With Cantu's help, Rangers clinch AL West
First baseman contributes first Texas RBI, then go-ahead homer
OAKLAND -- Now, that's the reason why Texas traded for Jorge Cantu.
In his first 24 games as a Ranger, Cantu couldn't buy an RBI. But in his 25th, Cantu came through when his team needed it most, as he belted an eighth-inning solo shot to send Texas to a 4-3 win over the A's and clinch the American League West crown on Saturday.
Not since 1999 have the Rangers played Game No. 163. But with Cantu's heroics, the Rangers are likely destined for a first-round matchup with the AL East champion.
"Very special, man," Cantu said amidst the cigar smoke and champagne spray in the Texas clubhouse. "Look around. ... It's just such a great joy, and I had such great teammates behind me; they supported me, they believed in me. What can be more perfect than this? I want to thank all of them."
During Cantu's profound RBI slump, Texas skipper Ron Washington said he felt the veteran was pressing a bit. Washington also said he thought Cantu had a tough transition to make, as he went from being an everyday player with Florida to a platoon man.
"It happens, man," Cantu said. "If someone's going to be in a bad streak, I guess it's going to be one guy and that guy was me. But I wasn't putting pressure on myself, because I know what I've done in the past, the numbers show by themselves. I just kept working hard. I love being in those situations."
Give Washington some credit for keeping Cantu in the game. With a pair of left-handed hitters, Chris Davis and Mitch Moreland, sitting on the bench, Washington kept Cantu in the game against Oakland's premier available right-hander, Michael Wuertz.
"I had no hesitation about that," Washington said. "Jorge got us the winning run earlier, and he ended up getting the winning run later. I never even thought about taking Jorge out right there, I thought he was swinging the bat very well, and I just gave him the opportunity to go up there and he rewarded us."
Much as Washington had supreme confidence in Cantu, Oakland manager Bob Geren said his confidence for Wuertz never wavered.
"In the back of my mind, I thought they might pinch-hit there," Geren said. "But, either way, Wuertz was my guy right there. When he's on, his slider swing-and-miss pitch is the best in baseball, and that was actually a slider he hit. He just didn't get it where he wanted to."
While Cantu's title-clinching blast was the one to remember, he almost won the game in the sixth inning, too. The game deadlocked in a 1-1 tie, Cantu delivered an RBI single off A's lefty Gio Gonzalez to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
Some smooth baserunning by Elvis Andrus gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead after their half of the seventh. Andrus drew a walk to lead off the frame before stealing second. With Nelson Cruz batting, Andrus then stole third base and continued on home because of a wild pitch, giving the Rangers a two-run advantage.
But Oakland shortstop Cliff Pennington made sure the lead didn't last long. With a man on first, Pennington sent a 2-2 Clay Rapada pitch out of the park to left field, knotting the game at 3 and setting the stage for Cantu's heroics.
Judging from Cantu's reaction when he rounded first base, when he pointed skyward with his right hand, one could tell Cantu knew full well the weight of his solo blast.
"I'm not trying to disrespect the opponent," Cantu said. "It was just a great thrill for myself that I'm able to do that to put the team ahead in a really crucial time of the game. It's something I hadn't been able to do since I got here. "
While he only earned the no-decision, Derek Holland also took some much-deserved satisfaction in starting the division-clinching victory. It served as a fine end to a tumultuous season for the 23-year-old southpaw, who has been plagued with injuries this season.
First came his right knee injury early in Spring Training. In June, he suffered from inflammation in his shoulder and reinjured his knee while rehabbing in Arizona, causing him to miss 54 games. On Saturday, Holland tossed five innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits and two walks.
Washington said he would have liked to send Holland out to the mound for the sixth inning, but that his pitch count of 91 was too high. Following Holland, Washington used three relievers before Neftali Feliz recorded the final four outs to pick up his 38th save of the year, setting a Major League rookie record.
But his teammates didn't make it easy on him. With one out in the ninth, A's outfielder Jeremy Hermida drove one to the right-field gap, where Julio Borbon and Jeff Francoeur had a miscommunication and the ball glanced off Borbon's glove, falling to the ground. No worries, though, as Feliz induced a pair of harmless popups to end the game, the last of which landed in Cruz's glove.
"I don't have words to express how I feel about this record," Feliz said. "I wanted to dedicate this record to the Texas Rangers fans, front office, my family and the Dominican Republic. This means a lot, because it was at the right place at the right time."
Alex Espinoza is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.