By Fred Goodall
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Texas Rangers are headed back to the AL championship series, thanks to a power surge by Adrian Beltre that few players in major league history have matched.
Beltre hit three straight home runs and the defending AL champions advanced again, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in Game 4 Tuesday to win their playoff matchup.
Texas took this best-of-five series and ended the Rays’ remarkable run to the AL wild-card spot. The Rangers will play for the pennant against the winner of the Detroit Tigers-New York Yankees series.
Beltre became just the seventh player to homer three times in a postseason game, and the first since Adam Kennedy of the Angels in 2002. Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and George Brett also are on the list.
The Texas slugger connected in his first three at-bats. Given a chance to tie the big league record of four homers in a game, Beltre hit a routine flyout in the eighth against Wade Davis.
Neftali Feliz gave up a run in the ninth inning before closing for his third save of the series, preserving the victory for Matt Harrison.
Texas won for the fifth straight time on the road overall — all at Tropicana Field — in the opening round. The Rangers eliminated Tampa Bay in five games last year.
Ian Kinsler led off the game for Texas by homering on the second pitch from rookie Jeremy Hellickson.
Then it was Beltre’s turn. He came into the game in an 1-for-11 slump in this series before breaking loose.
“The first couple games their pitching was really good,” Beltre said. “Today something changed, I felt more comfortable at the plate, and I did something to help my team win.”
Beltre hit solo shots off Hellickson in the second and fourth innings, and added another solo drive against Game 1 winner Matt Moore in the seventh. The Rays weren’t the only ones who had trouble keeping up with Beltre — a television cameraman trying to run alongside Beltre to capture the image as the star jogged home did a face-first pratfall.
Beltre signed with Texas in the offseason after playing last year in Boston. He and Kinsler tied for the team lead with 32 homers, and Beltre had been on a late-season tear going into the playoffs.
“That’s one of the main reasons I came to this team. We’re looking good right now, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.
Texas reached the World Series for the first time last year, but lost to San Francisco.
Down 2-0 early, the Rays literally rammed their way back into the game.
Sean Rodriguez drew a one-out walk in the second and took off when Matt Joyce lined a two-out double to the gap in right-center field. Rodriguez barreled around third base and plowed into catcher Mike Napoli, jarring the ball loose.
Rodriguez knocked Napoli backward, scrambled to his feet and touched the plate with his hand.
It was the second plate collision in the playoffs this year. St. Louis’ Jon Jay ran over Philadelphia’s Carlos Ruiz in an unsuccessful attempt to score during Game 2 of the Cardinals’ matchup against the Phillies.
Manager Rob Washington and the Rangers trainer left the dugout to check on the woozy Napoli, who remained in the game. Napoli got more attention in-between innings and stayed in the lineup.
The play energized the crowd of 28,299, about 4,000 less than Monday night, which was announced as a sellout. But several innings later, the Rays’ season was over.
Rodriguez scored all three runs for the Rays. He drew a one-out walk and scored on Casey Kotchman’s single, but Feliz retired the next two batters.
Tampa Bay certainly gave its faithful, and fans everywhere, quite a ride in the final month. Manager Joe Maddon’s team overcame a nine-game deficit against Boston in the wild-card standings, then rallied from seven runs to beat the Yankees on the last day of the regular season to reach the playoffs for the third time in four years despite a small payroll.
Harrison, who made a relief appearance in the Rangers loss in the series opener, pitched five innings and won in his first postseason start. The Texas bullpen took over after that.
Texas’ five consecutive division series road wins matches the second-longest streak in big league history.
The Atlanta Braves won a record eight straight from 1995-99 and the Yankees won five in a row from 2003-05.