Rangers take AL Wild Card lead with win

Rangers take AL Wild Card lead with win

ARLINGTON -- The temperature had pushed to 96 degrees on Sunday afternoon when Frank Francisco trotted in from the Rangers' bullpen.

His teammates had been on the field for nearly three hours and were now just three outs away from leading the American League Wild Card race. But the Red Sox had the top of the order waiting, and they were the same hitters who had beaten up Francisco on Friday night.

That was the toughest outing of Francisco's career. Sunday's has to be one of the sweetest.

Francisco needed just 10 pitches to retire the side in order and preserve the Rangers' 4-3 victory over the Red Sox at the Ballpark in Arlington and put his team into the lead in the AL Wild Card race.

Francisco finished the ninth off by striking out Victor Martinez, the same hitter who had hit the two-run go-ahead double off Francisco in the ninth inning on Friday. This time, Francisco got Martinez to swing and miss at a split-fingered fastball in the dirt. Francisco reacted with a howl, a quick clench of his fists and a high-five and chest-bump with catcher Taylor Teagarden.

"I got a little excited," Francisco said. "That was a good game for us, a very important game. I got a little bit excited. Everybody did."

Texas had good reason to celebrate. By taking two of three from the Red Sox, the Rangers now lead the Wild Card race by a half-game. There are still seven weeks, but this is the first time Texas has led any playoff race this late in the season since it won a division title in 1999.

"I'm not worried about leading anything," third baseman Michael Young said. "The big thing is, the fans are coming out; they are really enthusiastic and really into it. The team has a ton of confidence. We know we are a good team. We can bounce back from a tough loss and go right back out there. This team is really playing with confidence."

On a hot Sunday afternoon, Ian Kinsler drove in two runs with a home run and a single, Josh Hamilton had an RBI double and Teagarden hit a home run in the sixth inning that ultimately proved to be the difference maker. He has three home runs in his past seven games, despite some struggles at the plate.

"I feel like I'm capable of providing a boost for the team with a home run or a base hit with a runner on base," Teagarden said. "I'm getting more confident with two strikes, and I'm battling. It's just a matter of getting the right pitch."

If the heat was a factor, it didn't bother the Rangers pitchers. Starter Dustin Nippert held Boston to two runs on six hits and three walks in six quality innings. He has beaten the Red Sox twice at home this season, and is now 4-1, overall, with a 3.52 ERA.

As for the heat, Nippert said, "It was 91 at gametime with a little breeze. It gets up to 104-105 here, so 91 and a little breeze isn't bad."

"The heat is the heat," reliever C.J. Wilson said. "We had 53 straight days of it. The heat is not a factor anymore."

Nippert left with a 4-2 lead. Doug Mathis pitched the seventh, giving up a one-out home run to Dustin Pedroia and a walk to Martinez before getting Jason Bay to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Wilson used 22 pitches to battle through the eighth. He struck out David Ortiz to start the inning, then made it interesting by giving up a single to Mike Lowell and a walk to Casey Kotchman. But he came back to strike out Brian Anderson and Alex Gonzalez to end the inning.

"I threw all my pitches where I want to," Wilson said. "I didn't get calls on some, and I got some on others. I'm not going to give in. They are all good hitters, so I kept making my pitches regardless of the count and put the ball where I wanted to."

With the score 4-3, manager Ron Washington summoned Francisco, who gave up six runs in a blown save on Friday night.

"My mind was clear," Washington said. "The game was at the point where we wanted it to be, and I was giving the ball to the guy I wanted to. All I did what sit back and watch."

He enjoyed the view, even if it didn't last long. Francisco retired Jacoby Ellsbury on a fly to left, then struck out both Pedroia and Martinez to end the game. He wasn't throwing as hard as usual -- 91-92 mph -- but his fastball location was superb. That made all the difference in a 48-hour period, and he earned his 17th save of the season.

"I don't believe in velocity," Francisco said. "I believe if I can go out there and spot my fastball where I want it, I can get any hitter out. I just approached them the same way: Just try to hit my spots, and I did."

It was something to get excited about on a hot afternoon.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.