

“It’s been an incredible job by these guys — all of them.”

No sooner had Banister, standing in a corner of the clubhouse, offered that tribute, when a beer-soaked visitor walked up to congratulate him.

Banister and the man who hired him, general manager Jon Daniels, embraced in a long hug.

It took the best from both of them, as it turned out, to get to the 2015 postseason.

On May 3, from the deepest abyss of the AL West, shortstop Elvis Andrus was bungling routine plays and batting .224. Third baseman Adrian Beltre, a career .285 hitter, saw his average at .216. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was batting a confounding .141.

Banister’s lineup included Carlos Peguero in left field and Kyle Blanks at first base. His bullpen choices that day included Alex Claudio and Stolmy Pimentel.

“We knew there were still a lot of games to play,” Andrus said. “In July and August, we started getting everybody back. Then came the trades. Soon the whole team was back.”

Throughout those disappointing first three months, Daniels’ faith in the team appeared to be fueled by the law of averages as much as anything. There were too many players underperforming not to believe they would rebound.

And lo and behold, they did.

Choo began the final day of the season batting .343 since the All-Star break. Second baseman Rougned Odor raised his average 117 points after returning from a demotion to Triple A.

With the Rangers getting healthier and more productive, Daniels pulled the trigger at the July deadline on the Cole Hamels trade — the results of which were vividly on display Sunday.

But Daniels didn’t stop there, transforming what had been an erratic bullpen by acquiring Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson and buttressing the lineup with low-cost deals for Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli.

The Rangers ended up winning 10 consecutive games with lefty Hamels on the mound. On Sept. 14, the Rangers began what would become a four-game sweep of the Astros, and the next day they seized first place.

“It shows how much heart we have,” Andrus said.

Banister was asked Sunday how he felt personally to make the postseason as a manager for the first time.

“Incredible,” he answered. “Emotional. It’s something I’ll probably never forget.

“They believed in themselves. The ‘never quit’ thing was more than a phrase. They truly never quit.”

Instead, the 2015 Texas Rangers turned their season around in memorable and dramatic fashion.

Like a good wine, they became an acquired taste. The AL West became theirs.

Very intoxicating, as it turned out Sunday.

And too resilient to quit.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton, @gilebreton

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