#3 -- The 1996 season: Juan transforms into Señor Octubre
Despite what anyone may say about those 2010 and 2011 Ranger teams, the 1996 squad will always hold a dear place in the heart of this writer. After years of disappointment and angst, this one finally broke through to the playoffs. And they didn't do it by virtue of the recently-added Wild Card slot, but by legitimately winning 90 games and hoisting the American League West Championship. And at the heart of that playoff run sat ... nay, stood Juan González.
That season, he put together his most well-rounded season to date in his career. Splitting time between right field and DH, Gonzo let his bat do most of his talking that season. And frankly, it spoke loudly, clearly and with authority.
By the time the dust on the '96 season had settled, González stood with 47 home runs, which surprisingly placed him fifth in both the American League and all of MLB. He beat his 1993 batting average mark by hitting .314, beat his '93 slugging number with .643 and tied his previous OBP mark at .368. He also set a new best with 144 runs batted in. All of that was enough to earn him the 1996 American League Most Valuable Player Award. But Ranger fans wouldn't find that out until after the playoffs, which finally included Texas.
Texas drew the New York Yankees for round one. In all honesty, it became a dreadful matchup in the following years. But this one came with excitement and anticipation because it was new territory for Ranger fans.
While the Rangers started out by taking game one at the historic Yankee Stadium, the team faded significantly after that. However, it was not on account of Igor. Despite his best effort, Texas just could not take down the eventual World Champions.
After the Yankees took an early 1-0 lead in the first, Gonzo began his transformation into "Señor Octubre" by blasting a three-run shot down the left field line, putting the Rangers up 3-1. That would prove to be all they needed as Texas cruised to a 6-2 victory in the first playoff game in franchise history.
Game two started out equally thrilling. After a 1-2-3 first, Gonzo batted cleanup and led off the second with a solo blast down the left field line, putting the Rangers up 1-0. New York tied the contest in the bottom half, and Juan would come to the dish again in the top of the third, with two men on. And like he did in the second inning, he deposited a 1-0 pitch into left field, this time driving in three and putting Texas up 4-1. But eventually, four runs proved that it wouldn't be enough. The pinstripers later tied the game in the bottom of the eighth and would take the win in the 12th on an error to tie the series.
Game three shifted to Arlington for the first-ever playoff game at The Ballpark in Arlington. Just like in game one, the Yankees jumped out front in the first to a 1-0 lead. It took a while, but in the fourth inning, Señor Octubre showed up once again, tying the game at one with yet another ALDS home run, his fourth of the series in three games. The Rangers would then take the lead in the next inning, only to relinquish it in the ninth and eventually fall quietly by the score of 3-2 in game three. With the series being a "best of five," they would have to win out to move on.
Game four looked from the start as if the Rangers had come alive. They manufactured two runs in the second inning and then Igor led off the bottom of the third with his fifth home run of the series, tying an MLB record at the time and putting Texas up 3-0. They then plated one more before the inning ended to make it 4-0. However, New York slowly clawed their way back as they always seemed to do that season, culminating in a ninth-inning rally to plate a fifth run. Once again, Texas went quietly in the ninth after González drew a "pitch around the guy" kind of walk on five pitches to keep him from doing much damage.
Gonzo ended the '96 postseason with five home runs, nine RBIs, a .438 average, a stellar .526 OBP and a staggering 1.375 slugging percentage. Sadly, that just wasn't enough for the juggernaut Yanks.
#2 -- The 1998 season: Juan makes history before the All-Star break
After missing the playoffs in '97, the Rangers came back the following year with something to prove. They had unfinished business to take care of after losing 85 games and missing the postseason by 13 games.
Shaking off the cobwebs of the year before, they came back strong, winning 88 games. And once again, much of that success came from the bat of Juando.
But unlike '96, his numbers became a little more lopsided between the arms he faced. While he still hit for a higher average against lefties, he pummeled 34 of his 45 longballs off righties. He also started the season much stronger than he finished, with 26 gopher balls and 101 runs batted in coming before the All-Star Break. In fact, the talk by that point shifted to the MLB record for RBIs in a season, which he seemed to out-pace. Hall of Fame center fielder Hack Wilson set the mark at 191 in 1930.
However, Gonzo's production would wane after the break. His average actually rose and he finished with a new career high .318 average. But in the back half, the team as a whole faded a bit and just didn't seem to put runners on as often for him.
But by the time all was said and done, Juando had set career marks in average (.318), total bases (382), doubles (50), extra base hits (97), and runs scored (110). He also led the AL in doubles and runs batted in, and finished second in total bases. In all, it was enough to earn him his second AL MVP trophy, becoming the first and currently only Rangers player to do so.