For the Texas Rangers, the earth shifted on July 31, 2015.
The no-waivers trade deadline. The day the Rangers checked their pulses, saw that they were very much alive and reached for the sky, not the parachute cord.
The day they traded for Cole Hamels.
How do you beat an ace like Felix Hernandez?
You pitch an Opening Day ace of your own. You pitch a guy who’s been a World Series MVP and near the top of the Cy Young voting four times.
King Felix has seldom been more regal than he was Monday against the Rangers. The home team managed but one hit and barely scuffed the bat with anything else.
Yet, the Rangers were able to defeat Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners 3-2 Monday because Hamels gave them a chance.
“Against Felix you know you’re not going to get too much,” Hamels correctly assessed. “You’ve just got to try to not give up too much, too.”
After serving up fat, fastball, solo home runs to Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in the first two innings, left-hander Hamels locked down the scoreboard. A three-run rally constructed on walks, sloppy Mariners infield play and Prince Fielder’s flared single gave the Rangers the only offense they needed.
As the major league record book confirmed, never has so much been done on Opening Day with so little. No team had ever been held to one hit on the first day of the season and still won.
“That was awesome,” Hamels said after pitching seven innings, striking out eight and allowing only the two homers and two singles. “It’s kind of living up to the mantra we have, especially against Felix.”
Grind out the at-bats, he meant. Seize even the smallest of opportunities. And hold the opponents at bay with pitching and good defense.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus provided the latter with a spinning, leaping throw-out of Ketel Marte in the third inning, and second baseman Rougned Odor went into right field to throw out Seager leading off the ninth.
The mantra worked because Hamels kept doing his thing. None of the 21 outs that he recorded left the infield.
It was all very ace-ish. All, frankly, very Felix-esque.
But that’s why you trade for a guy like Hamels. That’s why general manager Jon Daniels woke up last July 31 and decided it was time to sell the farm — at least a part of it.
Daniels sent the Philadelphia Phillies six young players — including top prospects Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams and Jake Thompson — for Hamels, reliever Jake Diekman and cash.
On Aug. 1, the Rangers were 50-53 and in third place in the American League West, eight games behind the Astros.
It was time to blow the roster up, some media types said.
Daniels and his guys saw otherwise, however. From that day to the end of the season, the Rangers went 38-21, a ledger surpassed in the AL only by Toronto (40-17). Texas blew past Houston, which finished 27-30.
The Rangers won Hamels’ last 10 starts of 2015, including the division clincher on the final day of the season.
It all had changed on the day of the trade.
“He gives us that front-end No. 1 that we really didn’t have,” manager Jeff Banister said. “He gives us a guy who can stop a run of tough losses. And he’s going to give us a quality start every time he goes out there.”
Banister knows that he has another ace up his sleeve in Yu Darvish, who should return from Tommy John surgery next month.
Handed the lead, Hamels worked through the meat of the Mariners order in the sixth inning and added a scoreless seventh.
“When you finally get the lead,” Hamels said, “you get conditioned to grind and get the game to your bullpen.”
Which Hamels did, in front of a sold-out audience of 49,289.
It’s why when the chance comes, you trade away the farm. You tilt the earth. You reach for the sky.
As Cole Hamels reminded the Rangers on Opening Day, when all the aces pitch.
Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, firstname.lastname@example.org, @gilebreton