Not quite a playoff game, but pretty much a playoff game
The date was October 4, 2015 and the Texas Rangers found themselves in the midst of an American League West race with none other than the Houston Astros. With just one regular season game remaining, the Rangers led Houston by merely one game. Although, the 2015 season was not quite like the 2023 season in terms of tie-breakers. Things were a bit different back then.
With a Rangers loss and an Astros win, the AL West race would remain tied. And even though Texas had won 13 of their 19 meetings that season, the only advantage that would mean for the Rangers would be to host the tiebreaker game against Houston. This was also the first season where Major League Baseball decided to start every game at the same time nation-wide on the final day of the regular season.
So, while the Astros ironically faced the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix (who had nothing to play for that day, either), the Rangers were hosting the Los Angeles Angels. And the mission was clear: win and take the West, or lose and face the New York Yankees in a one game Wild Card playoff.
No pitcher you'd rather have on the mound
For the Rangers, left-handed ace Cole Hamels would toe the rubber against right-handed veteran Garret Richards on regular rest. Had Texas not lost in heart-breaking fashion the day before in the ninth inning, Hamels would have rested an extra day to prepare for the playoffs. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, the team and fans both needed him.
The Rangers had acquired Hamels via trade at the deadline that season, and it had paid off tremendously. After two shaky starts to begin his career with Texas, he then reeled off six straight victories, but that's only part of the story. The Rangers boasted a 9-2 record when he took the mound entering the final game of the season, with all nine wins coming consecutively. There was no question to anyone that Hamels needed the ball that afternoon.
Not quite the start they wanted
The Angels wasted no time striking first. Following two routine outs, All-Star center fielder Mike Trout sent a double down the left field line on a 1-2 pitch. Then, slugger Albert Pujols rocketed the second pitch, a 94-MPH fastball from Hamels, about ten rows deep into center field to give Los Angeles an early 2-0 lead.
Texas would not go quietly, though and responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the first. After back-to-back walks to start the game, Prince Fielder poked a 2-2 fastball up the middle to put the Rangers on the board at 2-1. But after that, Hamels would settle in and find his groove.
Now things change
While Hamels had things under control on the mound, the Rangers' bats also remained relatively quiet ... until the fifth. Desperate to get something going, center fielder Delino DeShields attempted to reach on a bunt, but failed. On the following at bat, Shin-Soo Choo sent a soft grounder deep past second base to dribble out a base hit to bring the legendary Adrián Beltré up.
Richards would miss terribly with his first offering and his second honestly didn't fare any better. He hung a breaking ball right over the heart of the plate that Beltré squared beautifully and launched into the opposite corner for a two-run blast, putting the Rangers up 3-2.
Like a pro though, Richards regrouped and continued pitching well unfazed by the blast, pitching six solid innings on three runs with six strikeouts. As for Hamels, he continued working on his masterpiece.
Next comes the big part
As Hamels finished his seventh inning of work, the game looked really good from a Texas perspective. Yet despite the lead, there still remained an urgency for some insurance. After all, a one run lead is great, but just a bloop and a blast (as evidenced earlier by Choo and Beltré) could change the complexion of a game entirely.
But having tossed 99 pitches in the first six innings, Richards was done for the afternoon. Skipper Mike Scioscia called on right-hander Cam Bedrosian to come in and keep things close. The Rangers lineup had other things in mind, though.
Catcher Chris Gimenez led off the inning with a full count walk on six pitches, and then this time, DeShields successfully bunted his way on base, putting men on first and second with nobody out. Scioscia then wasted no time pulling Bedrosian and brought in southpaw César Ramos.
Choo drew a walk on just five pitches, loading the bases for Fielder. After working Ramos for nine pitches, Fielder was able to draw the walk, putting a run across to lengthen the Texas lead to 4-2. This ended the day for Ramos, and so Scioscia made righty Mike Morin the next victim.
Beltré singled on what should have been a routine grounder to third, but David Freese had no choice but to fall on his rear end and eat the play while the Texas baserunners went station-to-station to make the score 5-2. Yes, there might have been a tiny bit of schadenfreude at play at the hands of Freese's misfortune as well.
First baseman Mitch Moreland followed with a sacrifice fly for the inning's first out to increase the deficit to 6-2. Then, the powerful (and now goatee'd) Josh Hamilton tacked another run on with a line drive single to left-center to score the runner from second and make things 7-2. Shortstop Elvis Andrus would then add a final exclamation point on the very next pitch with a scorcher to the left field corner to plate two and make it 9-2. The insurance had been purchased and all damage had been done.
Two more Angels pitchers closed out the seventh to finally end their misery. For the Rangers, Hamels continued to dominate, retiring the last six hitters in order and closing out a three-hit complete game to clinch the sixth AL West Championship in team history for the Rangers. As it turned out, Houston went on to drop their finale against the D'Backs, but it was immaterial thanks to Hamels and the Texas offense. So that's the story of how the Rangers clinched the division on the final day of the regular season ... way back in 2015.