September 2010

The First Post-Season Roster Prediction

The ALDS is less than a week away now and the Rangers have roster decisions to make. There’s an old saying that states you should “Win with who brung you.” While that is mostly true, the playoffs actually mean a couple of those players who brung you won’t be needed and maybe a couple of players who didn’t contribute much will.

Nowhere is that more true than the pitching department. For most of the season, the Rangers roster operated on a 12 position player/13 pitcher staff. In the ALDS with its best of 5 format, however, the Rangers will be going with a three-man starting rotation instead of the usual five. So the Texas ALDS roster will most likely include 14 position players and only 11 pitchers.

Position Players: Let’s start with the obvious. Assured of position player slots in the ALDS are 2B Ian Kinsler, SS Elvis Andrus, 3B Michael Young, catchers Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor, DH Vlad Guerrero and outfielders Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Nelson Cruz and Julio Borbon. That’s 10 of the 14. Andres Blanco has earned the right to be the back-up to Kinsler and Andrus, so he’ll probably be there as well. That’s 11. Jeff Francoeur has been a very positive contributor since his acquisition, so I think he’ll make it as player #12.

Notice there was no first baseman listed. Here is where big decisions need to be made. Mitch Moreland seems the obvious choice from the left side, but there is a faction still in the corner of Chris Davis. Jorge Cantu hasn’t done much (with the exception of the pennant-winning game), but a right-handed bat is needed at first as well. My guess is the Rangers will go with Moreland and Cantu.

BUT: David Murphy pulled up lame in Wednesday’s game with Seattle and there is concern about the extent of the injury. If Murph can’t go in the ALDS, Davis might go in his place, since Moreland can also play the outfield. But here’s someone else to consider: Esteban German. The infielder is a real base-stealing threat and great to use as a pinch-runner late in the game for Vlad or Bengie Molina. Still, unless Murphy’s out, I just don’t see a spot for German unless Blanco gets shafted out of a spot or the Rangers decide on a 15-10 roster split.

Pitchers: Here are the locks: Cliff Lee, CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver, Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando. That’s 7 of the 11. With a three-man rotation, the Rangers will be able to go with starters in the long relief role, so at least Tommy Hunter will be added to the mix. That leaves only three slots open.

Southpaws Michael Kirkman and Clay Rapada have both impressed in the late season, but I don’t see the Rangers keeping both lefthanders. While I like Kirkman, I think Rapada gets the nod. Dustin Nippert is another righty I think the Rangers will keep, leaving one last slot for a group that includes lefthanders Kirkman, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland and righthanders Scott Feldman, Rich Harden and Mark Lowe, acquired from Seattle in the Cliff Lee deal.

 Lowe just saw his first action after being out with injury in Wednesday’s game and looked good. While I feel bad for Feldman after last year’s 17-win campaign, he just hasn’t done anything to prove he belongs on the ALDS roster. Same with Harden. I actually think I’ll go with Lowe here, despite his lack of time in a Rangers uniform.

Those are my best guesses at this point. It will be interesting to see and disect the actual roster Rangers brass decides to go with.

Smoak-ee and Smoak-er: Rangers 6, Mariners 5

I was ready to curse the “Curse of Smoak” in the first inning, when former Ranger Justin Smoak homered for the third consecutive game against the Rangers, giving Seattle a 2-0 lead in Rich Harden’s “Goodbye and Good Riddance” farewell start.

By the end of the game, instead, I was pleased Texas benefitted from the upside of losing Smoak. He couldn’t handle the throw from catcher on a Nelson Cruz strikeout, allowing Mitch Moreland to score the winning run all the way from first base.

Smoak has shown the last three days that the Rangers would have been well-served sending him back to the minors to get some things straightened out when he was slumping. They couldn’t afford to in a pennant race. When they shipped Smoak off to Seattle in the Cliff Lee deal, he performed even worse for the Mariners. Seattle had nothing to lose so they sent him down to Tacoma. Since his return, Smoak’s stroke seems to have returned as well and he is once again the uber-prospect scouts were talking about from the day he was drafted.

Smoak does have a downside, however. He is slow on the basepaths and slow to the ball defensively. When he arrived in Arlington, he needed extra work on scooping low throws when several scooted past him in game situations.

Wednesday, it was a throw from catcher Smoak couldn’t handle and it cost the M’s the game. Granted, Nelson Cruz’ big body may have affected Smoak’s line of sight, but it’s a play that has to be made and, fortunately for the Rangers, he didn’t.

Now Texas can claim walk-off wins in the last month of 1) a bases loaded HBP; 2) a passed ball on an easily handled pitch; and 3) a two-out strikeout. As mentioned on the radio broadcast, all we need now is a walk-off win on a balk to hit some kind of jackpot.

Win number 88 seals a 4th straight record of improvement in every year of Ron Washington’s tenure. It also ensures a 10 game lead with four games to go and keeps that magic goal of 92 still within reach.

On the downside, David Murphy was pulled early with a groin strain and how much time he’ll miss, if any, is unknown at this writing. If the Rangers can ill afford anyone in the line-up being out, it is Murphy. The man I called a “semi-regular” in a previous post has only been one of the Rangers’ major lifesavers all season long. He’s helped Texas survive three Nelson Cruz DL trips and what is now a 23-game Josh Hamilton absence in which Texas has managed a 13-10 record. Murph’s September play has been exceptional. We cannot afford to lose him now.

Texas finishes 2010 with a 12-7 slate against the Mariners. Four games left against the Angels, starting with Cliff Lee Thursday night. Onward and upward!

The Hamilton Worry Watch: Mariners 3, Rangers 1

Lightning didn’t strike twice.

The second game in three days featuring largely the Rangers bench line-up vs. the other team’s ace didn’t result in the same offensive explosion it did on Sunday. Instead, Texas managed a mere five hits against Felix Hernandez, all by the more regular guys in the line-up, in going down to defeat.

Still, maybe offensive explosion is still the right word, considering Hernandez had given up five hits in his previous two starts combined.

The Rangers will now have to win out if they hope to match Nolan Ryan’s pre-season prediction/expectation of 92 wins in 2010. Ain’t gonna happen.

Scott Feldman was as inconsistent as he’s been all season, looking good for a few batters, then stinking up the joint. Worse for Rangers fans, for the second straight night, Justin Smoak provided the winning margin with a home run. One is already starting to cringe imagining Smoak terrorizing Rangers pitching over the next few years, especially if Texas doesn’t succeed in resigning Cliff Lee, obtained in exchange for Smoak (and others) in July.

Instead of individual games, I’m more worried about Josh Hamilton at this point. There is still no indication if Hambone will even be able to get in some at bats before the ALDS begins next week. Josh has missed two dozen games now. He will still easily win the batting title but hitting .361 when playing regularly is different than hitting productively when coming off an extended layoff.

Just ask Nelson Cruz. The Rangers biggest power threat has had three stints on the DL in 2010. Each time he has come back, the first week of at bats in game conditions have not been kind to him. He’s had the occasional extra base hit, but mostly that first week has seen Cruz with sub-.200 batting averages.

Ian Kinsler has performed a little better the two times he’s come off the DL, but it still took a week or two to get back into the full swing of things, so to say.

If Hamilton can’t get any meaningful at bats before Sunday’s regular season ends, it puts the Rangers in a quandary. Does Ron Washington just plug him into the starting line-up and hope for the best? Do you even put him on the post-season roster? Or do you put him on the roster but mostly keep him in a pinch-hitting role for the ALDS so he’ll have gotten used to live pitching again by the time the ALCS rolls around (provided the Rangers win the ALDS of course)?

The same questions present themselves to Rangers brass with Frank Francisco. Even if he’s pronounced ready to go for the ALDS, do you plug him right in as the 8th inning set-up guy if he doesn’t get a chance to pitch at all this week? Again, do you even have him on the ALDS roster? And if so, in what role?

In the first instance, I’d keep Hamilton on the ALDS roster, but, much as it pains me to say it, I’d say don’t start him but give him regular late-game at bats. If he produces right away, plug him in as a starter. If not, keep him for the late innings and pray the rest of the line-up can pull off the series win.

In Francisco’s case, my guess is, if he can’t pitch in any of these last five games, he won’t be on the ALDS roster at all with the hope he’ll be ready for the ALCS.

My best guess for the Rangers ALDS playoff roster will come tomorrow, if for no other reason than I just don’t think I’ll be waxing poetic about Rich Harden’s last start (and appearance) in a Rangers uniform.

Final Stretch: Mariners 7, Rangers 5

Baseball is so predictably unpredictable.

You could probably see it coming from a mile away. The day after the Rangers second team exploded for 22 hits and 16 runs in a game started by Oakland’s ace, this time the Rangers starters lost to one of the lowest starters for one of the worst teams in the American League, the Seattle Mariners.

This is what can happen in the last week of a season when the division title is already sewn up. And that might be a good thing.

While I hate seeing my team lose, it doesn’t bother me as much when I read an ESPN: The Magazine article saying teams with winning momentum don’t usually keep it going during the playoffs. So go ahead and lose, Rangers, as long as it means you’re ready for anything come next Tuesday (or Wednesday) when Game #1 of the ALDS begins.

Actually, there’s a possibility for the lowly Mariners to sweep the Rangers in Arlington this week. That’s because the starters the next two nights are the Rangers #1 and #2 pitchers… at the start of the 2010 season. Yes, in order to get the playoff pitching in the right order, Tuesday and Wednesday nights’ starts will be handled by Scott Feldman and Rich Harden.

Feldman’s last outing was last Thursday against the A’s, when he gave up a run in two innings of work. His last start was at the end of July. Ron Washington hasn’t seen fit to put Harden into a ballgame since allowing a run on two hits in only 2/3 of an inning against the Yankees September 11th. So low has he sunk in the Rangers eyes, this will be only his third appearance since August 23rd.

Feldman vs. Felix Hernandez. Harden vs. Jason Vargas. Of course, as predictably unpredictable as baseball is, watch one of those two Rangers throw a complete game shutout. Somehow it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Weirdness: Rangers 16, A’s 9

One could forgive Colby Lewis yesterday if he was seething inside before taking the miund against the Oakland A’s. After all, Lewis was facing the A’s for the 5th time, the 4th in which the opposing pitcher was Trevor Cahill. Against Cahill, Colby was 0-3. Now, the day after winning a pennant, Lewis was facing Cahill with a line-up consisting largely of the scrubs. Nowhere was Michael Young to be found. Or Vlad Guerrero. Or Nelson Cruz. Or Ian Kinsler. Or Elvis Andrus. Not even Bengie Molina was there, for pete’s sake.

In their places were Jorge Cantu, Chris Davis, Jeff Francoeur, Esteban German, Andres Blanco and Taylor Teagarden to go with semi-regulars Mitch Moreland, David Murphy and Julio Borbon.

So what did this ragtag bunch of Rangers do? They pummeled Cahill, scoring 7 runs in the first four innings and allowing Lewis to cruise home with the victory, once again proving that statistics aren’t always reliable when looked at on a game by game basis.

Everything about this game going in pointed towards a Rangers loss. Cahill for the A’s, second stringers for the Rangers and the lack of focus that could be attributed to Saturday’s pennant-clinching celebration. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, we had a Rangers line-up all trying to prove why they belong on the post-season roster to face the Rays or the Yankees.

There was Mitch Moreland with two home runs and 5 RBI, Jeff Francoeur getting four hits and four RBI, Jorge Cantu getting another three hits. Even Esteban German, who had only gotten pinch-running duties before now, chipped in with three runs, two hits and an RBI.

Now comes the REALLY WEIRD PART. This is one of those baseball mysteries that will probably go unsolved, but I can’t help but feel there was a reason for it. Going into the bottom of the 8th, the Rangers held a 9-1 lead. That’s easy to explain. Cahill didn’t have it for Oakland and Lewis did for Texas. Matt Harrison came in and pitched the bottom of the 8th. By the time the 8th was over, the A’s had scored six times and Texas had used three pitchers. Suddenly it was 9-7.

But wait, there’s more! In the top of the 9th, the Rangers proceeded to score seven times against two Oakland pitchers to go back up 16-7. Then the A’s managed two more runs in the bottom of the 9th before Alexi Ogando finally got the last out for the Rangers victory.

All told, there were fifteen runs scored in the last inning and a half. There was no sudden weather change in Oakland, nor had the winds shifted direction. I can only surmise that there was something different about the last batch of baseballs used in the game. If Oakland had come back and Texas didn’t score in the top of the 9th then I could brush it off as an off performance by the bullpen. But that many runs in that short a time against both pitching staffs? It had to be the balls.

One more win in the next seven games and the Rangers will once again show an improvement on their record in each year of the Ron Washington era.

Thanks to the seven run outburst in the 9th, the Rangers have now outscored their opponents in the 9th inning on the season. The last time they could make that claim? At the end of Game #2 this year. Also, thanks to the offensive fireworks Friday and Sunday, Texas has outscored their opponents in every single inning except the 13th, where it’s a 1-1 tie.

Home tonight where the Division Champion banner will be unveiled before what I hope will be a sell-out crowd. Closing out with three against the Mariners and four with the Angels. Will we see Josh Hamilton or Frank Francisco in any of those games? It’s anybody’s guess.

Requiem For The A’s

The Oakland A’s were the last to go. That was the second biggest surprise.

The biggest, of course, was how far the Seattle Mariners fell after entering the season as a favorite to win the AL West.
The A’s were the second biggest surprise and, honestly, this surprise may be around for awhile, just like the Rangers, battling for AL West supremacy for years to come.
This stubborn A’s team was offensively challenged. Not as challenged as the Mariners, but they weren’t going to win you many slugfests. Their leading RBI guy probably won’t even manage to get to 80 for the season.
But the arms on the Oakland pitching staff? They are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Dallas Braden threw a perfect game and added a couple of real gems against the Rangers. Trevor Cahill had a break-out season and could be a 19-game winner by season’s end. Gio Gonzalez has won in double digits, and many believe Brett Anderson, who’s had injury troubles, could be the best of the bunch. Making matters worse, they’re all lefties.
If this club gets any offense to go with their pitching, they could be a very scary bunch over the next few years. I’m just glad it wasn’t this year.
Thanks for playing, A’s. Congratulations on earning the right to be the last foe vanquished. And thanks for letting us have Ron Washington. He’s working out well for us, thank you very much.

T-Minus 1, 0, Lift-Off: Rangers 4, A’s 3

It couldn’t have been a more fitting ending.

Poor Jorge Cantu. After starting out the season getting a hit and an RBI in a record ten consecutive games for the Florida Marlins, Cantu was traded to the Rangers before the deadline to give Texas some RBI support from the 1st base position against lefties.
Well, that was the plan.
Only problem is, Cantu went a few games without an RBI. Then a few more. Then a few more. Cantu managed to break an all-time Rangers record by going his first 84 at-bats without a run batted in. The old record was 78. Cantu broke it by a good two games worth of at bats.
Saturday, the streak ended. In a 1-1 game, Cantu hit a one-out single to break the tie and put the Rangers up 2-1. At last an RBI, probably too late, though, for Cantu to earn his post-season roster berth. Even if that RBI turned out to be the pennant clincher for Texas. It wasn’t.
Texas would tack on another run on a stolen base/wild pitch combination, plating Elvis Andrus with the 3rd run, making it 3-1. 
Unfortunately, the A’s tied it up in the 7th with a 2-run home run. 3-3 after 7 innings. It looked like the clincher might have to wait another day.
Until Jorge Cantu came up in the 8th. Mr. 1 RBI on the season hit a solo shot to make it 2 on the season, both in the same game and putting the Rangers on top, 4-3. Six outs later, my Texas Rangers had their first division title since 1999. 
Neftali Feliz closed it out by setting a rookie record with his 38th save. I’m happy about that. I’m even happier for Michael Young, who had a solo homer in the game and now will be tasting the post-season for the first time in his long career. Nothing makes me happier, though, than seeing one Jorge Cantu be the difference maker in a pennant-clinching game. 
Your humble scribe has been chronicling this season from his home base of McAllen, Texas. It’s a good eight hour drive from McAllen to Arlington, where the Rangers play. That’s why I’m lucky to see one or two games in person in any single season. Still, I love living in McAllen, Texas. Especially now, since McAllen is also the home of one Jorge Cantu.
As I said, I couldn’t picture a more fitting clincher.

Requiem For The Angels

Two down, one to go. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim officially were eliminated in the AL West Friday night.

Coming into the year, I thought it would be a dogfight between the Rangers and Angels coming right down to the wire. Losing Kendry Morales early didn’t help the Angels, no doubt. It was more than losing Morales, though. The Angels middle relief was a problem spot all year and it soon became apparent losing Chone Figgins and Vlad Guerrero had helped bring about a big offensive drop-off.
Angels, I thank you for setting the standard in the AL West the past few years, but it is time for a new champion to emerge to set the tone for the division. While I thought it would come down to the Angels and Rangers, possibly down to the last weekend of the year, I’m glad it happened a week sooner than that.
Rest in peace, Angels. I salute you. And thank you for giving up on Vlad Guerrero. 

T-Minus 3, 2 (Mojo Edition): Rangers 10, A’s 3

I need to go to concerts more often. Except for the Sheryl Crow show last month, which I think the Rangers lost just because they were upset I was in town and not at the Ballpark, concert/date night has worked magic on my team.

Last night’s venue was The Woodlands (near Houston) with a twin bill of ZZ Top and Tom Petty. Meanwhile, the Rangers were shaving two off the magic number with a 10-3 pasting of the Oakland A’s.

Texas continues “Running Down A Dream.” They made up for the woeful offense this road trip with plenty of offensive fireworks. Vlad Guerrero said “I Won’t Back Down” with a homer and 4 RBI, Tommy Hunter said to himself, no more “Free Falling.” Time to take this pennant home and pitched six strong, giving up only one run. More games like this and the A’s would say “Don’t Come Around Here No More!

So we’re down to this. One win in the next two days and it’s officially over in the West. Derek Holland gets the first shot Saturday, Colby Lewis the second shot on Sunday. Holland hasn’t pitched well his last two outings, so the odds are better for it to happen with Lewis on the mound Sunday.

I’m trying to find a concert I can go to today…  

4-Gone Conclusion? A’s 5, Rangers 0

This is NOT just because Josh Hamilton is out of the line-up.

Honestly, I’m getting incredibly tired of crediting an opposing pitcher with tossing a great game against the Rangers. This time it was Dallas Braden, allowing a first inning single to Nelson Cruz and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE IN 8 INNINGS OF WORK. That’s now 17 shutout innings Braden has thrown in his last two starts against Texas. In between those two starts his ERA was over 7. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Cliff Lee was great for 3 and then fell apart, leading one to wonder if his back troubles have flared up again. If that’s the case, it will be a short post-season for Texas, provided they get there, of course. The way they’ve been playing lately, I’m not so sure, even with a 7 game lead.

This last road trip of the year has been ugly. The Rangers offense in 7 games out west, have scored 1, 6, 1, 4, 0, 2 and 0 runs. 14 stinking runs in 7 games. No wonder they’re only 2-5 on this trip.

We Rangers fans are so used to disappointment, it’s easy to see this as a sky is falling moment. We actually expect it in a perverse way. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves when they actually won division titles in ’96, ’98 and ’99, Of course going 1-9 in the playoffs those three years brought us back down to the level we’re used to.

It would have been so nice to get this first win of the series, just to give the team the confidence that they can do it again. Now that the opener has been lost with the ace on the mound, I fear it will only make the Rangers offense tighten up even more.

Funny thing is, we the fans are probably more tense than the players are at this point. I just don’t want our own negative vibes to rub off on the team.

For my own sanity, I’m going to enjoy date night with the Mrs. on Friday and bypass the game. It’ll probably do my digestion some good.

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