OAKLAND -- Jeremy Hermida was on second as the tying run. He had reached when his fly ball to deep right-center fell for a double after a near-collision between center fielder Julio Borbon and right fielder Jeff Francoeur. "When that ball fell, I wanted to go out there and punch Julio," Rangers manager Ron Washington joked later. "He's always almost running into people, and that's the one time he lets it fall." Now there were two outs, and closer Neftali Feliz was still pumping 97-mph fastballs at the Oakland Athletics. He threw one more to Cliff Pennington, who had hit a two-run game-tying home run in the seventh inning on Saturday.
This time, Pennington lofted a shallow fly ball to left. It was a routine fly, but there was nothing routine about this. "I said, I got it, I got it ... it's mine," left fielder Nelson Cruz said. "I was never so happy ..." When the ball was hit, third baseman Michael Young, playing in his 1,502nd game for the Rangers, instinctively drifted toward his assigned cutoff position. Then he started bouncing up and down in great expectation as the ball drifted down toward Cruz's glove. When Cruz caught the ball that made the Rangers champions of the American League West, Young turned and jumped into Feliz's arms in a joyful embrace many years in the waiting. Catcher Matt Treanor, first baseman Chris Davis and second baseman Ian Kinsler and then the rest of their teammates joined them in celebrating the Rangers' return to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. "The best feeling in the world and it's not even close," Young said. "We've played hard all season long. We deserve it. We know what the ultimate goal is, but this is step one. It's an incredible feeling. "The 2010 Texas Rangers are AL West champs. I couldn't be more proud of my teammates." His teammates couldn't be more proud of him. Only Cardinals outfielder Randy Winn has played more games in the Majors among active players without ever being in the postseason in his career. In the Rangers' clubhouse, they sprayed champagne, drank beer, smoked cigars and screamed in delight. But they saved the big tub of ice to pour over their de facto team captain with an unmistakable token of their inestimable respect. "It's an incredible feeling to see the joy in Mikey's face," Kinsler said. "It's amazing," Cruz said. "No words to describe it. I'm so happy because I can see Mike ... because he's been here a long time. I can't imagine what it's like for him." Young was a big part of what happened on Saturday afternoon when the Rangers wrapped up the fourth division title in club history with a 4-3 victory. The Rangers trailed, 1-0, in the top of the third, but Young had tied it with a home run off of A's starter Gio Gonzalez. Kinsler doubled and Jorge Cantu drove him home with a single in the sixth. Elvis Andrus scored on a wild pitch in the seventh to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead. Then Pennington hit his two-run home run in the bottom of the inning. That made it 3-3, but Cantu delivered again. He had not driven in a run in 24 games since being acquired from the Marlins at the Trade Deadline. Now, in the eighth inning, he delivered a second RBI with a long home run to left-center. As he rounded second base, he thrust his right arm high over his head with his index finger pointed upward. "It doesn't matter how you win," catcher Bengie Molina said. "This team is all about winning ... nothing else. We have the heart and the desire and the confidence to win. To be where we are, it's all about the heart." The Rangers are there. They are in the AL playoffs and now await to see who they will play next. Their first-round opponent will be the AL East champions and that's still undecided between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. "This just means we have the opportunity to go for the ring," Washington said as he stood in the periphery of the celebration. "We're going to enjoy this tonight, come out tomorrow, play baseball, win as many games as we can, get some guys some rest and get ready for the playoffs. "It is a tremendous feeling. I'm a lifer in baseball, a veteran in baseball and never been around a team I'm more proud of. But we've got to keep it going. The goal is to get to the World Series. I'm not going to let myself go until we get there." As the champagne flew across the visitors' clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum, nobody seemed particularly worried who they might play in the first round. "All I care about is my teammates going crazy," Young said. "It's just a great feeling. We have worked extremely hard and been through a lot. They deserve it. We're on our way, our goal is to become world champs. This is step one. "The fun part is everybody is happy for me, but I don't deserve it more than anybody. I'm happy for Wash. I'm sure there is a ton of emotion going through him and all that he has been through. I'm so happy for him." The Rangers still need 11 more wins to reach their goal. They need three in the AL Division Series, four in the AL Championship Series and four in the World Series. The opportunity is there. The Rangers are back in the playoffs. "That's amazing," Andrus said. "That's unbelievable. This is the best feeling in my life. We can't stop here. We've got 11 games to go. But we got one of our goals. We want the next two." "There is no better feeling in the world," outfielder David Murphy said. "We've got work to do, but today is what we have been working for and we did it."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.