ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Hamilton often dreamed about the first playoff game of his career. He would bat in the middle of the lineup and roam the Tropicana Field outfield.
It will come to pass Wednesday with one wrinkle. The leftfielder will be with the Rangers rather than the Rays for the American League division series.
"Ironic," Hamilton, 29, said Sunday. "Looking at where I am now and what team I'm with and where I started — in Tampa Bay — it's pretty cool to come full circle."
The Rays took Hamilton with the first overall pick in 1999. A hellish relationship followed with Hamilton missing 2003-05 because of suspensions for drug use. Hamilton left when Cincinnati acquired him via the Rule 5 draft in December 2006.
A year later, he went to Texas for right-handed starter Edinson Volquez and left-handed reliever Danny Herrera.
Hamilton has found peace and contentment with the Rangers. This season, he won the AL batting title at .359 and with 32 homers and 100 RBIs ranks among the top candidates for the Most Valuable Player Award.
"The main thing is that he's healthy," Texas third baseman Michael Young said. "As long as he's healthy, we're a better team."
Hamilton's health will be a vital element in this series.
He missed 24 games in September with two fractured ribs. He returned for the final three games of the regular season and pronounced himself at less than full speed but ready for the Rays.
"Not as good as ever," Hamilton said, "but good enough."
Hamilton went 3-for-11 with one homer in three RBIs in the three games against the Angels. He went from a defensive swing Friday to a full, vigorous cut in the season finale with three hard-hit balls.
The key moment came Friday, when Hamilton fell while chasing a ball in the outfield. He was sore but kept playing.
"That answered some questions," Hamilton said. "(The injury) is nothing that I'm concerned about, nothing that will prevent me from being out there and playing all nine innings."
Rangers manager Ron Washington said Hamilton's weekend performance was a confidence-builder for all concerned.
"We're a different team with Josh Hamilton in the lineup." Washington said.
How different? The Rangers went 71-58 and averaged 5.02 runs in Hamilton's starts and 19-14 and 4.53 runs in all other games.
From the day the Rays drafted Hamilton, they knew he could carry a team to the playoffs.
They just did not expect that team to be the Rangers.