The Rangers open a four-game series tonight in Oakland. They have an eight-game lead in the American League West with 11 to play, and their magic number is at four.If the Athletics sweep the series, the division might get interesting in the last week of the season. So, this should technically qualify as a crucial series, although the sweep of the Yankees earlier this month may ultimately be judged as being bigger. Since the Rangers have just won three division titles since 1972, they haven't played that many crucial series in September. Remember, until they won a division title in 1996, there was the fashionable but not-quite-true mantra that there had never been a meaningful baseball game played in September in Arlington. True or false? Subject to debate. But here, going into the series against the Athletics, are 10 of the biggest series the Rangers have played in club history.
The Rangers, after finishing in last place in 1973, made a surprise charge for a division title under manager Billy Martin in 1974 and were six games out of first when the defending world champion Oakland Athletics arrived in Arlington for a three-game series on Sept. 13-15. With 16 games to go, the Rangers needed a three-game sweep of the first-place Athletics and almost pulled it off. Ferguson Jenkins out-dueled Catfish Hunter, 3-1, in a clash of Hall of Famers on Friday night, and Jackie Brown beat Vida Blue, 8-3, with a complete game on Saturday. That left it to Jim Bibby on Sunday, but the Rangers lost 5-1 and their underdog challenge of the champions came up short.
The Rangers, nine games out and four games under .500 on July 5 1977, had a tremendous summer surge under Billy Hunter, their fourth manager that season. They had won 31 of 40 games and moved into first place on Aug. 18 when the Yankees came into town for a three-game weekend series. The Rangers drew over 90,000 -- a near-miracle at that time -- for the three-game series, but the Yankees pulled off a sweep, knocking the Rangers out of first place. The Rangers still won 94 games that year -- second-most in club history -- but a torrid finish by the Royals left them in the dust. Part of the problem was the Rangers played just two games with the Royals after catching fire on July 5, splitting them on Aug. 10-11 in Arlington.
On Monday, June 8, 1981, Rick Honeycutt beat the Tigers, 8-1, leaving the Rangers a half-game behind the Athletics in the West. The Rangers then lost two of their next three games. On June 11, Ferguson Jenkins lost to the Brewers, 6-3, and the Rangers were still in second place. The next day, the players went out on strike. When the strike was over two months later, Major League Baseball decided to go with a split-season and add an extra round to the playoffs. The Athletics were declared the first-half champions and the Rangers missed out on the first post-season berth in club history. They had a losing record in the second half.
The Rangers, under the guidance of mercurial manager Doug Rader, spent the 1983 All-Star break with a two-game lead in first place in the West. Then they opened the second half in Toronto and were swept by the Blue Jays. That was the beginning of a complete second half collapse that took the Rangers out of contention. Until they finally won a division title in 1996, the Rangers carried a stigma of being a team that fell apart in the Texas heat over the second half of the season.
The 1986 Rangers were another surprise team. They had lost 99 games the year before but, in Bobby Valentine's first full season as manager, they won 87 games and finished in second place. But they couldn't beat the Angels in Anaheim. They had a 3 1/2-game lead when they arrived in Anaheim on Monday, June 16. Charlie Hough took a no-hitter into the ninth before the Angels scored two runs off him for a 2-1 victory. The Angels ended up sweeping the three-game series, and another one just a week later against the Rangers in Arlington. That Rangers remained in the race until the beginning of September, but never really recovered from the night Hough lost his no-hitter.
The Rangers made a run at a division title under first-year manager Kevin Kennedy in 1993, but ran out of gas on a nine-game road trip in September while trying to run down the White Sox. The Rangers had already lost two of three to both the Angels and Mariners and were 5 1/2 games out when they played the White Sox for three games on Sept. 24-26. Adding to the frustration was Juan Gonzalez was out of the lineup with a back injury. There was also bad blood still simmering between the two teams after the forever-famous Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura brawl in Arlington. The White Sox ended up winning the first two games of the series before the Rangers salvaged the finale behind Roger Pavlik. The White Sox went on to win the division title with a rotation that included 15-game winner Wilson Alvarez, who the Rangers included in a trade for Harold Baines four years earlier.
The two most important victories in Rangers history took place on Sept. 21-22 in 1996 in Anaheim. The Rangers had just come from Seattle, where they had lost four straight games to the Mariners. Then they lost in 10 innings on a Friday night against the Angels and their lead, which was nine games on Sept. 11, was down to one game over the Mariners. They were tied in the loss column. But on Saturday, John Burkett went eight innings to beat the Angels, 7-1, with the help of home runs from Dave Valle, Gonzalez and Rusty Greer. On Sunday, Ken Hill pitched a complete game as the Rangers won again, 4-1, with home runs from Dean Palmer and Gonzalez. The Rangers held on for their first division title in club history.
With the rest of the world focused on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the Rangers went into the final week of the 1998 season tied with the Angels for first place in the American League West. The two teams met on Sept. 21-23 in Anaheim with the Rangers sending Todd Stottlemyre, Rick Helling and Burkett to the mound. Texas, with outstanding starting pitching, won three games: 9-1, 9-1 and 7-1, and then clinched the division in Seattle later in the week. Helling's victory was his 20th. He is the most recent Rangers pitcher to win 20 games in a season.
The Rangers didn't run away with the 1999 A.L. Western Division title, but they were in control for almost the entire season. In the second half, their lead never dipped below four games. But the Athletics were still within striking distance when the two teams met in Arlington on the weekend of Sept 24-26. The Athletics were 5 1/2 games behind and needing a sweep. Instead they got swept. Gonzalez hit three home runs as the Rangers won, 12-4, in the first game, Todd Zeile hit a second-inning grand slam in a 10-4 victory on Saturday, and Rafael Palmeiro's grand slam on Sunday was big in a 10-3 win. That one allowed the Rangers to clinch the division title with a victory on their home turf. It's the only time that's ever happened.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, 2004, the Rangers trailed the Oakland Athletics, 4-2, in the bottom of the ninth. A loss would have dropped them to four games behind the Athletics. They didn't lose. A home run by Hank Blalock and a dramatic two-out, two-run double by David Dellucci gave the Rangers a 5-4 win, one of the most memorable in club history. It also allowed the Rangers to sweep the first-place Athletics and leave them just two games behind with 10 to play. Unfortunately, the Rangers ended up losing six of those 10 and another turnaround season, this one under manager Buck Showalter, came up short. They have not been in the playoffs since 1999. They can change that in Oakland.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.