ARLINGTON -- They were standing and cheering for Brad Wilkerson in the fourth inning on Tuesday night and they were up on their feet for him again in the sixth. Then came the seventh and the strangest, most improbable sight of all, and it wasn't just his third home run of the night that sealed the Rangers 8-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The sight that was a sight to behold was a crowd of 24,871 fans at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington standing up and cheering for Wilkerson and not stopping until he came back out of the dugout to doff his cap.
That's right -- the man who was traded for Alfonso Soriano was given his first curtain call with the Rangers. "It was a special night, something I'll never forget," said Wilkerson, who hasn't hit three home runs in a game since he was an All-American at the University of Florida. Wilkerson hit a three-run home run in the fourth that gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead, a solo shot leading off the sixth and a two-run home run in the seventh. That gave him six RBIs, also a career high, and it was the 14th time a Ranger has hit three home runs in a game. "He was outstanding," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I always said Wilkerson was a professional. He may not do a lot of things that you like but he does enough that you like. He's a baseball player." Wilkerson is the third Major League player to hit three home runs this year. Carlos Lee did it for the Astros in April and -- yes, that's right -- Soriano did it for the Cubs in June. Soriano and Wilkerson, that's a pair that will forever be linked in the minds of Rangers fans. Wilkerson was just one of three players acquired for Soriano in the winter of 2005-06, but the other two are footnotes. Wilkerson has borne the brunt of the criticism for the trade and the criticism has been harsh. Little slack is cut for playing last year with a bad shoulder that eventually required surgery. Wilkerson hasn't been deaf to it all and he understood the significance of getting a standing ovation and curtain call on Tuesday night. "It felt great," Wilkerson admitted. "It was a situation where I came over here last year for a very popular player and you've got to do your job. Last year didn't turn out the way they wanted or the way I wanted. I'll be the first one to admit last year wasn't what I expected but hopefully the second half from here on out will be better." Wilkerson had another setback in May when he pulled a hamstring muscle and had to sit on the disabled list for three weeks. But he came back to play first base when Mark Teixeira went on the disabled list and he is turning into a huge factor on a team that has won 12 of the last 18. Wilkerson is hitting .275 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs in his last 14 games. His slugging percentage in that stretch jumped to .765 after Tuesday's demonstration. "It was awesome," winning pitcher Kevin Millwood said. "To know he was hurt all of last year and to go through what he went through and do something he's never done before and help us win a game, it was fun to watch." It also reinforced the respect that Wilkerson carries in the clubhouse among his teammates, which is in direct contrast to what he has had to endure from the fans. "As far as the way we look at Wilky in here and how he prepares, he comes to play hard," shortstop Michael Young said. "He plays the game the right way. I could care less about what anybody says about him, we're very confident about him." Wilkerson started his night by striking out against Ervin Santana, the Angels starter who was the one initially who looked like he was going to have a night to remember. He struck out nine of the first 13 batters he faced and people were starting to look up records that are held by Nolan Ryan. The game turned though on the ninth strikeout. Marlon Byrd, leading off the fourth with the Rangers trailing 2-0, swung and missed at strike three, and the ball got away from catcher Jose Molina. Byrd reached first base, Frank Catalanotto singled to right and Gerald Laird bunted the runners over. That brought up Wilkerson and he smashed a 2-1 pitch into the Rangers bullpen to give them the lead. That was the end of Santana's magic and the beginning of Wilkerson's march toward something that not many could have foreseen.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.