The Champions

Cole Hamels: CG, 2 ER, 3 hits, 8 K's, 2 BB's

Ace. 

It was a tense Game 162 in Arlington, a matchup the Rangers trailed 2-1 heading into the bottom of the 5th. There, Adrian Beltre unleashed an opposite field two-run HR to hand Texas a 3-2 lead that it would never give up. The club followed with 6 runs in the bottom of the 7th, and Hamels did the rest.

Texas 9, Anaheim 2; Magic Number = 0

  Jose Yau/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP

Jose Yau/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP

The win sends the Rangers to the American League Division Series where they will take on the Blue Jays, starting Thursday. Counting the play-in game in 2013, Texas will play at least 163 games for the 5th time in 6 seasons. 

Since 2010 Texas is 525-448 (.551) overall -- an average of 87.5 wins per season -- and that's including last year's 67-95 aberration. You could make a strong argument that the Rangers are the most accomplished American League franchise of the 2010's decade, with four postseason berths, three AL West titles and two World Series appearances. 

This season was... particularly special. I get the 2010 comparison -- mainly because it came out of nowhere to varying degrees -- but I see a stronger parallel to the 2004 team, one that stayed in the race against all odds until the last week of the season. That team won 89 games and finished 3rd in the West in what was a very different American League back then. 

Unlike 2004, this year the Rangers took advantage of a weak pool of AL clubs, going 23-11 (.676) vs. the East and 18-14 (.563) vs. the Central, a composite 41-25 (.631) record against outer-division competition. Against the West, Texas played sub-.500 ball (36-40) on the whole, but delivered a knockout blow against the Astros -- going 13-6 in 19 games -- the team they spent virtually the entire season chasing in the standings. 

It's a triumph for the Rangers organization that, in a year that felt like an extension of an abysmal 2014, it found a way to stay true to the plan. With Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo poised to send Jon Daniels straight to albatross hell, the President and GM did nothing significant last winter to add. The club was in a sensitive, desperate state, and JD essentially stood pat, adding a one-year MORP (Yovani Gallardo) and a bunch of platoon options on the bench. 

Hoping on health and bounce backs, the needle moved further against the Rangers when Yu Darvish went down with Tommy John Surgery during spring training; on Opening Day, the club's de facto #1 starter -- Derek Holland -- threw one inning, which would be his last until the middle of August. 

To balance the books, Texas somehow survived through July with Wandy Rodriguez, Nick Martinez and Chi-Chi Gonzalez in the rotation. Those three starters combined for 46 starts (almost 30% of Texas's games) and 273.1 IP, a composite +1.5 fWAR. As with many aspects of the 2015 campaign, the work of these three pitchers didn't win the Rangers the West, but since they didn't hurt the club, either, kept the team afloat for when the reinforcements arrived. 

When Cole Hamels was acquired from the Phillies the Rangers were 47-52; post-Hamels, which came with the additions of Martin Perez and Derek Holland returning from injury, Texas went 41-24, with the three starters generating a combined +3.1 fWAR. 

The makeup of the team changed in other areas, as well. Along with Hamels came Jake Diekman, who closed the year with a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 IP; Sam Dyson, whom the Rangers got for mere peanuts from Miami, finished with a 1.15 ERA in 31.1 IP. Take those two and combine them with Keone Kela (2.39 ERA in 60.1 IP) and Shawn Tolleson (2.99 ERA in 72.1 IP), and Texas carried a dynamic bullpen down the stretch, effectively shortening the game for first-year manager Jeff Banister. 

So that was the blueprint to winning, and winning they did. To help matters, the offense ramped up its production, too. During the second half alone, Shin-Soo Choo (.343/.455/.560, 176 wRC+) and Adrian Beltre (.318/.376/.509, 136 wRC+) generated +6.9 fWAR -- about 7 wins all by themselves. 

When you add star production to a lineup filled with mostly average to slightly above average hitters, it can work. Even Elvis Andrus, probably the weakest hitter in the lineup at any given point, hit .273/.320/.398 (90 wRC+) with 24 extra-base hits (4 HR) in the second half, which is above average for a shortstop. 

The 2015 Rangers are a story of the sum being greater than its individual parts. When you combine a decent rotation with a stout bullpen, and an offense averaging about 5 runs per game for a third of the season, that's how you go from 47-52 to 88-74 and champions of your division. Texas got help along the way -- notably a 10-18 August from the Angels, and a Houston team that leveled off down the stretch -- but it ultimately won the games it had to on the field. 

Jeff Banister is far from a perfect manager, but whatever rah-rah stuff he has going on in the clubhouse is working. After yesterday's win he said how thankful and appreciative he was for getting hired by Jon Daniels, who might be the biggest winner of all through this magical ride. 

Daniels, for reasons I've never understood, has been consistently slammed in the local media the last several seasons, whether it was for the team's ultimate demise in the postseason, somehow being the catalyst to getting Nolan Ryan removed from the organization, or being the idiot who banked on Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo in the longterm. 

Along with his acquisitions of Delino DeShields, Hamels, Diekman, Dyson, Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, JD doubled down and bet on himself in 2015. And he won. If there was ever a question that this was a top-5 executive in baseball, those doubts crashed and burned this season. This franchise simply would not be where it is without him. 

So while we wait on a 2016 rotation led by Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez, in the meantime we get to watch playoff baseball. That isn't a bad consolation prize.