OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Rangers manager Ron Washington stood in a corner of the crowded clubhouse wearing a champagne-soaked AL West division championship T-shirt.
Across the room, Bengie Molina and Vladimir Guerrero danced to Latin music blaring from nearby stereo speakers. Cigars were lit and the sweet smell of celebration wafted through the air.
Texas is back in the playoffs after an 11-year drought.
Michael Young and the Rangers became the second team to clinch a spot in the postseason with a 4-3 win over the Oakland Athletics on Saturday, setting off a nearly hour-long party that began on the field shortly after rookie closer Neftali Feliz retired Cliff Pennington for the final out.
“It’s a proud day in Texas,” said slugger Josh Hamilton, sidelined for the past three weeks with broken ribs. “It’s been a long time.”
Jorge Cantu hit a tiebreaking homer in the eighth inning, his first for the Rangers, and Texas ended the Los Angeles Angels’ three-year run as AL West champs despite a rocky season that began with Washington’s admission that he used cocaine. The team also underwent an ownership change in August when an 18-member investment group led by former Rangers star and current team president Nolan Ryan purchased the club from Tom Hicks.
On the field, things haven’t been much easier.
Opening-day pitcher Scott Feldman, who led the Rangers with 17 wins in 2009, struggled early and was moved to the bullpen in late July. So was right-hander Rich Harden, who began the year as the team’s No. 2 starter.
Texas has struggled at times without Hamilton, an MVP contender who is hitting .361 with 31 homers and 97 RBIs. He broke two ribs when he smacked into the outfield wall in Minnesota on Sept. 4 and is scheduled to be re-evaluated in the next few days.
Despite all that, the Rangers did what they had to in their final series against their closest rivals in the division.
“There’s no better feeling I’ve had playing baseball,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said as a mixture of beer and champagne flowed down his cheeks. “We just got Cantu a couple months ago and he came up with a humongous hit for us. It was a great team effort today and it’s the way we’ve been playing baseball all year. We just seem to pick each other up constantly.”
Players streamed from the Texas dugout after Feliz got Pennington on a fly ball to left field with the potential tying run on second base.
Hamilton hugged teammates and jumped up and down near third base as a mob of players celebrated. Washington and his staff formed a party line and hugged players as they came off the field. Reserve infielder Andres Blanco fired his hat into a crowd of Rangers fans waiting behind the team’s dugout.
“When that ball went up all I wanted it to do was land in (left fielder Nelson Cruz’s) glove,” Washington said. “When it landed, I was able to relax. We committed to do something and we got it done, so that should tell those guys when they commit themselves and they bring the proper attitude and put the full effort there, real great things can happen for you.”
Texas is the only current major league franchise never to win a playoff series. The Rangers won three AL West crowns from 1996-99, their only postseason appearances, but lost in the first round to the New York Yankees each time.
For Oakland, it marks the fourth straight season the A’s will miss out on the postseason.
“I’m happy for Ron Washington, his staff and the players, but I don’t really enjoy watching it,” Oakland manager Bob Geren said. “With our pitching staff, the defense, maybe improve the offense, I could see us right there next year. I’d stay to watch that one.”
Cantu hit a solo shot in the eighth, his first home run since being traded from Florida to Texas on July 29, and the Rangers hung on. Darren O’Day (5-2) pitched a scoreless inning and Feliz got four outs for his 38th save — breaking the previous rookie record of 37 set by Seattle’s Kazuhiro Sasaki in 2000.
Young, a six-time All-Star who is in the playoffs for the first time after 10-plus seasons with Texas, also homered. Kinsler and Julio Borbon added two hits apiece for the Rangers, who won their second straight after losing the opener of the four-game series.
Clinching a playoff spot in Oakland was fitting for Washington, who is in the final season of his four-year contract with Texas. He was a coach with the A’s for 11 seasons and is still popular at the Coliseum. Several security guards and ushers asked to work the weekend series so they could be around to see Washington and his players celebrate if they won.
When they did, the Rangers rushed the field. Perez was mobbed immediately, while players ran in from the outfield and bullpen to join in.
The celebration continued inside the clubhouse. Several Latin players formed a circle and sang songs. Other players, wearing ski and swimming goggles, grabbed bottle after bottle of champagne, spraying anyone within reach. Young had to react quickly to avoid getting doused with a tub of ice water.
“It’s better than anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Washington, repeatedly targeted by the flowing champagne. “When you’re the head guy in charge you’re always putting out fires and everything lands in your lap. The thing I’m proud of is that these guys landed in my lap.”
Hamilton stayed outside the fray. Having battled drug and alcohol addictions in the past, the outfielder dressed quickly and even talked a few of his teammates out of pouring water on him after he had dressed.
“What’s exciting to me is we have faith day here in Oakland and I’m going to give my testimony,” Hamilton said. “So it would be kind of hypocritical of me to come in here and douse myself with alcohol and smoke cigars and then go out there and talk about Jesus.”
Cantu’s home run off reliever Michael Wuertz (2-3) couldn’t have come at a better time. The Rangers, shut out in the series opener Thursday before busting out for 18 hits and 10 runs Friday, stranded six runners in the first four innings.
Cantu gave Texas a 2-1 lead with an RBI single in the sixth. The Rangers made it 3-1 in the seventh when Elvis Andrus walked, stole second and third and then scored on a wild pitch.
Pennington’s two-out, two-run homer in the bottom half off reliever Clay Rapada tied the score 3-all.
Notes: Young homered leading off the third, his 21st of the season. ... A’s starter Gio Gonzalez fell short in his third attempt to earn his 15th win of the season. Gonzalez scattered seven hits over six innings with two strikeouts and three walks.