Make no mistake. The sight of their spiritual leader and unofficial captain, their man of iron, Adrian Beltre, limping off the field in the third inning could have been deflating.
“But look,” manager Jeff Banister said. “This is a group of guys that find a way.”
No Beltre, no problem, as it turned out.
The bottom of the Texas Rangers lineup — catcher Robinson Chirinos and spunky Rougned Odor — produced four of their five runs, and Banister boldly mixed and matched his bullpen through the final 12 outs Thursday.
The Rangers stunned the favored Toronto Blue Jays 5-3 in Game 1 of their best-of-five American League Division Series.
Beltre’s status for Game 2 remains in doubt. But as Banister pointed out, it wouldn’t be the first time that his ballclub had to replace the future Hall of Famer.
“There was a stretch that we played when we didn’t have Adrian,” Banister reminded. “So we know how to play when we’re faced with that kind of adversity.”
On paper, there was no more impending adversity than opening postseason play on the road against the powerful, home run-hitting Toronto lineup.
But Banister’s pitching choice, right-hander Yovanni Gallardo, silenced the first nine Blue Jays in order and was able to log five innings while allowing only four hits and two runs.
It was enough to stake the Rangers to a lead the bullpen refused to surrender.
Banister’s twist Thursday was to trust the scouting reports and ignore the conventional roles that his relievers held for most of the season.
That sent rookie Keone Kela to the mound to pitch the sixth inning. Kela was followed by long, lanky lefty Jake Diekman, who pitched perfect seventh and eighth innings.
Then, with only three outs to go, Banister chose not to call upon season-long closer Shawn Tolleson, but instead had ground ball-inducing Sam Dyson finish things out.
Forget the regular-season book, in other words. As Banister explained, the bullpen choices Thursday were all performed according to pre-series plan.
“In a series like this,” Banister said, “it’s about finding the best matchups for our bullpen. It’s not ninth inning, eighth inning, seventh inning. It’s about those guys coming in when we feel it’s the best opportunity for them to get the outs we need to get.”
In the ninth, facing the middle of the Toronto lineup, Dyson induced a strikeout and three ground balls. Just as Banister hoped.
Diekman said that the plan was discussed as they went over the Toronto hitters before the game.
“You can’t walk them,” Diekman said. “You just attack. Pitch by pitch.
“If you make pitches I feel like a lefty can get a righty or a lefty out. You know their thunder is right-handed.”
That thunder was quieted, for the most part. Toronto’s lone homer came with the bases empty off Kela to lead off the sixth. Kela then retired the next three Blue Jays hitters.
It was that kind of day for Banister’s bullpen, even with Jose Bautista’s homer.
“[Tolleson] is still our guy, and you will see him at the end of the game,” the manager said.
But the mix and match approach, he said, was discussed with Kela, Diekman, Dyson and Tolleson before the series.
“Anytime you can get a split, especially if you’re on the road, it’s good,” Diekman correctly observed.
And now Banister can send the staff’s de facto ace, Cole Hamels, to the mound today to attempt to seize a commanding 2-0 series lead.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us with Hamels, no doubt,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “It’s important we win at home.
“We did very good here all year. So yeah, tomorrow’s a big game for us.”
Playing in front of 49,834 loud Toronto fans, however, facing a feared lineup that had outscored opponents by 221 runs, and then having to carry on without Adrian Beltre, the Rangers showed their poise.
As the manager reminded, they’ve had to rely upon it all season.