ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Adrian Beltre stood off to the side of the interview room, drying his face with a giant towel. The Texas Rangers were celebrating another playoff series win, and their hot-hitting, championship-seeking third baseman relished being in the middle of the party.
The two-time All-Star had moments like Tuesday in mind when he joined the defending AL champions in the offseason, although it's difficult to imagine anyone foreseeing him putting on a power show that few in major league history have matched to help the Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in the clincher of their division series.
``From my point of view, Texas gave me the best chance to put a ring on my finger,' Beltre said after homering three straight times to help the Rangers advance again. ``And I am just two steps away from it. Hopefully that happens.'
Ian Kinsler also homered, going deep on the second pitch of the game to help Texas take the best-of-five series 3-1 and end Tampa Bay's remarkable run to the wild-card spot.
Next up, the Rangers will play the winner of the ALDS matchup between the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees for the pennant.
``We've done this a lot over the past couple of years, but we're looking forward to a little more of it,' designated hitter Michael Young said in the midst of the celebration in the visitors clubhouse at Tropicana Field. ``We know it's going to be tough. We know we're going to play a good team next round.'
Beltre, playing in the postseason for just the second time in a 13-year career, came into the game in a 1-for-11 slump. He broke loose with a 413-foot homer to left in the second inning, a 381-foot shot in the fourth and another that traveled 384 feet in the seventh.
By his own account, it probably was Beltre's best day as a pro.
``I think besides my first big league hit, this is right up there,' said the slugger, who's in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
``Amazing. ... We've been waiting for the middle of our lineup to get started, and today he stepped up and put us on his back and hit three home runs against pretty good pitching,' Texas manager Ron Washington said. ``That's not easy to do. ... He's been big for us all year. And today he was bigger than big. He was huge.'
It was the seventh time a player has homered three times in a postseason 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 with two men on 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.
``He's just a phenomenal baseball player ... He has power to all fields. He showed that again,' said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has followed Beltre's career since the Rangers star was with the Dodgers and Maddon was a coach with the Los Angeles Angels. ``He's one of the better fielding third basemen in the game. Always believed that. He has a joy for the game, too.'
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 his first two homers off rookie Jeremy Hellickson, then added another solo drive against Game 1 winner Matt Moore in the seventh.
``We can beat you in many ways,' Washington said, ``and today it was the long ball.'
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.
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-center field. Rodriguez barreled 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.
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.
There appeared to be no hard feelings between Napoli and Rodriguez, who played together when both were in the Angels system.
``I'm going to go in hard, too, if I have a chance and the game is on line like this one,' Napoli said. ``That's the right way to play the game. There are things you need to do in this game. I don't have any problems with what he did.'
Maddon called it a ``beautiful collision because nobody got hurt and the Rays scored a run.'
``We'll probably laugh about it the next time we see each other. It's the same as if he came into second and he took me out; I'm not going to be upset at him,' Rodriguez said. ``I know he's going to try to block the plate, which he's supposed to do to try to prevent guys from scoring.'
The play energized the crowd of 28,299, about 4,000 less than Monday night, which was announced as a sellout. Casey Kothcman added RBI singles in the fourth and ninth innings, but it wasn't enough to prolong the season.
The Rays certainly gave their faithful, and fans everywhere, quite a ride in the final month. They overcame a nine-game deficit against Boston in the wild-card standings, then rallied from seven runs down to beat the Yankees on the last day of the regular season and 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 New York and put the Rays in the postseason.
``We had our opportunities. Our bullpen and starting pitchers gave us a chance,' added Longoria, who was 0 for 8 with five strikeouts in Games 3 and 4. ``It came down to offensively not getting it done.'
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved