May 20, 2024

PHOENIX — Travis Jankowski is a long-haired, kinda-Spicolli-looking font of wisdom, the sort of guy who understands the soul of a baseball team because he spends more time observing than participating. When he signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract this spring with the Rangers, he expected to do what he’d spent most of his nine-year career doing: bringing some speed, some plate discipline and some good vibes. He did not expect to help save their season.

The first time it happened was April 12, when the Rangers’ all-everything shortstop, Corey Seager, hit the injured list with a strained hamstring. Some shuffling opened up an outfield spot for Jankowski, who spent most of his time in Seager’s No. 2 hole in the lineup. In the five weeks before Seager returned, all the Rangers did was lead Major League Baseball in runs scored.

On Tuesday, about an hour before Game 4 of the World Series, the Rangers announced that Adolis Garcia and Max Scherzer — their hottest hitter and erstwhile ace — would miss the remainder of the series with injuries. Jankowski would replace Garcia — ALCS MVP, Game 1 walk-off-homer author — in right field and slot in at the bottom of their lineup.

“When you’ve been through this, it’s a little easier,” Jankowski said. “We could’ve folded. That’s not us. I think everyone knows that by now.”

That much is clear after Game 4. The Rangers did the folding, shellacking the Arizona Diamondbacks in the early innings and weathering a tepid late rally to secure an 11-7 victory and move themselves to within one game of a World Series title. As much as was made of the losses of Garcia and Scherzer before Game 4, it was easy to forget the Rangers learned about the frailty of the human body and the strength of the human mind long before they were on the verge of winning their first World Series in 63 years of existence.

The domino effect from Seager’s injury — and the season-ending elbow surgery for ace Jacob deGrom and the dings that kept catcher Jonah Heim and third baseman Josh Jung and even Garcia out for extended periods during the regular season — fully prepared Texas for this. What their bodies lacked in any particular moment they made up for with an attitude that never leaned into any woe-is-me rhetoric.

The Rangers prefer whoa-is-me. And on the night that Seager hit another momentous and monumental home run to continue his postseason mastery, a night in which his keystone partner, Marcus Semien, busted out of a slump with a two-run triple and three-run homer in back-to-back innings, Jankowski did what he showed himself capable of in April. In the second inning, he feathered a single up the middle to keep the inning going. He followed the next inning with a bases-loaded double that scored a pair of runs and extended Texas’ lead to 7-0 — one that would grow to 10-0 one Semien swing later.

The Rangers are on the verge of winning the World Series because of this unrelenting offense that, after staying relatively quiet in the first three games of the series, feasted on Arizona’s bullpen. In the second and third innings, the Rangers put up five runs with two outs. A five-run inning in the World Series is uncommon. Back-to-back five-run innings never had happened. Consecutive five-run innings, all with two outs, probably never will happen again.

Texas understood that in order to feast, it needed to stop offering at the Diamondbacks’ bad pitches and maraud the good ones. After chasing on nearly 27% of Arizona’s pitches in the first three games, the Rangers cut that to 19.1% in Game 4. And with the Diamondbacks throwing significantly more pitches in the strike zone, Texas’ offense — which led MLB with 26 innings of five or more runs during the regular season — found itself.

“They don’t get swing happy,” Rangers hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “They stick to a plan. That’s what gives you competitive at-bats one after the other. But I think it starts with a good plan, but it also starts with they just don’t expand that much whenever they get the ball rolling.”

This wasn’t a ball. It was a boulder. Because this is how this Rangers offense has operated not just since the beginning of the postseason but the beginning of the season. The Rangers swing with the impertinence of Bamm-Bamm Rubble and the patience of a preschool teacher, marrying these divergent concepts and riding them to the verge of history. Texas’ 881 runs led the American League, and navigating this lineup, even without Garcia, is rife with peril.

“Think about it,” said Nate Lowe, the Rangers’ first baseman, who broke down the Rangers’ lineup in very simple terms:

“We have two MVP types hitting 1-2.” (Seager and Semien.)

“We had a playoff MVP cleaning up.” (Garcia.)

“We have an MVP-ceiling kid who’s stepping in to hit third.” (Evan Carter, who was in Double-A for almost the entirety of the season.)

“We have a Silver Slugger hitting fifth.” (DH Mitch Garver)

“The starting All-Star third baseman hitting sixth.” (Jung, whose three hits in Game 4 led Texas.)

“Another Silver Slugger hitting seventh.” (Lowe pointed to himself.)

“And then the All-Star starter at catcher hitting eight.” (Jonah Heim, whose eighth-inning home run Tuesday added Texas’ 11th run.)

“And a very quality leadoff hitter for arguably 29 other teams hitting ninth for us.” (Leody Taveras, whose walk against Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald in Game 1 set up Seager’s epic game-tying ninth-inning home run.)

“So, yeah,” Lowe said, “when you spell it all out like that, it’s pretty easy to relieve pressure on one bat to know that there are eight others, and two or three other bench bats” — Jankowski, Robbie Grossman, Ezequiel Duran, Austin Hedges — “that are ready to come in.”

Which is why the Rangers offense, better than most, can weather the loss of a hitter even of Garcia’s quality. When they are not doing well, they’re still better than most, and when they are locked in, it is baseball in god mode. The Rangers got healthy before the postseason, and until Scherzer hobbled off the mound in Game 3 with a locked-up back and Garcia grabbed at his oblique in the eighth inning, they’d shown that the team that sprinted to the American League West lead — before those injuries hit, causing that lead to evaporate and almost costing them a postseason spot — still lived somewhere in that clubhouse.

Game 4 unleashed god mode again, and they clowned the Diamondbacks in the same way Arizona has those who dared to doubt them. Though the Diamondbacks walked here in glass slippers, only a fool would suggest they’re done. The Philadelphia Phillies made that mistake and are now watching the World Series on TV.

Besides, these are the Texas Rangers, among the most woebegone franchises in professional sports. They’ve either been bad or sad. The awfulness is pervasive. The melancholy is particularly acute, aged a dozen years, when they were one strike from winning the World Series.

This is a new team, though, a new era, with a new manager in Bruce Bochy, who has three rings, and a new franchise player in Seager, who’s got one, and a new appreciation for what all of the injuries taught them. And it doesn’t hurt to know that only six of 47 teams facing 3-1 World Series deficits have recovered to win.

The Rangers are not what they are — they are not here — without April and May giving them the opportunity to find out they can be just as good without even someone who feels integral to their success.

“That, to me, is kind of the motto of our team,” Jankowski said. “We got some boppers in the lineup, but we can’t rely on them all the time. It’s baseball. Crazy stuff happens. We need a team unit to win this whole thing. And that’s what I was in awe of.”

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