This is what Adrian Beltre envisioned when he signed with Texas in the off-season. Balls jumping off his bat in October, the Rangers making another run for the pennant.
Beltre hit three straight home runs and the defending AL champions advanced again, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in Game 4 Tuesday to win their playoff matchup.
Beltre put on a power show that few players in major league history have matched, helping Texas take the best-of-five series and ending the Rays' remarkable run to the wild-card spot. The Rangers next play the Detroit Tigers-New York Yankees winner.
"From my point of view, Texas gave me the best chance to put a ring on my finger," Beltre added, "and I am just two steps away from it. Hopefully that happens."
Ian Kinsler led off the game for Texas by homering on the second pitch from rookie Jeremy Hellickson.
Then it was Beltre's turn. He came into the game in an 1-for-11 slump in this series before breaking loose.
Maybe Beltre's best day as a pro.
"I think besides my first big league hit, this is right up there," said the slugger, who spent last season with the Boston Red Sox. He's back in the post-season for the first time since 2004, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was the seventh time a player has homered three times in a post-season game — Adam Kennedy was the last to do it, for the Angels in 2002. Babe Ruth did it twice, while Reggie Jackson, George Brett and Bob Robertson also are on the list.
Beltre connected in his first three at-bats. Given a chance to tie the big league record of four homers in a game, he hit a routine flyout in the eighth against Wade Davis.
"I was just trying to get a run there. Hit a line drive somewhere, maybe in the gap because they were trying to come back. …Winning the game was more important for me than to hit the [fourth] homer," Beltre said.
Neftali Feliz gave up a run in the ninth inning before closing for his third save of the series, preserving the victory for Matt Harrison.
Texas won for the fifth straight time on the road overall — all at Tropicana Field — in the opening round. The Rangers eliminated Tampa Bay in five games last year, winning three times in the Rays' home stadium.
Beltre hit solo shots off Hellickson in the second and fourth innings, and added another solo drive against Game 1 winner Matt Moore in the seventh.
The Rays weren't the only ones who had trouble keeping up with Beltre — a television cameraman trying to run alongside Beltre to capture the image as the star jogged home did a face-first pratfall.
Beltre and Kinsler tied for the team lead with 32 homers, and Beltre had been on a late-season tear going into the playoffs. The Rangers finished with just six hits in the clincher.
Texas reached the World Series for the first time last year, but lost to San Francisco.
Down 2-0 early, the Rays literally rammed their way back into the game.
Sean Rodriguez drew a one-out walk in the second and took off when Matt Joyce lined a two-out double to the gap in right-centre field. Rodriguez barrelled around third base and plowed into catcher Mike Napoli, jarring the ball loose. Rodriguez knocked Napoli backward, scrambled to his feet and touched the plate with his hand.
It was the second plate collision in the playoffs this year. St. Louis' Jon Jay ran over Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz in an unsuccessful attempt to score during Game 2 of the Cardinals' matchup against the Phillies.
Manager Ron Washington and the Rangers trainer left the dugout to check on the woozy Napoli, who remained in the game. Napoli got more attention in-between innings and stayed in the lineup.
The play energized the crowd of 28,299, about 4,000 less than Monday night, which was announced as a sellout. But several innings later, the Rays' season was over.
Rodriguez scored all three runs for the Rays. He drew a one-out walk and scored on Casey Kotchman's single in the ninth, but Feliz retired the next two batters.
"It's huge, but we've still got a lot on our minds," said Ranger pitcher Derek Holland, who won Game 2 in Arlington and worked 1 1-3 scoreless innings in relief in the clincher. "We want to win the whole thing, and that's what we're going to try to do from here."
Tampa Bay certainly gave its faithful, and fans everywhere, quite a ride in the final month. Manager Joe Maddon's team overcame a nine-game deficit against Boston in the wild-card standings, then rallied from seven runs to beat the Yankees on the last day of the regular season to reach the playoffs for the third time in four years despite a small payroll.
"It's sour the way it ended. You feel like you have done more. We really, really have nothing to hang our heads about," said Evan Longoria, whose 12th-inning homer beat the Yankees and put the Rays in the post-season.
"We had our opportunities. Our bullpen and starting pitchers gave us a chance," he added. "It came down to offensively not getting it done."
Harrison, who made a relief appearance in the Rangers' loss in the series opener, pitched five innings and won in his first post-season start. The Texas bullpen took over after that.
Texas' five consecutive division series road wins matches the second-longest streak in big league history. The Atlanta Braves won a record eight straight from 1995-99 and the Yankees won five in a row from 2003-05.
Moore stymied the powerful Texas lineup by working seven scoreless inning in the opener at Arlington. The Rays brought him on again in hopes of holding the Rangers to a 3-2 lead, and it looked like the move might work. The 22-year-old lefty retired the first six batters he faced before Beltre led off the seventh with an opposite-field shot into the stands in right.
"It's always painful, especially being around the league for this long," said Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon, finishing his 17th season. "We had a good enough team to win, and keep on winning. It just seemed Texas definitely had our number."