April 2011

Brain Freezes: Rangers 7-2, Blue Jays 6-5

If you were to conduct a poll of Texas Rangers fans as the month of April comes to a close, you would probably get near unanimous agreement on this statement: The Rangers are the worst first place team in the majors.

 

After dropping three of four to the Blue Jays, it’s easy to see why we’d feel that way. With injuries to Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter and Darren O’Day along with the general ineffectiveness of Mark Lowe and Michael Kirkman, the Texas pitching staff bears little resemblance to the corps that dispatched the Rays in 5 games and the Yankees in 6 to get to their first World Series. Already, the Rangers have used almost as many pitchers in the month of April (17) as they used in the entire 2010 season (22).

 

Offensively, Josh Hamilton has missed half of the first 25 games of the season. Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz and Julio Borbon are all off to slow starts at the plate. And, as was prominently on display in Thursday’s series wrap-up with the Blue Jays, mental errors have been piling up. Thursday alone, Kinsler missed an easy double play chance, allowing a Jays runner to safely reach second. Fortunately, that didn’t cost the Rangers. It just might have cost them the go-ahead run when Kinsler led off the 5th with a double and promptly got picked off second base. I don’t have the stats, but I know Texas baserunners have been picked off at least four times already this season- David Murphy twice.

 

Nothing topped the mental lapses of the 9th inning Thursday when first, Adrian Beltre committed his first error of the season on an easy grounder, bringing home an insurance run. Then, when time hadn’t been called, the Jays’ Jose Bautista made a mistake taking off for 3rd when it was already occupied. Instead of getting an easy out and getting out of the inning with no further damage done, Darren Oliver threw the ball past second and into center field, allowing the 5th and final run to score.

 

And yet, through all the bleakness, the Rangers are still in first place in the AL West. With a successful West Coast swing for seven games against the A’s and the Mariners, they could even put some more distance between themselves and the rest of the pack.

 

To do that, though, they’ll have to get their heads back into the game. It’s been woefully lacking of late.

Ownership Has Its Priviliges: Rangers 3-3, Blue Jays 6-10

It’s a good thing the Blue Jays didn’t make the playoffs last year. If they had, the Rangers probably wouldn’t have even sniffed the World Series.

Every good team has one- the opponent that overall is inferior to them but just seems to own your team anyway. For the Rangers, that team is the Toronto Blue Jays.

For the last two years, the Rangers have had one of the better pitching staffs in the American League. Except when they play the Blue Jays.

Offensively, many of the Rangers players are among the elite in all of baseball. Except against the Blue Jays.

The first two games of this week’s four game set is the perfect microcosm of the Rangers-Blue Jays rivalry.

Michael Young’s hitting streak? Ended. Matt Harrison’s string of excellent outings? Ended with a resounding thud (3 IP, 7 ER, 3 BB, 1 K). Defensive whiz Elvis Andrus? E-6. Colby Lewis? Three HR’s given up in one inning. I’m actually glad Neftali Feliz is on the DL. In a close game, I’m pretty sure he’d blow the save against the Jays, who are now 9-3 against the Rangers since the start of the 2010 season.

Arguably, the best Texas performances the past two days have come from the castoffs and the players many Texas fans want to cast off. Last man on the bench Andres Blanco hit a home run Monday night. Chris Davis was 2-4 Tuesday night, both doubles. Even Julio Borbon, the scorn of most of the home fans, knocked in two of the three Rangers runs Tuesday AND made not only a great play in deep center field, he also managed an outfield assist throwing out a runner trying to go first to third on a single. Naturally, his throw was a three bouncer. But it still worked!!!

I have an idea. For Wednesday’s game, the Rangers should put all the back-ups in the line-up. Davis at 3rd base. Blanco at short. Taylor Teagarden can catch. Keep Borbon in. If need be, bring up some more scrubs from Round Rock to fill out the line-up. Derek Holland is the scheduled pitcher tonight. Maybe we should bring Michael Kirkman back. He’s sucked all year both in the bigs and at AAA. It just seems like only the opposite will work when it comes to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Nah, that probably won’t work either. For whatever reasons, these guys seem to have our number.

Viva Las Vegas!: Rangers Sweep Royals

Who knew the way to best way to draw the Rangers out of their lackadaisical play of late would be for the wife and me to take a three day jaunt to Sin City?

That certainly seems to be what happened. I started having a feeling about the weekend when, on Friday, I managed to win an incredible $11 on the quarter slots… and the Rangers scored 11 runs in their 11-6 series opening win over Kansas City. While we were busy enjoying Janet Jackson, Texas was getting into a “Rhythm Nation” groove. Since fans had been saying “Miss You Much” about the offense, the Rangers pounded out 15 hits, including five longballs. “The Pleasure Principle” for Texas fans, for sure!

The lucky streak continued into Saturday, when I added another $4 to my winnings on the nickel slots and the Rangers scored… well, they didn’t get four runs, they scored three in a 3-1 win. But this is Vegas, baby! Things don’t always add up right! All I know is a win is a win and Alexi Ogando once again was sterling in the starting role he was assigned when Tommy Hunter went down in Spring Training. Through four starts, Ogando’s WHIP is a miniscule 0.79. Amazing.

There was no winning for me on Sunday. I gave up all the previous $15 I had won and a little bit more to boot but the Rangers didn’t care, magically securing the sweep with an 8-7 triumph. Must be the magic left over from the Penn & Teller show we saw Saturday night. Thank you, Penn & Teller! The magic bats appeared again, this time to the tune of 11 hits and three home runs, while CJ Wilson worked his prestidigitation on the mound, striking out ten Royals while only issuing one free pass. Over the past two starts, Wilson has walked only two and struck out 19.

All in all, a pretty impressive weekend, made better by the fact that the Angels, who had taken over first place with a win over Texas on Wednesday, proceeded to lose four in a row to the Red Sox team the Rangers swept to open the season. From one game behind to 2 1/2 games up in a span of four days. Very nice.

The weekend was not without trouble spots. Rangers closer Neftali Feliz was placed on the 15-day DL with shoulder inflammation. Texas insists this was just a precautionary move, but it still is disconcerting. Any shoulder issue has a chance of being something much worse and the Texas relief corps is not a strong suit right now. In addition, as good as he’s hitting right now, Michael Young really has no business playing first base for this team. I can see him backing up Ian Kinsler at second on occasion, but his defense at first is brutal. Young committed his third error at first base in only three games. He’s also not done well on scoops, which I believe has cost the Rangers a couple more errors in the field that they shouldn’t have had. Michael, I implore you, for the good of the team, tell Wash you’ll bypass playing first base!

Going back to the good, rookie Cody Eppley had a spectacular debut with two scoreless innings in Saturday’s game and ancient warriors Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes picked up saves in the last two games of the series.

I’ve spent very little time talking about free agent acquisition Adrian Beltre thus far. The new Rangers 3rd baseman started out slow, but as of this writing, on a team featuring the likes of Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler (and Josh Hamilton when healthy), Beltre finds himself quietly leading the Rangers, and the American League, in home runs and RBI. Pretty impressive. Oh, and he has yet to commit an error in the first 21 games. Someone needs to make up for what we’re seeing from Young at first!

Tough week coming up- the Blue Jays are in town for four, followed by a three game set on the road in Oakland. The Jays gave the Rangers fits in 2010 and have an offense to equal the Rangers. There could be a lot of balls flying out of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington this week. Colby Lewis faces Kyle Drabek in the opener. Lewis hasn’t gone more than six innings yet in a start and hasn’t once looked like the pitcher who was so brilliant against the Yankees in the ALCS. Even though we’re back from Vegas, I hope we’re still on a lucky roll.

 

Looking Up At First Place: Angels 2 Games, Rangers 1

I’ll say it. At this point of the season, the Angels deserve to be in first place. They’re hitting better, they’re pitching better, they’re playing better defense.

That being said, I still believe the 2011 Rangers are a better team than the Angels and that they’ll prevail once the season ends (barring more injuries). Even in dropping their first two home games of the year, Texas had some positives in the set.

What’s Working

CJ Wilson got some of his mojo back,
striking out nine and walking only one in giving up just a single run in the Rangers win in Game 1.
Michael Young is thriving in the 3 hole in place of the injured Josh Hamilton.
Matt Harrison, even in defeat in Game 3, pitched his 4th consecutive quality start. He just had the misfortune of facing the best pitcher in the American League right now in Jered Weaver.
Mitch Moreland continues his steady hitting and Elvis Andrus appears to be coming out of his slump.

What’s Not Working

Unfortunately, too much
and just about all of it was shown in the Game 2 15-4 beatdown the Angels inflicted on the Rangers.
On the pitching side, new father Colby Lewis hasn’t looked like the 2010 Colby Lewis all year, Michael Kirkman got shelled and earned a trip back to Round Rock, and Mason Tobin got hurt and may be gone for the season.
For a team that is supposed to play good defense, there’s been some shoddy play out there. Even defensive utility man Andres Blanco dropped an easy pop-up. Mental laziness.
Offensively, Texas is showing no consistency. Nelson Cruz’ boomstick has stopped booming, Ian Kinsler is still struggling, and, outside of Michael Young, nobody seems to be hitting the ball with much authority. Hitting with runners in scoring position has been abysmal lately. To top it off, when runners get on, they’ve been getting picked off. Putrid.

After an off day, the surprising Kansas City Royals come to Arlington. Hopefully the day off will bring some semblance of the defending AL champions back. As it stands right now, this is a team trying to find its identity again.

The Miserable Weekend: Rangers 2-5, Yankees 5-6

After a promising start to the weekend, the Rangers couldn’t finish the job, dropping the Saturday afternoon and Sunday night games to the Yankees. Where Matt Harrison continued his hot early season on Friday, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando couldn’t do the same in their starts on the weekend.

The Rangers offense resembles Foreigner these days- “Cold As Ice.”

Michael Young and Adrian beltre are both hitting and very nearly won Sunday’s game by themselves. Unfortunately, Nelson Cruz and ian Kinsler couldn’t hit their way out of a cardboard box right now. Elvis Andrus was in a woeful slump, but at least managed to get a hit both Saturday and Sunday. Julio Borbon hasn’t been much better.

Still, I don’t come away from this series any less hopeful of the Rangers overall fortunes. While Holland and Ogando didn’t have pretty pitching lines, they both actually pitched not too bad. In fact, Sunday’s game was the first all season in which the Rangers gave up more than five runs. New York scored nine of the 11 runs Saturday and Sunday via the long ball and lead the majors with something like 60% of their runs being scored via the home run (the league average is about 33%). Too much reliance on the long ball is not a good thing. Just ask the Rangers. They have a long history of mashers that didn’t translate into long term success. 

What really cost us Sunday’s game was the Rangers’ lack of faith in the bullpen. Because of having little to no confidence right now in righthanders Darren O’Day and Mark Lowe, Texas kept Ogando in longer than they probably would have normally, which might explain the last Yankees homer that put them up 5-4. Then, because of same lack of confidence, Arthur Rhodes was kept in the game much longer than I expected, and he ended up giving up the winning run in the 8th. For a team with an eight man bullpen right now, things are not looking real solid.

As well as Ogando has pitched, I’m pretty sure once one of the trio of Brandon Webb, Tommy Hunter or Scott Feldman are ready to go, Ogando will be placed back into relief. I love what he’s done as a starter but, like Neftali Feliz in Spring Training, the need is greater for him in the bullpen.

Meanwhile, the Angels have won nine of 11 and, for the first time since the second game of the season, Texas finds themselves sharing first place with someone. Guess who comes to town tonight?

Already a big three game home set. The good news for Texas is they won’t have to face Dan Haren who’s off to an incredible start. They will, however, square off against ace Jered Weaver on Wednesday, which is Matt Harrison’s next start. Tonight it’s CJ Wilson against Ervin Santana. Winner is alone in first place.

Time to start a new winning streak.

Matt’s Entertainment: Rangers 5, Yankees 3

The Rangers offense is officially in a slump.

Texas managed a mere four hits off of Yankees pitching in the opener of their three game set in Gotham. Fortunately this did not hurt them for three reasons: 1) The Rangers also managed seven walks in the game; 2) two of the hits were well-placed run-scoring hits by Michael Young, the only Ranger not in a slump; and 3) Matt Harrison was pitching again.

Harrison has always been kind of like a big tease for the Rangers. One of the players who came to Texas via the Mark Teixeira trade with the Braves, Harrison has always had scouts drooling over his stuff while delivering less than optimal results. As a result, the lefty has spent each of the past three seasons floating between the starting rotation and the bullpen, with a couple DL trips thrown in for good measure.

This year, Harrison vowed in Spring Training to pitch with a new attitude and to trust his stuff more. Most of us said, “Yeah Matt, we’ve heard it before.” Now, through three starts, Harry seems to be walking the talk.

To be sure, last night’s performance was Harry’s weakest of his three starts. He allowed seven hits in eight innings and walked three as well. The thing is, just about every time he allowed a runner on base, he got someone to ground into a double play.

In the first, it was A-Rod. In the third, it was Teixeira. Robinson Cano obliged with a DP in the 4th, followed by Derek Jeter in the 5th. Former Ranger Andruw Jones obliged in the 7th and Nick Swisher completed the twin killing parade in the 8th. Six DP’s, tying a Rangers team record and helping to move Harrison to 3-0 on the season with a sparkling 1.23 ERA, which would have Rangers fans oooing and aahing even more if Alexi Ogando didn’t have a 0.00 after two starts.

Better yet, the double play onslaught allowed Harry to go eight innings on only 104 pitches, including a 5-pitch 7th.

One more win in the next two and Texas will have a winning record on their first road trip of the season. Derek Holland goes for the honor in an afternoon tilt Saturday against veteran Fredi Garcia.

We’ve been getting the pitching. It’s time for the bats to come back. 

Playing Catch-Up And Looking Ahead

The Rangers start the no-Hamilton stretch at 0-1.

For the second straight game, the Tigers victimized their visitors in walk-off fashion, this time due to a Brandon Inge home run off Darren Oliver in the 9th.

In a game of ebbs and flows, Texas is back in ebb form. For all the talk about the vaunted offense (in which I willingly participated), even the best hitting teams start slumping. Even with a 9-3 record, it should be noted that Texas has scored 4 runs or less in six of the last eight games. Take away the 13 run outburst in the second of the twin bill in Baltimore and Texas has scored only 21 runs in a seven game span. This does not bode well heading into a road series with the Yankees.

Sometimes baseball hinges on who matches up and when. The bad news for the Rangers is they don’t get to face Phil Hughes, who has struggled mightily in 2011. Hughes’ lack of velocity has caused a lot of talk in Yankee land as to whether something is physically wrong with him.

Texas will throw their 3, 4 and 5 starters against the Bombers, the ones getting all the press lately. Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando are a combined 6-0 with a 1.15 ERA in two trips through the rotation. Good as they’ve been, as much as you want to believe they’ve got it in them for a third go-round, one still has to face the facts that the Rangers are tossing their 3, 4 and 5 starters against one of the best offensive attacks in the majors. Meanwhile, Texas draws Yankees ace CC Sabathia in the series closer on Sunday.

The Rangers have brought Michael Kirkman up from Round Rock for this series. He’ll serve as the long man if needed. No corresponding roster move, as a new rule allows a player on paternity leave to be replaced for 72 hours, so Kirkman replaces new father Colby Lewis this weekend.

Tonight, Harrison matches up against Ivan Nova. who’s 1-0 but with a lofty 6.10 ERA.

A year ago at this time, I did a column on why I thought the Rangers could beat the Yankees and the Empire swept the three game set from the Rangers. Fortunately, Texas agreed with me in the post-season. No promises this weekend, but I sure would love to see two of three go the Rangers way.

Looking For The Silver Lining…

Rangers Record During Ian Kinsler’s first DL stint in 2010 (4/5-4/29): 10-12

Rangers Record During Ian Kinsler’s second DL stint in 2010 (7/28-9/1): 16-17

Rangers Record During Nelson Cruz’ first DL stint in 2010 (4/27-5/13): 12-4

Rangers Record During Nelson Cruz’ second DL stint of 2010 (5/29-6/21): 15-6

Rangers Record During Nelson Cruz’ third DL stint of 2010 (8/15-8/29): 7-8

Rangers Record When Josh Hamilton Had Bruised Ribs in 2010 (9/5-9/30): 14-10

Josh Hamilton is the reigning American League MVP. Yet it is a testament to Ron Washington how this team plays when vital components are missing, as they were often in 2010.

If you look at the above, you’ll see Texas played without at least one of the big three of Hamilton, Ian Kinsler or Nelson Cruz from Opening Day 2010 through May 13th. All three were in the line-up for two weeks in mid to late May before Cruz hit the DL for the second time.

The Big Three managed to play together for a little over a month, from 6/22 to 7/27, before Kinsler went to the DL a second time. Before he could even come back, Cruz was disabled yet a third time. Then, a mere three days after all three were playing together again, Hamilton’s bruised ribs cost him most of the rest of the season. All told, the Rangers played with their expected full line-up for a grand total of about 7 1/2 weeks of the 26 week 2010 season- less than one third of the entire year, and they still won the AL West going away.

During all these trips to the disabled list, the Rangers didn’t fall apart. At times they hovered just a little under .500. They arguably played better the first two times Cruz hit the DL and they managed to be four games over .500 with Hamilton out last September.

Most of the times when they were under .500, Texas was playing with Rich Harden and Scott Feldman in their starting rotation. They ended up turning in two of the worst years of any starting pitchers in the American League.

The Rangers are a team. They play like one all the time. When one player goes down, everyone knows they have to step up their games to fill in the gap and they do.

If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t want this team to be without Josh Hamilton for the next six to eight weeks. Because of Ron Washington’s team approach to the game, I don’t dread it either.

Wash’s in game strategic decisions may cause people to scratch their heads, but the way the Rangers play when one or more of their pieces are missing is a direct result of his leadership.  

The Hambone’s Not Connected To The Arm Bone

The reigning MVP is down.

Josh Hamilton broke a bone in his upper arm and is headed for the DL and will be out anywhere from six to eight weeks.

You’ll see the replays that will show how it happened. Here are the two interesting things coming out of all this.

1) Hamilton threw his 3rd base coach under the bus, saying Dave Anderson is the one who sent him to try to score on the foul out which led to the injury. Josh said he didn’t want to do it, but obeyed his coach. Sorry, Josh, I’m not with you on this one. Nobody was covering home at the time and with your speed, it would take a perfect throw to get you. The Tigers happened to make it. It was a heads up play that just didn’t work out. Obviously, in retrospect, I’d rather you didn’t go, because I’d rather you not be on the DL. But I still think it was the right call.

2) Hamilton will be replaced by Chris Davis. This is interesting in so many ways. First, it means Mitch Moreland is now the 4th outfielder on the team because Davis is a 1st/3rd baseman. Moreland will still play some first, but I think he’s going to see a lot more time in the outfield now. Davis, meanwhile, has this one last chance to prove he belongs in the big leagues after two very subpar years at the plate on the big league level. If he succeeds this time, the Rangers will be forced to make a move when Hamilton’s ready to return, as in trade. If he doesn’t, he’ll go back to the minors and Texas will likely get very little in return for him.

In another “Isn’t it ironic?” moment, it was noted during Spring Training that Davis, who knew it probably didn’t matter how strong a spring he had. he would be unlikely to make the major league roster, sought advice on how to keep his spirits up and perservering from none other than Josh Hamilton. Now he finds himself back in the big leagues due to an injury to his mentor.

The big question for me at this point is, who’s going to bat third in the line-up. I would almost think Ian Kinsler is best suited for the role, but he’s been hitting lead-off. Maybe they’ll put Elvis Andrus back at #1 and Michael Young at #2, with Kinsler 3rd and Nelson Cruz moving up to 5th. That would be my best guess.

Interesting times ahead. Good thing this club has a lot of depth. They’re dipping into the well already.

Isn’t It Ironic?: Tigers 5, Rangers 4

In 2010, Nelson Cruz made three separate trips to the disabled list with hamstring problems. Ian Kinsler was on the DL twice, the longest at the start of the season with a high ankle sprain. Josh Hamilton missed almost the entire month of September with bruised ribs sustained from falling into the center field wall in Minnesota.

The Rangers have been bound and determined not to have this happen again to three of the team’s biggest offensive components. To that end, Cruz didn’t play winter ball for the first time in his career and learned new running techniques to take the strain off his hammy. While Kinsler wasn’t asked to do anything specific in the off-season, the Rangers decided he would rest on a regular basis, sometimes being the DH and sometimes just being on the bench, letting Michael Young play some second and hopefully lessening the risk of injury.

For Hamilton, it was clear: let Julio Borbon play as much center field as possible so Hambone could stay in left, where presumably he has less ground to cover and would be less likely to plow into walls at full speed. Also on the agenda, be a DH every so often when Young plays the field.

So isn’t it ironic that Hamilton would get hurt, not in the field, but serving as the team’s DH? It happened in the Rangers’ loss to Detroit. Hamilton’s 1st inning RBI triple plated Young with the first run on the game. When Adrian Beltre fouled out to third, Hamilton astutely noticed the catcher away from the plate and pitcher Brad Penny not covering, so he decided to make a break for it. Catcher Victor Martinez just barely got there in time, putting the tag on Hamilton’s shoulder before he could score the second run. The result? Hamilton walked away with a strained shoulder and had to be replaced in the DH spot by Kinsler.

Beyond that, all that could be said about this game was the Rangers were lucky it was so close. For the third straight start, CJ Wilson struggled. When the Rangers would take the lead, CJ would cough it right back. There were times it just looked like the whole team was a little out of sync, with the exception of Young, who was 3 for 3 and accounted for three of the four Texas runs with two runs scored and an RBI. Young has scored or driven in 5 of the 6 Texas runs this series.

Julio Borbon had a terrible offensive game and, after a promising start, has now slumped to .167 on the young season. The speedster managed to get picked off first to end the 7th and grounded into a double play to end the Rangers 9th.

Darren O’Day pitched the 9th for Texas and was shaky for the second consecutive outing, giving up a walk, a single and a walk to load the bases before Miguel Cabrera hit a walk-off single to left to hand Texas only its second loss of the year.

At this writing, Hamilton’s status is unknown. Hopefully it’s just a minor thing. It just goes to show, sometimes playing it safe can be anything but safe.

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