Losing a 5.5-game division lead with 25 games left in the season is not easy to do. Barring a complete “collapse,” most teams in that position would be tough to catch.
The 2012 Texas Rangers are the rare team to accomplish the feat without at least a major headline-inducing collapse. They weren’t great, winning only 11 of those final 25 games, so they’re not without blame. But the red-hot Oakland A’s had to win 18 of their final 26 games, including a three-game sweep over the Rangers to end the season, to finally erase the deficit and win the AL West title.
In this case, it’s Oakland’s amazing run that will be memorable, not the fact that the Rangers didn’t play well enough to hold them off. The 2013 Texas Rangers, however, are proving they are capable of losing a firm grasp on a playoff spot all on their own.
After finishing the month of August atop the AL West with a 79-56 record, a two-game lead over Oakland and 5.5-game buffer in the playoff race, Texas has gone into complete collapse mode. The Rangers have dropped 11 of 13 games, including six in a row to fall 6.5 games behind the A’s and only a half-game ahead of Cleveland in the wild-card race.
Unlike last season when it was difficult to place blame on any of the core players on the team since a majority of them were putting up solid numbers in September, it’s much easier to point fingers around the clubhouse this time.
There’s probably no bigger indicator of a struggling team than when the ace of the staff, Yu Darvish, pitches brilliantly in five of six starts and the team loses all six games. The lack of run support has become a major issue.
Lineup regulars Adrian Beltre (.596 OPS; 13-for-51 in September), Ian Kinsler (.513 OPS; 12-for-57), Leonys Martin (.552 OPS in September) and Mitch Moreland (.602 OPS; 3-for-29 in September) have all struggled as of late. Meanwhile, two of the team’s most valuable bench contributors, Jeff Baker (3-for-18 in September) and Craig Gentry (5-for-25 in September), have also cooled off considerably.
The starting rotation also has its share of culprits, with Matt Garza (pictured) getting knocked around in his last two starts (11 IP, 8 ER, 14 H) and Derek Holland struggling terribly over his last three (13.1 IP, 13 ER, 21 H, 5 HR).
It also doesn’t help that the front office decided to stand pat and not trade for another starter once it became clear that Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis wouldn’t be returning in 2013 and Alexi Ogando would be returning in a relief role after his third DL stint of the season. Journeyman Travis Blackley made a start in September (4.1 IP, 3 ER, 8 H), as did rookie Nick Tepesch (3.1 IP, 2 ER, 4 H).
That's not exactly how they drew it up in the offseason.
It probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the end of August because of the nice cushion they had in the playoff race, which is why general manager Jon Daniels didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary to aggressively pursue Dan Haren or some other veteran capable of giving the team five or six solid innings every five days. Two weeks later, though, they’re searching for answers at the back of the rotation.
While the bullpen continues to get the job done and has received additional boosts from the return of Ogando (6 IP, 0 R, H, BB, 5 K since return from DL) and former closer Neftali Feliz (4.1 IP, 0 R, 4 H, BB, 4 K since return from Tommy John surgery), it doesn’t mean much if they’re not being handed a lead at some point in the game.
The bad news is that the Rangers are on the verge of a late-season collapse that will keep them out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. The sky certainly appears to be falling. The good news is that they are still one of two teams in the lead for an American League wild-card spot. The momentum is gone, but they are still technically in a better position than the teams chasing them.
Here are a few suggestions on how they can regain some momentum and avoid a complete September collapse.
Not including lineups with pitchers, the Rangers have used a total of 107 different combinations in 2013, according to Baseball-Reference. Sure, manager Ron Washington should reserve the right to use his instincts and try to find the right matchups against any particular pitcher during the stretch. But it’s probably about time to decide who his best nine hitters are (plus three potential platoons) and ride them all the way to the finish line.
Monday’s lineup (Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Alex Rios, Adrian Beltre, A.J. Pierzynski, Lance Berkman, Jim Adduci, Mitch Moreland, Leonys Martin) appears close to the start of that possibility. Berkman (pictured), who has started just two games since returning from hip and knee injuries earlier this month, is in the designated hitter spot. Adduci, a rookie, is in left field over David Murphy, who has had a terrible season.
Prior to the knee injury, which plagued him during a rough stretch leading up to his disabled list stint because of hip inflammation in early July, the 37-year-old Berkman had a .288/.392/.429 slash line through the end of May.
He had reportedly contemplated retirement while on the disabled list, but his return indicates that he's feeling much healthier now. The Rangers must find out if he has at least another two good weeks in him. With no worthy alternatives, there is no reason not to have him in the lineup daily, at least against right-handed pitching.
In the case of Adduci, Texas could be looking to find lightning in a bottle from a 28-year-old veteran minor leaguer who, like many unknown minor leaguers before him, has a chance to make an impact over a short period of time. He’s 7-for-17 thus far, carrying over a hot streak from Triple-A in which he hit .383 in the month of August.
As is the case with Berkman, the alternatives aren’t great, so there’s no pressure on Washington if he makes the decision to stick with a rookie over a slumping veteran. Murphy has had just one good month (.846 OPS in May) and could be the odd man out if the team makes the playoffs and the currently suspended Nelson Cruz is placed on the postseason roster.
Washington also appears to have stuck with a lineup order that suits his hitters, with Beltre, Kinsler, Moreland and Rios all back in spots in which they’ve had the most success this season.
Improvement is needed from Garza and Holland, obviously, and more run support is necessary if Texas wants to earn a playoff berth once again. But if the Rangers miss out, it will likely be by no more than a couple of games. Solidifying the spot in the back of the rotation with a more reliable option than they’ve been throwing out there would certainly help their chances.
The list of options to start Tuesday’s game, as tweeted out by Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has just one name worthy of pitching in a meaningful game with playoff implications, and that’s Ogando (pictured).
While long-term health concerns will enter the equation given his two separate stints on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury, every game is a must-win for the Rangers at this point. They have to consider giving the ball to the 29-year-old, who has a 3.47 ERA in 15 starts this season.
Ogando will be coming off just one day of rest, although he threw just 20 pitches over 1.2 scoreless innings on Sunday. Fortunately, the Rangers bullpen is deep enough where four or five strong innings from Ogando might be all they need.
Utilize Bullpen As Early As Necessary
As was already specified in the case of Ogando returning to the rotation, Washington shouldn’t be shy about leaning on a bullpen that has been one the team’s most consistent strengths throughout the season.
Between Feliz (pictured), closer Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers, Neal Cotts and Jason Frasor, the Rangers have no concerns of overworking their ‘pen. All have proven to be reliable, and all six continue to pitch well this month, combining to allow just four earned runs in 28.1 innings pitched.
Not utilizing this bullpen to the fullest extent over the last two weeks of the season would be like a dominant closer trying to close out a tight game in the ninth inning with his third-best pitch. Go with what got you there.