If it feels like C.J. Wilson has been a Texas Ranger for a long time, it's because he has. He was drafted by the Rangers in 2001, and he debuted in June 2005. The first batter he ever faced was Jeff Conine. He relieved in a game started by Chan Ho Park. Wilson's stayed on the roster pretty much the whole time since, through ups and downs, and through various trade proposals.
Wilson's been a Ranger for so long that, in a few short weeks, he'll become a free agent, having accrued six years of major league service. The expectation is that he'll sign a big contract elsewhere, with the New York Yankees among those assumed to be interested. He projects to be the top starting pitcher on the market (depending on the whole Sabathia situation). And so there's a very good chance that Game 5 will be Wilson's last start in a Rangers uniform.
And in that event, how he does will go a long way towards coloring how he's remembered. Maybe it seems unfair to have so much come down to one single game, but then, this is Game 5 of the World Series, and it seems to me that Wilson could go one of two ways.
He could be remembered as a big-time positive contributor, a key component to a team on the rise. Baseball-Reference lists Wilson as the Rangers' all-time franchise leader in ERA+, and while that depends on the innings minimum you set - Bert Blyleven's 142, for example, beats the hell out of Wilson's 126 - it is what it is. As a Ranger, Wilson's tied for 16th in wins, and he's eighth in saves. He was effective as a reliever, posting a 3.65 ERA while pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and he's been more effective as a starter, posting a 3.57 ERA in the same conditions. No matter the role, Wilson's handled it, and he's been a huge part of the Rangers' consecutive runs to the World Series.
But he could also be remembered as a guy who couldn't get it done when he needed to. This is the narrative that Wilson's currently fighting - that he can't handle the brightest lights. So far, Wilson's started eight games in the playoffs these last two years. He owns a 5.32 ERA, and, more importantly, the Rangers have gone 2-6 in his starts. He's 0-2 in the World Series, pending the Game 5 decision, and if he struggles again, and if the Rangers lose, it'll be hard for a lot of people to look past his postseason record.
And I don't even know if I'd be able to blame them. Let's say Wilson has a rough go of it Monday. Let's just say. It wouldn't be a matter of whether or not Wilson is naturally unclutch; it would be that Wilson was unclutch when the Rangers needed him most. Obviously, Wilson has helped the Rangers have two fantastic seasons in a row, but if he contributes to two straight disappointing finishes, that would be a hard thing to forget.
So, yeah, I think it's safe to say this is a pretty critical start for Wilson, for a number of reasons. With this one start, this one game, Wilson could put the Rangers either way ahead or way behind, and he could define the way he's remembered by those who've most closely watched him develop into the quality starter that he's become.
Why should we, as a general audience, care about how Rangers fans remember C.J. Wilson, if this does indeed end up being his final start for them? One answer is that I guess we shouldn't, at least not very much. It's their issue, not ours. Another answer is that this is an interesting angle to tonight's baseball game, and interesting angles make for more interested viewers. A third answer might be something even better than that.
If C.J. Wilson is excellent tonight, and the Rangers win, his prior struggles will be forgotten. If C.J. Wilson is mediocre or bad tonight, and the Rangers lose, his postseason record will be forever seared into Rangers fans' brains. If something else...well, I have no idea. But this could be Wilson's last chance to be a hero.