5 Keys for Texas Rangers Taking Road Series vs. Boston Red Sox
Hampered by early-season injuries to key starters and position players, the Texas Rangers' task of simply "treading water" this month doesn't come easy.
They wrapped up a three-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday afternoon, dropping the first two but leaving Tampa with a win in the series finale. Texas' six-game road trip continues, as it will head to historic Fenway Park for three games with the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
Missing as many pieces as the Rangers are right now, this series against the Red Sox might be one of the toughest of the season.
I know what you're thinking.
"It will be April 7—these games aren't worth putting too much stock into."
But if you have a hard time tuning into regular-season games until later in the summer, remember this: The Oakland A's stormed back and stole the AL West division title from the Rangers in 2012, after trailing by 13 games in late June.
The Rangers just needed to win one more game at any point in that season, and then who knows? Maybe things might have turned out a bit differently than they did.
Bottom line: These early April games matter just as much as games in mid-September. This is a key series for the Rangers no matter what your approach is to the regular season.
With that said, here are five keys for the Rangers to leave Boston with a series win this week.
**All stats courtesy of Baseball-reference.com
Strong Efforts Needed from the Starters
Against the Rays, the Rangers got excellent starts from both Nick Martinez on Saturday and Yu Darvish on Sunday. Not so much from Joe Saunders on Friday night.
The Rangers lost Saturday night, but that doesn't diminish the quality of Martinez's big league debut. He surrendered a couple of home runs, but kept his offense ahead, leaving the game after six innings with a 4-3 Texas lead.
Martinez showed impressive composure in a venue that has been among the toughest in the game to play in since 2008. He became the first Ranger starter to pitch six innings this season.
On Sunday, Darvish returned to make his first start of the season. You wouldn't have even guessed he had missed three weeks out of precaution with a stiff neck. He dominated the Rays' lineup—fanning six Tampa hitters in the first three innings—then Elvis Andrus put one in the seats for the winning runs in the eighth inning.
If Texas is to win its upcoming series against the Red Sox at Fenway, this level of pitching must continue. Tanner Scheppers will get another crack with his start Monday night, followed by Martin Perez Tuesday night and Robbie Ross on Wednesday afternoon.
The Rangers will likely need at least two of those three guys to go six or more innings. The bullpen has probably been used a bit too much already this season.
I expect Perez to pitch very well—he really has come a long way in the last two seasons. But for Scheppers and Ross, the goal should be just keeping the offense in the game, attacking hitters and getting efficient outs.
Play a Clean Defensive Game
Texas has committed errors in four of its first six games, including one four-error game in Friday night's loss to Tampa Bay.
The Rangers are known for usually being a clean defensive club. They probably have the best left-side infield in the game, as well as one of the best defensive outfields. Granted, the team is missing both starting catcher Geovany Soto and second baseman Jurickson Profar—both solid defensive players.
There is definitely some unfamiliarity in the lineup with the Donnie Murphy/Josh Wilson platoon at second and Robinson Chirinos getting some starts behind the plate.
But the simple miscues need to get ironed out if this club is going to have a respectable April. Boston is a team that will capitalize on mistakes—there are simply too many guys in that lineup with a championship pedigree, who perform in critical moments.
The Rangers already aren't playing all that well right now. So don't make things easier for the champs in their house.
Adequate Run Support for Starters
Texas has scored 25 runs in its first six contests. Not terrible, but certainly not good.
Not for this lineup. Not for the current makeshift pitching staff. With Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Derek Holland still out, the offense has to start compensating more to help stabilize the club.
The top four in the lineup, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre—which could also be the best group of top-four hitters in the game—are hitting just .252 after six games.
Those four guys have to set the table and will be relied upon to put the Rangers on the board early. That hasn't happened too often so far. Instead, the bottom of the order has had a larger role in run production, which is great. But the guys who are expected to produce have to do just that.
All three of Texas' starters for the Boston series will need a handful of runs behind them. Scheppers and Ross can be a bit erratic with their command. Perez is a noticeably more fiery pitcher with the lead.
Going up against the Red Sox trio of John Lackey, Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy will be challenging for the offense. But it needs to step up and help guide these young, inexperienced pitchers through what will be some tough games.
Bullpen Must Be Sharp, More Consistent
The bullpen has been hit or miss so far. On Opening Day it was atrocious. Nobody could get an out.
Saturday night, Neal Cotts blew a 4-3 Ranger lead in the eighth inning.
But on Sunday, the pen was very effective in relief of a fantastic start by Darvish.
The thing to remember with this group right now: It will not be as dominant as it usually is until the regular starters return to action. Removing Scheppers and Ross from the pen was a huge blow, as both of those guys had clear and defined roles.
Meanwhile, Pedro Figueroa and possibly Seth Rosin do not belong in this pen and are merely replacement-level pitchers at this point.
So there are some weak links right now. But still, these relievers have got to start getting outs more consistently. Boston is a team with an unlimited clutch gene, against which this pen will be tested several times. To win two out of three at Fenway—or anywhere for that matter—you've got to have guys you can count on in the late innings.
So far, the Texas bullpen has not quite proven to me that it has that late-game reliability.
Rev Up the Running Game
Currently, the Rangers have four guys who totaled 140 stolen bases in 2013. Andrus and Rios both swiped 42 last season. Leonys Martin truly busted out his elite speed as a major piece of his game, stealing 36 bags in 2013. Choo stole 20 with the Cincinnati Reds last year.
So someone please explain to me why Texas has exactly two stolen bases in six games.
For a club that is struggling a bit to score runs, manufacturing offense is key. Choo, Andrus, Alex Rios and Martin are getting on base at a combined .352 clip right now. That's begging for the running game to start up, and manager Ron Washington needs to start taking more advantage of what is an incredibly valuable attribute to this lineup: team speed.
It doesn't seem to me as if opposing pitchers are particularly focusing on the Rangers' running game, either. These guys just need to start running and put themselves in better positions to score.
It's all part of the small-ball philosophy that Texas has adapted to so well under Washington's watch. The Rangers lineup is one of the most complete in baseball personnel-wise, and it needs to return to the lethal two-dimensional attack that characterized it during the two World Series runs in 2010 and 2011.
On a similar note, the sacrifice bunt has been a fixture so far. But a strong running game is needed to maximize the effect of giving away an out.
Boston will use everything it has in its lineup to its advantage. Texas should do the same if it has designs on leaving Beantown better than a .500 club.