They’re Not Dead Yet

Rain Game
I think about how the last week of the 2012 season transpired. The Rangers split a four game set with Oakland, which put them up four games in the division with six games to play. Their magic number was three. Texas proceeded to lose two of three at home to Los Angeles (one on a blown Joe Nathan save), and were swept in the final three games in Oakland. Oakland closed those last six games 6-0, while Texas went 1-5. It was literally a historic collapse. 
Now, this year, the Rangers finished the season on a seven-game win streak and have secured a tie for the second Wild Card spot. Yes, those seven wins came against Houston and Los Angeles, and yes, a tie for a Wild Card spot isn’t how you dream of a season extending past Game 162, but right now, it feels like a big accomplishment.

This seven-game win streak came at the end of a month that began with the team going 5-15, failing to win a series until the sweeps against the Astros and Angels. At the start of this week, if Texas had closed the season 6-1 the odds of getting into a Wild Card game looked good, but it wouldn’t have been good enough after all. The Rangers couldn’t miss a step, and they didn’t.

This is a different Rangers club from the teams they have put on the field in 2011 and 2012. This Rangers team is more like the Orioles club that beat them in a play-in game last year. Texas has relied on come-from-behind wins, timely offense, and a strong bullpen all season long to get to where they are. Now it will be Texas that trots its fourth starter out against the other team’s ace in a win-or-go-home Game 163. Only now it’s not Joe Saunders vs. Yu Darvish, it’s Martin Perez vs. David Price.

Texas played Sunday’s final game of the year as if it was their final game of the year. That’s how they’ll have to play on Monday against Tampa Bay, too, and if successful, they’ll need that same mentality Tuesday at Cleveland. There is a lot of experience in the Rangers clubhouse, and as Joe Nathan said after Saturday’s win, “I feel like we’ve been playing Game 7 for a week now.” Maybe that feeling has left the team stretched too thin to make a postseason run, or maybe it has only sharpened their resolve.

That win-or-die mentality is the reason that I agreed with Ron Washington pulling Yu Darvish from Sunday’s game, even though there were two outs in the sixth inning and he was at 85 pitches with a one-run lead, two on, and Josh Hamilton at the plate. Darvish is the Rangers Ace, and his being pulled Sunday takes nothing away from the spectacular season he has had. However, Darvish had just walked Mike Trout on four pitches, and was showing signs of losing his command. Recently, when Darvish starts to lose his command in the 5th, 6th, or 7th innings, he becomes far more vulnerable.

Wash went and got Neal Cotts to set up the lefty-lefty matchup on Hamilton, who has extreme platoon splits (.808 OPS vs RHP, .589 OPS vs. LHP this season). That move stretched the bullpen to record 10 outs in that win, but it showed that the Rangers knew they were playing with no margin for error. Cotts didn’t make his pitch and Hamilton delivered the game-tying single, but overall the bullpen was brilliant in closing out the crucial win.

Speaking of the bullpen, in the last week of games, here is the line the bullpen posted: 20.2 IP, 10 H, 1 R, 7 BB, 27 SO. That is a 0.44 ERA. They were outstanding, and will need to continue to be. Joe Nathan and Tanner Scheppers have pitched on four straight days. Neal Cotts and Robbie Ross pitched in three of the final four games. Those four need a day off that they will not get. If they can hold up, they’re a powerful force at the end of the game, giving Ron Washington the option to shorten the game to six innings, and take out a starter who may be laboring to go deeper in the game. Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria are strong options too, and Alexi Ogando could join the bullpen soon. In close games, in playoff games, bullpens play a significant role. Right now, the Rangers late-innings bunch is the best in the American League.

After being miserable for the first 20 games of September, the Rangers offense really turned it around in the last week. The home run ball came back, and was desperately needed. The bats on this team are like an NBA game – it’s all about streaks and runs, and they seem to be in the middle of a good streak at the right time. Now, Nelson Cruz (one of the streakiest hitters of all of them), will be joining them for the rest of the way, however long that goes. He could be a big boost to the lineup if he’s going right. Even if he isn’t going right, it’s unlikely he can be much worse than what the Rangers have put out there at DH for most of the year. As I wrote about previously, Cruz will be highly motivated, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a lot of hunger in the Rangers clubhouse. I said before they’re experienced, but they’re not yet an accomplished bunch. Pierzynski, Cotts, and Berkman are the only players with a World Series ring. That leaves a considerable group of veterans searching for one of their own. Joe Nathan, Ian Kinsler, and Adrian Beltre are at the top of the list. Alex Rios is still looking for his first playoff game experience. Nelson Cruz needs redemption from the 2011 World Series, but also has a short window of time to earn his next contract. On top of that, this team was all but dead in the water seven days ago. There should be a lot of “nobody believed in us but us” in them, too.

The road gets harder now. These must-win games are now a must-win for the other side as well. Momentum doesn’t carry over from game to game, so everything that has happened for the first 162, and even the last seven, gets thrown out the window. Strip that away, and maybe we’re left with a Texas Rangers ball club that isn’t talented enough, and over-extended itself just to get this berth. Going against David Price, it could be a quick exit for the Rangers. But there is something special about the mix of guys in that Texas dugout that gets me really fired up to watch them take the field on September 30th, playing for their shot at October.

The saying goes “just get in the playoffs, and anything can happen”. I think the Rangers have the composition and possess the constitution to be one of those teams that embodies the old cliché. For all intents and purposes, they’re in now. Anything can happen.

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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