PHOENIX – Seventeen times this season, his first with the Texas Rangers, Travis Jankowski appeared in a game without getting a single plate appearance. Since debuting nine years ago with the San Diego Padres, he has never started even 100 games in a season. In his first three career postseason games, across two teams, Jankowski did not get a single plate appearance. Prior to Tuesday in Phoenix, the 32-year-old had played in six career postseason games, never once entering before the eighth inning.
In other words, he’s a late-inning defensive replacement.
But on Monday, in the middle of the World Series, Jankowski told his wife, Lindsey: “Hey, babe, I might be in there tomorrow. So you might want to get to the game a little earlier.”
He was pretty sure the Rangers were about to get some very bad news.
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If there’s one thing that had been working for Texas this postseason, it was the right fielder: Adolis García, who started the team’s first 15 games. For a guy who barrels up the ball better than 96% of the league, he also plays a pretty spiffy defense.
“I’m surprised when everybody runs on Adolis,” catcher Jonah Heim said after Game 3, calling him a “Gold Glove-caliber right fielder.”
But the glove is not what got García to be the Rangers’ ALCS MVP. Among all players who had at least 30 plate appearances in the postseason, García is second in slugging and second in wRC+. He already set a record for most RBI in a single postseason (22), and he had an OPS of 1.108 when he took an awkward swing in Game 3 and exited due to an oblique injury.
The Rangers won that one 3-1, but it proved to be pyrrhic. García got to the ballpark early the next day for treatment and to take a few hacks in the cage to assess whether he could still contribute. Even that is a testament to how badly he wanted to be back out there; oblique injuries can take weeks to heal. And so, shortly before Game 4, the team announced that García and Max Scherzer had both been removed from the roster — ending their seasons with Texas just two wins from a title. They were replaced by lefty reliever Brock Burke and utilityman Ezequiel Duran.
Rangers manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Chris Young avowed confidence in the team’s resilience, their mental fortitude, their character in confronting adversity. But character can’t drive in runs or toss a couple of scoreless innings. The truth is, losing Scherzer and García — and García especially, as Scherzer has been limited and is hardly his vintage self — was a big blow.
“I can’t imagine going through a season putting up the numbers he did, having an incredible postseason, breaking records and not being able to take the field to finish the job,” Jankowski said.
Jankowski realized there was a possibility he’d replace García as soon as the slugger was diagnosed with the oblique strain Monday, and he started mentally preparing that night.
“I was ready to go,” he said of recognizing the possibility that he’d get his first career postseason start. “Shoot, I’ve been ready to go. Fifteen years ago, I was waiting for this.”
Game 4 fell on Halloween. That morning, the Rangers hosted a trick-or-treat event in their team hotel for players’ kids (and some players …) who dressed up. Jankowski took his four kids, dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters. It was a good distraction from wondering if he was about to play the biggest game of his life.
“You don’t want to sit in your room and think about it all day. The more you think about it, the more you just start to get anxious about it,” he said. “It was cool to be like, ‘Hey, you know, this is a World Series, but we’re human.’”
Around 2 p.m., Jankowski found out officially that he was starting, batting ninth and playing right field.
“You see your name in that lineup in a World Series, and it gets a little emotional,” he said. “You get a little bit of nerves.”
But when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat, they didn’t show. It was the second inning, and Miguel Castro was on the mound. In lieu of a traditional starter, the Arizona Diamondbacks planned to cover all nine innings of Game 4 with relievers, and already they were on their second pitcher. Josh Jung had scored on a wild pitch after doubling to give the Rangers an early lead. Leody Taveras had walked, putting one on with two outs for Jankowski.
When he joined the Rangers on a minor-league deal in January, the coaches had one mechanical tweak they wanted him to make — he held his bat too flat, so they wanted him to change the angle ever so slightly to be more vertical — and a new mental approach in mind.
“We wanted to just double down on what was important to him,” offensive coordinator Donnie Ecker said. “He’s not a guy that wants to hit homers. We wanted to kind of get to the root of who he is as a human, what makes him feel like a good hitter, and that’s just being a line-drive hitter.”
Jankowski smacked a single up the middle to keep the inning alive and turn over the lineup. Then a long-slumping Marcus Semien finally broke out, tripling down the left-field line to score Taveras and Jankowski. The Rangers plated five runs in the frame and added five more in the next.
In that third inning, again with two outs and this time with the bases loaded, Jankowski doubled to drive in two and then scored on Semien’s first home run of the postseason.
The final score was 11-7, but it wasn’t even that close until the final two innings.
“If you guys should be talking to anyone, should be talking to Marcus,” Jankowski said to the throng of media mobbing him at his locker afterward. “He had a heck of a game.”
Elsewhere, Semien offered his evaluation: “Travis stepped up today.”
A whole bunch of them did. Andrew Heaney threw five innings of one-run ball — his longest outing this October — a day after the bullpen was pressed into extra service by Scherzer’s early exit. But mostly, the Rangers won with offense. Semien ended the night with five RBI. Corey Seager hit his third home run of the World Series, Heim his first.
“Honestly, when you hit in this lineup, you know that you don’t have to do too much,” Jankowski said. “I knew that I didn’t have to go out and have the postseason Adolis was having.”
“It’s a celebration of the system,” Ecker said of Jankowski’s two-hit night. “It’s kind of like, this is what we do here. When you become a Texas Ranger, immediately we expect your at-bat quality to be the best in the league. So it’s kind of a standard here that we talk about — the minute you’re on this offense, you’re immediately now in the upper echelon for the way you approach your at-bats.”
Every day, the Rangers name a Hitter of the Day. That player gets to say a little something in the meeting and choose the next recipient of the award. After Game 3, it was Seager. But rather than wait for him to pick someone else, “we sort of made sure Doli was going to get it,” Ecker said.
That way, García could address his teammates in the pregame hitters’ meeting.
“His message was that he really wishes he could be out there,” Ecker said. “And he’s still with us and to go finish this thing.”
On Tuesday, the Rangers came within a game of doing so. They’ll have a chance to win their franchise’s first championship on Wednesday. But before that, they will have to name a new Hitter of the Day.
“Doli’s going to pick,” Ecker said, “And it’s gonna be a tough one. A lot of choices.”