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Rangers' rocky road only made winning AL West title that much sweeter

Only Josh Hamilton managed to stay dry when the Texas Rangers celebrated the franchise's first division title in 11 years, drenching the visitor's clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum with champagne and beer.

The slugging outfielder, who battled drug and alcohol addictions early in his career, dressed quickly and quietly in a nearby trainer's room after the Rangers ended the Angels' three-year hold on the AL West title.

He had to convince a few teammates to not pour bottles of water on him, explaining he had other postgame activities in mind. It was church day in Oakland and Hamilton planned to join some of the Athletics in sharing stories of their faith with fans.

"So it would be kind of hypocritical of me to come in here and douse myself with alcohol and smoke cigars and then go out there and talk about Jesus," Hamilton said.

The Rangers endured a rocky path from spring training to their fourth division title and first since 1999 and weren't shy about savoring their success.

"There's no better feeling I've had playing baseball," second baseman Ian Kinsler said as a mixture of beer and champagne flowed down his cheeks. "It was a great team effort and it's the way we've been playing baseball all year. We just seem to pick each other up constantly."

Third baseman Michael Young, a six-time All-Star, is in the playoffs for the first time after 10-plus seasons with the Rangers and is the longest tenured player on the team's roster.

"It's the most amazing thing I've ever been a part of," Young said, as bottles of champagne continued to pop and flow around him. "We had a couple stretches where we struggled, but we adjusted right away. We know that we're always, always, always going to come back."

It hasn't always been easy.

The season began with manager Ron Washington's admission that he used cocaine. The team also had an ownership change in August when a group led by former Rangers star and current team president Nolan Ryan purchased the club from Tom Hicks.

There have also been ups and downs on the field.

Opening-day pitcher Scott Feldman, who led the Rangers with 17 wins in 2009, struggled early and was moved to the bullpen in late July. So was right-hander Rich Harden, who began the year as the team's No. 2 starter.

Texas has struggled at times without Hamilton, an MVP contender who is hitting .361 with 31 homers and 97 RBIs. He has missed the last three weeks because of two ribs he broke running into the outfield wall in Minnesota on Sept. 4. He is to be re-evaluated in the next few days.

Through it all, the Rangers rolled on.

"A lot of the other teams that I was on that made it to the division championships, we had some veteran guys in there and some guys that had already been a part of things," said Washington, an assistant in Oakland for 11 seasons before taking the top spot in Texas after the 2006 season. "These guys had to learn on the job. The reward is greater than anything I've ever experienced, and I'm the manager. I never managed a team that won anything so I'm very pleased with that."

The front office, which signed free agent slugger Vladimir Guerrero away from the division rival Los Angeles Angels in the offseason, traded for veteran catcher Bengie Molina on July 1 and then acquired 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee from Seattle that same month.

Fittingly it was another late addition, Jorge Cantu, who drove in the game-winning run with a home run in the eighth inning during the playoff-clinching win over the A's.

Pitching has been the biggest key for Texas.

While Lee has been mediocre since the trade — 4-6 with a 4.25 ERA — C.J. Wilson is 14-7 after having never won more than five games in five previous seasons. Fellow starters Tommy Hunter (13) and Colby Lewis (11) also have career-highs for wins, while closer Neftali Feliz has a rookie record 38 saves.

The Rangers went into Sunday's game with a collective ERA of 3.90. If that holds, it will be the team's lowest since Texas compiled a 3.83 in 1990.

"The offense has been hot and cold throughout the year," Hamilton said. "But the pitching staff has kept us in games and defense has helped us win them."

"It's better than anything I've ever experienced," said Washington, who is in the final season of his four-year contract with Texas. "When you're the head guy in charge you're always putting out fires and everything lands in your lap. The thing I'm proud of is that these guys landed in my lap."

Clinching a playoff spot in Oakland was fitting for Washington. He remains popular at the Coliseum, and several security guards and ushers asked to work the weekend series so they could be around to see Washington and his players celebrate if they won.

They did, and everyone got wet except for Hamilton.

"It's a proud day in Texas," he said. "It's been a long time. For the veteran guys who have been around here, it's pretty cool."