May 26, 2024

ARLINGTON, TEXAS — They barreled out of the first-base dugout in a flash, congregating around home plate so quickly that Texas Rangers outfielder Evan Carter said they might have arrived there even before Adolis García reached first base.

It was almost as if they’d anticipated another moment like this.

After bursting onto the scene in the summer of 2021, García has spent the fall of 2023 putting together one of the most captivating postseason performances in baseball history, dazzling with his glove and his legs and, mostly, his bat. When he settled into the batter’s box in the 11th inning of the opening game of this Fall Classic on Friday night, his teammates — really, all of Globe Life Field — seemed to expect something. What followed was the first walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series since Kirk Gibson’s legendary drive in 1988.

This is the type of legacy García is building.

“I don’t think I ever imagined that these types of things would be happening to me,” said García, speaking in Spanish, moments after sealing the Rangers’ 6-5 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. “But I’m very grateful and happy, and I’m just going to keep giving it my best to help us win it all.”

García, 30, has homered in five consecutive playoff games, one shy of the major league record. His total for the postseason is now at eight, just two fewer than the 2020 output from Randy Arozarena, his minor league roommate and best friend. That walk-off home run was his 22nd RBI this postseason, breaking the all-time record set by David Freese, the former St. Louis Cardinals third baseman, during a 2011 run that famously left Rangers fans devastated.

“When he gets hot, it’s really hot,” Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien said of García. “Now everybody sees it.”

García almost single-handedly ended the Houston Astros‘ season in the American League Championship Series, then proceeded to reach base in four of his first five plate appearances to begin the World Series. He singled in the first, drew a walk in the third, added another single in the eighth and took a 92 mph fastball to his left hand from D-backs closer Paul Sewald in the ninth, moments after Corey Seager tied the score with a 418-foot two-run homer.

García shook it off, promptly stole second base and came to bat again two innings later, with none on, one out and the score still tied. Right-handed reliever Miguel Castro fed him a steady diet of changeups, the one pitch that gave him trouble this season, but fell behind in the count 3-1. He followed with a 97 mph sinker slightly low, which García drove to the opposite field and lofted over the right-field fence, sending a sold-out Globe Life Field crowd into a frenzy.

Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe doused García with a cooler of iced water as he approached home plate. In the tunnel on the way to the clubhouse, teammates repeatedly chanted his nickname — “Bombi,” originally given to García by a childhood friend who thought his head was shaped like a light bulb.

It was six years ago that García left friends and family behind in Cuba and went to Japan as a springboard to come to the United States and fulfill his dream of reaching the majors. He signed for a relatively small amount, was passed over twice — including by the Rangers. He didn’t carve out a full-time role in the big leagues until he neared the end of his 20s. But he always believed moments like these were possible.

“I think it’s all been worth it,” García said. “If I had to do it all over again, I would, because I feel so grateful for everything that has happened.”

NATHANIEL LOWE’S DAY was finished. It was March 24, 2021, eight days before the start of the Rangers’ regular season. Lowe had taken his three at-bats in a Cactus League game and he was officially off the clock.

But Adolis García continued to grab his attention.

Lowe had come to the Rangers’ organization from the Tampa Bay Rays that offseason, and he spent the weeks of spring training familiarizing himself with his new teammates. García immediately caught his eye — and mystified him. García, then 28 and headed for the Triple-A club, was stealing bases and turning in highlight-reel plays and hitting baseballs harder than anybody else. Lowe couldn’t understand why he wasn’t on the roster.

On that day, Lowe had finished changing in the visitors clubhouse and readied to leave. When he heard García’s name being announced as a late-game substitution, he paused, peering through a peephole that looked onto the field. García was coming in for one of the regulars with the Rangers trailing in the ninth inning of a meaningless game, as is often the case for those unlikely to reach the major leagues — and he scorched a two-run double to capture a victory. Lowe could only shake his head. García once again looked like the best player on the field.

“It felt like every ball he hit, he just hammered it off the wall — again and again and again,” Lowe recalled.

What Lowe saw in just a few weeks was something that it took multiple major league franchises years to understand.

When García defected from Cuba in summer 2016 — he had already had an MVP season for Serie Nacional, the country’s professional league, and a brief stint with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japan Eastern League — he was nearing his 24th birthday, relatively old for an international signee. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him for $2.5 million in February 2017, bouncing him between Double-A and Triple-A, plus a cup of coffee in the majors, before designating him for assignment in December 2019. The Rangers immediately picked him up, then designated him for assignment in February 2021 after signing a starting pitcher named Mike Foltynewicz. García slipped through waivers unclaimed and was outrighted off the 40-man roster.

By that point he was almost 28, coming off a COVID-shortened season that shut down the minor leagues and limited him mostly to workouts at the Rangers’ alternate training facility. His major league career consisted of 23 at-bats and two hits.

Unbridled optimism carried him.

“I knew what I could do, what level of baseball I could play at,” García said. “I always had confidence in that. I just kept working because I knew this team was going to give me the opportunity. I just needed to take advantage of it.”

García surged through spring training in 2021, slugging .781 in 22 games, but the Rangers left him off their Opening Day roster. It wasn’t until Ronald Guzman suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee on April 12 that García was finally called up.

Four days later, he won a game in extra innings with his first career home run. In May, he was named the AL Rookie of the Month. In July, he was an All-Star. By the end of the year, he had become a fixture on a rebuilding Rangers team that lost 102 games and was scrounging to identify core players to build around.

“He was still a developing player, and I think the question we had is if he was consistent enough to be a good major league player at that point,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And I think, honestly, where we were as an organization, we had the ability to give him the runway to work through those things. And as he got opportunities, we saw a player with extreme aptitude, a player with incredible work ethic — an energy, a passion for excellence and continual improvement. He’s made himself into the player he is now.”

THE END OF the 2022 season prompted a sit-down between García and the Rangers’ hitting experts, a group that consists of offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker, hitting coach Tim Hyers and assistant hitting coach Seth Conner. The meeting revolved around two key questions:

What do people think of Adolis García?

What do you want them to think of Adolis García?

At that point, García had put together back-to-back solid major league seasons, accumulating 58 home runs and 41 stolen bases while OPS’ing .749 through a stretch of 305 games. But he continued to carry a reputation as an all-or-nothing hitter, the type of label that had soured major league teams in the first place.

From 2017 to 2019, García had accumulated 366 strikeouts in 368 minor league games, a stretch in which he walked less than 5% percent of the time. Breaking balls in particular bothered him. The Rangers spent a sizable chunk of 2020 remaking García’s swing, incorporating a toe-tap to keep him more lateral and eliminating excess movement to help shorten his swing path. But his first two major league seasons still saw him rank just outside the bottom 10% in chase rate and finish 260th among 297 qualified players in walk percentage. García needed to learn to work counts, lay off breaking balls and force opposing pitchers to throw into his preferred zone.

So after that conversation with Ecker and the Rangers team, almost as soon as the 2022 season concluded, García went to Tampa, Florida, to work with his personal hitting coach, Osvaldo Diaz, a former minor leaguer from Cuba.

Together, they decided to change the answer to Ecker’s first question.

“It was very personal to him — ‘pitchers are going to fear me, and they’re going to respect me,'” Ecker said. “Credit to them. They did the work on that, and then he came in and he executed it. Adolis is a special human, and there’s nothing he wants to do that’s average.”

The 2023 regular season saw García set career highs in home runs (39), RBIs (107) and OPS (.836) while making his second All-Star team. He still struck out a healthy amount — 175 times in 148 games — but he also drew 65 walks, just seven fewer than his combined total from 2021 and 2022. From one year to the next, his chase rate dropped from 37% to 29.4%, an uncommon improvement for a hitter already in his 30s.

Along the way, García learned to better analyze video of opposing pitchers, a skill that has paired nicely with an innate ability to make in-game adjustments.

“It’s pretty cool,” Ecker said. “For his age, he’s really in Year 3. He’s figuring out the game, he’s figuring out Major League Baseball, and it’s pretty special that in Year 3 he’s making these types of strides. It’s kind of scary what could be possible for this guy.”

YOUNG HAD NEVER seen a player get booed so roundly. Before running the Rangers’ baseball-operations department, Young spent 14 years pitching in the major leagues. He played two seasons in New York from 2011 to 2012 and made a World Series run with the Kansas City Royals in 2015. Through it all, he had never experienced anywhere near as much animosity toward a visiting player as what greeted García for Games 6 and 7 of the ALCS from Minute Maid Park in Houston, in the wake of the benches-clearing incident that centered around him getting drilled by a Bryan Abreu fastball.

García proceeded to strike out in each of his first four at-bats, and the vitriol escalated further with each one. He found himself too eager.

“I wanted to get the big hit; that’s all I wanted to do,” García said. “But I told myself, ‘No, you need to calm yourself down and just do your best.'”

What followed was one of the best surges in recent memory. In a string of six at-bats over the next two games — at a time when his team needed back-to-back road wins to knock off the defending-champion Astros and reach the World Series — García accumulated five hits, three of which were home runs (it would’ve been four had his first-inning double in Game 7 sailed a couple of feet higher). He drove in nine runs in that stretch, solidifying ALCS MVP honors while setting a record for RBIs in a single postseason series with 15.

In a highly contentious environment, with more than 40,000 people openly rooting for his failure, García found a way to extract his best self.

It captured his essence.

“I think some of the best players have a little bit of that ‘f— you’ mentality,” Rangers left-hander Andrew Heaney said. “They don’t care what other people think; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions. I think he has that ability. I don’t know how much he’s shutting out the noise versus absorbing it and letting it fuel him, but I think either way, you’re still going, ‘F— these guys. I’m gonna show them.'”

Later, in the champagne-soaked clubhouse he helped ignite, teammates gushed about García’s performance and how it spoke to his distinctive traits. One raved about his supreme talent but brought up the unwavering confidence that allows it to spill out so routinely in pressure-packed moments. Another laughed that an entire country is now learning about the greatness they had long realized. Others noted that MLB should market García as one of its transcendent stars, up there with the likes of Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. He has the skill set, but also the swagger.

“It’s so good for young players to watch him and how he plays with such confidence to just prove stuff to everybody else,” Semien said. “I think a lot of young players can learn from that guy.”

García said he took the animosity in Houston as a “positive — knowing that there was an entire stadium that was focused on me.” He viewed it as an opportunity, not a burden. In recent years, García has learned to quiet the outside noise and simplify his concentration. The tail end of the ALCS proved to him that he could do it on the grandest of stages.

Which, of course, meant he could do it in Game 1 of the World Series, too.

“I only have three years playing in the big leagues, but I’ve had a long baseball career in general and I’ve been through a lot during that time,” García said. “That’s why moments like that don’t get me stressed out.”

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