Aftermath: The Battle Weary vs. The Battle Hardened
The dust has settled, the fire has died down, and the head-to-head Battle for First Place (part one) is over. The reigning, defending Houston Astros, who had sat in the top spot of the American League West since July 26th, now find themselves looking up at the upstart, persistent, incorrigible Texas Rangers.
The opening battles were something of a roller coaster, something of a surprise, perhaps, because of the starting pitchers involved, but by the end of the week long tryst, there was little doubt as to who looks to be better suited to finish this season out in the top spot. As Houston heads home to try to find where it went wrong, they limp out of this battle, perhaps less-filled with confidence than when they came in. The Rangers, continuing to defend their turf in Arlington, have finally found that point where the gears are moving in sync and the players are forming a cohesive unit. At this point, it’s Texas’ division to lose.
How did they do it?
The bats. If there was ever a time for Prince Fielder‘s bat to come back to life, this was the series to do it. There was the slow burning build up from the Oakland series over the weekend, all leading to the final discarding of weeks of frustration – a tie-breaking two-run blast to dead center field in the series opener. The barrage continued for Fielder the next day, as he drove in the first run of the game, and came to an ultimate head in the complete drubbing of Houston on Wednesday, as Fielder crushed two baseballs and drove in five runs. Fielder’s last hot “streak” lasted for three and a half months. If this lasts just half that amount of time, the Rangers will find themselves playing into November.
Shin-Soo Choo continues to roll along. Not only as the team’s best hitter, but also its most consistent hitter, the turnaround of the Rangers’ right fielder has been nothing short of impressive. If there were an award for Comeback Player of the Second Half, Choo would likely be the front runner. During this series, Choo hit .500, going 8-for-16, scored six runs, and drove in the backbreaking final two runs of the series. At this point, it feels like if there’s a pitch in the strike zone, Choo is going to put it in some outfield grass. Take this into consideration: in sixteen games this month, Choo has gone hitless just three times. In one of those three games, he walked three times. In the other two, he got hit by a pitch. That means Choo has been on base in every single game this month.
There’s been one other huge, noteworthy contribution to the offensive lineup, and while we’ll get to how he found a place in the lineup a little later, the presence of Mike Napoli simply cannot be overlooked. The man brought in to be a lefty-killer faced two Houston southpaws and was of such importance in the structure of the lineup, that he started against a right-hander in the series finale. For those of you who are reminded of 2010/2011 by looking at this team, it’s because there’s not really a weak spot in this lineup. Where you once could count on Kinsler-Andrus-Hamilton-Beltre-Young-Cruz-Moreland-Napoli-Martin being a penciled in lineup any given day, down this stretch, the most sensible lineup can be written down as DeShields-Choo-Fielder-Beltre-Moreland-Napoli-Odor-Andrus-(catcher). Those 4-7 spots in the lineup, thanks to the re-addition of Napoli, are scary, no matter what the percentages or match-ups say.
The arms. The starters set the tone from the first pitch of the ballgame each night. Their in-game journeys would be the overall arc of each game. Whether it would be a struggle or a fairly easy coast, the starters put forth in this game did their jobs by keeping the opposition to equal of fewer runs than his own team. We’ll get into the strategic realignment of the rotation a little later, but the men that Jon Daniels wanted to get the job done did just that every night.
Cole Hamels pitched the starting game of the series, the game in which Houston perhaps had its best chance to make a statement as the defending first place team. Your toughest pitcher going against (at the time) the toughest team. That’s how it should have been, that’s how it was, and that game reflected the most difficult fight of the series. When it looked like Texas would come within striking distance, Houston would get back on top. Was Hamels dominant? No, but he kept the team in the fight.
Derek Holland did not have anything going for him. After coughing up a four-run lead, though, the Dutch Oven fought, battled and prevented his manager from having to blow through more bullpen pieces than absolutely necessary. He finished his fight with his team still in a position to win the game. That game finished with an Astros-soul-crushing walk-off.
That walk-off seemed to sap the rest of the energy from Houston, as the following night, recovering Tommy John pitcher Martin Perez buzzsawed his way through the now-second-place Astros after being spotted to a 6-0 lead. This was the statement game for the Rangers, obliterating Houston’s ace, Dallas Keuchel and handing him the worst outing of his career at probably the worst possible time. Perez went seven full innings, and with the offense taking care of business, the “winning” pieces got to take the night off.
Then came the General, the war-horse, Colby Lewis. While Hamels is the hype-piece acquired by Texas, and Holland is something of a face of the Rangers, this man, Colby Lewis, is the person who does his best work when the most is on the line. Here, with Houston needing to try and come away with something to show they were still in the fight, Colby Lewis didn’t dominate them, but he did what he does best – frustrate bats, make the pitches necessary, go the necessary number of innings for that night, and do all of it with a fairly unnerving gaze of stoicism.
The work of the bullpen this series cannot be overlooked either. Over the four game series, the relief corps gave up just two runs in 10.1 innings. Those two runs came off of a freakishly weird one-handed muscle buster of a home run from Evan Gattis against Andrew Faulkner. Even factoring that in, Faulkner struck out two in his inning of work. Ross Ohlendorf, who probably will not factor into a playoff roster, pitched in meaningful situations and succeeded with confidence.
The manager. At times, the game looked to be too fast for Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch. For a guy who spent just over one year as a Major League manager prior to this stint and only worked in operations and scouting outside of that, the length and pressure of a meaningful season appeared to get to Hinch. There were a couple of questionable decisions that didn’t play favorably for the Astros, both for the series and for the next couple of weeks. From not pitching a lefty specialist against Prince Fielder in the first game (more of a retrospectively questionable decision), to not walking Mitch Moreland, who hit the walk-off sac fly in the second game, to keeping Dallas Keuchel in a game for perhaps a few hitters or a couple of innings too long, potentially impacting his performance down the stretch, A.J. Hinch mismanaged this series. While it comes down to players doing their jobs on the field, Hinch did not put his team in the best position to succeed either in a particular game or for the next few weeks.
Jeff Banister, on the other hand, seemed to have all the right pieces fall into place. While several bullpen moves have been questioned in this second half, every button Banister pushed seemed to be the right one. Even keeping Derek Holland in his game, something that many fans seemed to decry at the moment, looked like a fair move in retrospect, keeping from blowing through the bullpen with an at-the-time much less stable Martin Perez going the following day. Banister’s moves could be seen in the lineup moves, making the decision to put the defensive liability Mike Napoli in left field so he could lengthen, deepen, and strengthen the offense. They could be seen in the pinch-runners he put in at the right time, such as Drew Stubbs, who scored the winning run in game two, coming in for Prince Fielder, when there was no guarantee the game wouldn’t get to Fielder’s spot again. Banister’s experience as a manager in the minor leagues, which he told 105.3 The Fan allowed him to make mistakes and learn from them without any huge repercussions on a Major level, and his years at the side of Clint Hurdle allowed him to formulate the perfect game plan for catapulting his unassuming, unexpected team into a 2.5 game first place lead.
The summary of the series really does come down to the simplicity of a very young, inexperienced, Houston Astros having to defend against a savvy, veteran Texas Rangers team. On Periscope, following the power show Texas put on against Dallas Keuchel, Rangers pre- and post-game host Jared Sandler told a story of how Chris Rose of Intentional Talk was doing a segment in the Astros locker room. Rose mentioned how, if the Texas Rangers won that evening, they would move into first place. Instead of a jovial comeback, a teasing response, or anything to come back and rebuke Chris Rose for his words inside their clubhouse, Sandler, who was visiting for pre-game segments, said that there was a very tense silence. There was no confidence, no excitement, this was a team that had not been through the rigors of having to defend a first place title and does not know the pressure of meaningful baseball yet. The Astros have never been in a position to have to chase down first place when the time is most important.
Conversely, the Rangers have this weird mask thing going on in the clubhouse, are celebrating by faking out game heroes with Gatorade baths, and know how to ration their energy to play in the field. The game is fun, and the veterans like Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, Derek Holland, Cole Hamels, Colby Lewis, Elvis Andrus, and Mitch Moreland know how to handle their business. They keep the mood relaxed, but they also know what gear to shift to when it’s time to make that last big push. This team knows what it takes to keep their territory as a first place club. They control their own destiny, and know how to do it.
That kind of difference, between a Battle Worn, Battle Weary club and a Battle Tested, Battle Hardened team, can prove to be all the difference at the end of a 162-game season.