Tailgaters began staking out positions in the parking lots around Rangers Ballpark before dawn on Friday, and by midmorning, the whole place had the look and feel of a street fair.
That was the atmosphere inside the ballpark too, as a roaring crowd of 49,085 saluted their team for two spectacularly successful seasons and the sense that the best is yet to come. "When it's full, this is the loudest ballpark I've ever been in," Rangers designated hitter Michael Young said after a 3-2 victory over the White Sox.
This day showed why the Rangers begin their 41st season filled with optimism and expectation. For instance, there's the bullpen, which might be the best in all of baseball.
It was one of last season's few weaknesses, and the thing general manager Jon Daniels set to upgrade during the offseason. He began that work by acquiring Mike Adams and Koji Uehara at the trading deadline and finished it by signing closer Joe Nathan and Japanese star Yu Darvish during the offseason.
Nathan's arrival allowed Neftali Feliz, who had six blown saves and was occasionally erratic with his command, to move into the rotation. Darvish's signing meant Alexi Ogando could switch back to the bullpen, where he'd excelled in 2010.
Did we mention that Ogando made the American League All-Star team as a starter last season when he went 13-8?
When Daniels was done, the Rangers had terrific arms lined up for the late innings. There's so much depth that neither the rotation nor the bullpen should be overworked.
"When guys need a breather, we have guys that can fill in from the sixth inning on," Nathan said. "We have multiple guys."
Manager Ron Washington had them lined up on Friday. He was more than happy to accept a six-inning, two-run performance from starter Colby Lewis, especially after the Rangers scored a run in the bottom of the sixth for a 3-2 lead.
And then the parade started. Ogando struck out the White Sox in order in the top of the seventh, getting Gordon Beckham and Alejandro De Aza on 97-mph fastballs and Brent Morel on an 85-mph slider.
"Wow, he looked fresh," Washington said. "He was very impressive."
Adams brought his 94-mph heat in for the eighth, and then Nathan, long one of baseball's top closers, pitched a scoreless ninth for his first save with the Rangers.
"You saw it today," Lewis said. "The front office has done a great job bringing guys together."
Ogando is the most interesting piece to the puzzle because he started 29 games last season. He was dominant at times, but seemed to run out of gas late in the season and finished with just 169 innings.
When Daniels looked at his club, he decided that Ogando's strength might be his ability to pitch multiple innings in relief. Ogando preferred to remain in the rotation, but emphasized again on Friday that he'll do whatever is asked of him.
"I'd like to start, but this is what they want me to do," he said. "I felt good today, real strong."
Down the hallway, the White Sox were acknowledging that what they'd faced is special.
But the Rangers remain confident that Darvish will be a 200-inning workhorse and that younger starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison will continue to get better. The Rangers also have a former 17-game winner, Scott Feldman, in their bullpen.
Nathan, 37, has long been one of baseball's most reliable relievers, having averaged 41 saves between 2004 and 2009, before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. On Friday, he sailed through the ninth with a fastball-slider combination that seems as good as ever.
"You have to go up there ready to swing the bat," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. "A guy like Nathan comes in throwing 92, 93 [mph], and that's the least you're going to face. You have to be ready to go. And they aren't just hard throwers. They're quality. One good guy leaves the game and here comes another one. There's a reason why they've gone to two World Series."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less