The Game Of The Year, So Far

Moreland
We harp all the time about not over-reacting to small sample sizes, and that each game is just one of 162. We (the elitist educated baseball fan — yes we are, and you are too, admit it) tell others to stick to football when they lose all confidence in a team that drops three in a row or start planning parade routes after an 8-1 stretch. Sample sizes that are meaningful are made up of single games, innings, or at-bats, and while we should never lose sight of the forest for the trees, those trees can still be beautiful enough that they’re worth a second look. As an educated baseball fan, we don’t put much stock in one game. But as a baseball fan, sometimes you just have to enjoy that one game. 
This is what I found myself doing after the Rangers played the Tigers on Saturday night. The Rangers won that game, 7-1, and while it was just one game, it was one really good game. Here are six reasons why this game is at the top of my list for favorite games the Rangers have played so far in 2013.

1. The Rangers needed a win

This wasn’t a must-win game. It’s still too early in the season for must-win games, no matter who the opponent is. The Rangers entered Saturday’s game in Detroit the losers of three straight, with the last two games before the All-Star break coming against a good team in a tough ballpark, with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander on the hill. Injuries have depleted the roster, to the point that in most years, the caliber of the starting rotation on the Rangers disabled list would be the envy of many clubs around the league. The Rangers might have limped into the All-Star break losers of five straight (similar to how they lost four in a row headed into the break in 2010), and no one would have really blamed them. Few teams have faced so much adversity in their first 95 games in a season.

Winning that game on Saturday was the difference between the Rangers getting swept in Detroit or having the moral victory of having stolen one game. It was the difference between a 3-4 road trip and a 2-5 road trip. It was the difference between being down three games to Oakland at the break, or only down by two. It wasn’t a must win, but they just needed a victory, and they got it.

2. Derek Holland stepped up

In the previous four games before Holland’s start on Saturday, the Rangers trotted out Martin Perez, Josh Lindblom, Ross Wolf, and Justin Grimm as their starting pitchers. While Perez has been solid since being recalled from the minors in June, the current state of the Rangers rotation is a patchwork quilt that is one tumble on a warm water cycle away from coming apart at the seams. The bullpen is being overworked as a result, more pressure is placed on the offense to score and to score early, and the whole club simply needed relief from the daily fear of the starting pitcher failing to make it out of the fourth inning.

Under these circumstances, Holland delivered seven innings of one-run ball on the road against one of the scariest lineups in baseball. It wasn’t always pretty. Holland walked five batters, and worked into jams with two men on the 1st inning, the bases loaded in the 3rd inning, and two men on in the fourth, but he got out of each of those jams relatively unscathed, something the Derek Holland of prior years most likely would not have done.

Holland has stepped up for this ballclub all season long. In this game, as it was a national broadcast, the  TV booth conducted interviews with one member from each dugout. Normally, this person is a pitcher of stature who is on an off day, as was the case with the Tigers’ Justin Verlander doing the interview. For the Rangers, pitching coach Mike Maddux was subjected to the three minutes of forced dialogue. Maddux had to do it because with all of the injuries to the Rangers, there was no viable candidate on the Rangers roster. Were it not his night to start, it would have been Holland who would have had the microphone put in his face, as has been the case multiple times this season. It doesn’t add anything to his WAR total for the year (which now ranks 9th among AL pitchers), but that vocal representative for the team is a leadership position that Holland has filled this year, and he has done so in a mature, professional manner. He’s stepped up in many ways.

3. The offense gave a little bit of everything

After three innings, the Rangers had mustered two baserunners against Scherzer, but as the pitcher with the highly touted 13-0 record coming into the game, it seemed clear that scoring runs would be at a premium on this night. Finally, in the fourth inning, the Rangers manufactured a run on a Nelson Cruz leadoff double, Adrian Beltre groundout to the right side of the infield, and an AJ Pierzynski sacrifice fly. A hit and two productive outs to squeeze across one run. It felt like the type of run that is scored in a playoff game.

After that, the Rangers offense opened up for six more runs on a walk and a home run in the fourth, a walk and a steal followed by a double in the fifth, then in the ninth another walk and a steal preceding an infield single that scored Ian Kinsler hustling from second to cross the plate after the ball never left the infield, and a home run.

The offense did a little bit of everything. Ron Washington put Leonys Martin in the two-hole in the lineup for the first time all season. No one bunted. And the Rangers won some half-price pizza from Papa John’s for all of us against the team that has been funded by Domino’s Pizza and Little Caesar’s money for the last 30 years.

4. It was against Max Scherzer on a national broadcast

That Max Scherzer entered the game 13-0 is impressive. That he was aiming to be the first pitcher to enter an All-Star break at 14-0 would have really been something. That the Rangers busted that streak with Mitch Williams on the call was really delectable.

5. Soria-Cotts

The only two relievers that were needed on this night were Joakim Soria and Neal Cotts, who are both at the top of their game, and on this night would need just 26 pitches to blow through two quick innings, allowing just one baserunner and striking out two in the process. Perhaps even more importantly was that not needed were Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, or Joe Nathan, meaning that those three will have a minimum of eight days (Ross), nine days (Scheppers), and ten days (Nathan) of rest before their next relief appearance (except for Nathan, who will likely get some work in the All-Star game).

6. Mitch Moreland went oppo

A critical component to the early-season success for Mitch Moreland, which has not been so frequent a sight since his return from the disabled list, was his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field for extra bases. Like most batters, Moreland is at his best when he is using all fields. In the fourth inning, he took Scherzer deep over the left-center field wall for a 403-foot blast that would end up giving the Rangers all the runs they needed. It was Moreland’s first home run since re-joining the club after his hamstring injury, and just his third extra-base hit.

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I’m not proclaiming this one game to be a turning point in the Rangers’ season, or that it has any more significance than being just one out of 162. This was just a high-quality baseball game played by the good guys in a playoff atmosphere on the road. There was good pitching, timely hitting, hustle plays, and an all-around team effort that makes baseball fun to watch. It doesn’t happen every time out, so it’s worth recognizing, cherishing, and celebrating. 
Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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