Well, the lead is officially gone. The Texas Rangers, after dropping five games in a row, have surrendered their lead in the American League West and are now tied with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
What happened? Has the pitching fallen apart? How about the fielding?
No, believe it or not, the Rangers just cannot hit.
The first reason (excuse) you hear is that the Rangers' best player, Josh Hamilton, has been hurt. This is true.
However, Hamilton, who was on fire during spring training, has been off to a slow start even when he has been in the lineup.
In his 35 games, roughly half of the Rangers 69 games played so far, Hamilton is batting a disappointing .240 with only six home runs and 24 runs batted in.
Remember, this is the guy who had 95 RBI last year by the All-Star break.
Hamilton made two spectacular catches crashing into outfield walls this season that resulted in two stints on the disabled list this season. The second crash led to surgery to repair an abdominal muscle that tore away from his pelvic bone.
There is still no date set for his return, and the Rangers are hopeful he will be back to full speed around the All-Star break.
But the Rangers' woeful hitting performance goes way beyond the loss of Hamilton’s presence in the lineup.
Perhaps at the top of the list is the fact that second baseman Ian Kinsler is not a leadoff hitter. Kinsler, who started hot in April, has tailed off significantly, as reflected in the 18-for-77 stretch he is in so far in June.
You cannot score runs and hope to win when your leadoff hitter is hitting .234 for the month and only .266 for the year. He's also scored only 48 runs, which ranks 12th in the American League.
Kinsler loves to swing at the first pitch and rarely makes the pitcher work. He has a trademark upper-cut swing more suited for deeper in the order, as his 18 home runs suggest.
The Rangers need a more balanced lineup. Ideally, the team needs to find a leadoff-hitting center fielder.
This would solve two major issues: allowing Hamilton to move to a corner outfield spot to reduce the chance of injury, and dropping Kinsler in the order to either the second or fifth spot where the Rangers could take advantage of his power.
Of course, Kinsler is not the largest hole in the Rangers lineup. That honor belongs to first baseman Chris Davis.
Let me say this as nice as possible: Davis is not ready for the big leagues.
I have never seen a team stick with a player who has less than one full season in the Major Leagues the way the Rangers have with Davis.
Come on, the guy is hitting .196 and he still plays almost every day?
Last week, Davis became the fastest player in Major League history to reach 100 strikeouts in a season, doing so in only 219 at-bats. That means he has struck out over 45 percent of the time he has been at the plate.
Even more ridiculous is the explanation that Rangers manager Ron Washington has used of he is keeping Davis in the lineup for his glove.
Seriously? How absurd is that?
The Rangers have to send Davis down to the Minors to get his swing and confidence back today. Not tomorrow or next week, but today.
In the meantime, they can platoon Hank Blalock and Andruw Jones at first, although neither one of them is hitting the ball right now either.
Former first round draft pick Justin Smoak just came off the DL in Double-A Frisco, so he is probably not quite ready to join the big club. But he is hitting .331 for the year and has only struck out 31 times with 32 walks, so he may be an option later this season.
The Rangers could also look to add a bat via trade.
Baltimore may be interested in moving first baseman Aubrey Huff, who is from the Dallas area and is in the final year of his guaranteed contract, so the Rangers would not be inheriting a huge financial commitment.
And finally, has hitting coach extraordinaire Rudy Jaramillo lost his magic touch?
The Rangers' whole approach to hitting leaves a lot to be desired. They do not take enough pitches, do not work the count, and simply hack away at whatever they see.
They have a hard time making consistent contact, struggling just to put the ball in play in key situations. The Rangers have struck out 558 times in their first 69 games—more than eight strikeouts per nine innings.
Making it even worse is the fact that they have walked only 202 times. That strikeout-to-walk difference of 356 is by far the worst in the American League.
It's not a stretch to say the Rangers lack discipline at the plate.
As a result, their team batting average of .258 is 10th in the AL, while their .317 on-base percentage ranks just 11th.
The Rangers are struggling to manufacture runs. They do not bunt, or rather they cannot bunt, and they rarely play the hit-and-run. Instead, the strategy remains to sit back and wait for the three-run home run.
That is not working.
Granted, the Rangers are second in the league in home runs with 102, just behind the Yankees who have 105, but let’s look a little deeper. While the Rangers have struck out 558 times, the Yankees have only struck out 415 times.
So the Yankees have hit three more home runs while striking out 143 fewer times than the Rangers. Just think, if the Rangers had put the ball in play even half of these 143 times, would the first place lead have evaporated?
But do not give up just yet, Rangers fans. There are a couple bright spots, starting with perennial All-Star Michael Young.
Young has seamlessly adapted to his move to third base. He is batting .315, which is good enough for ninth in the league, and his 86 hits has him tied for seventh in the AL and puts him on pace for another 200-hit season.
And don’t forget the big picture: With all the sub-par hitting the Rangers have put up, they are still five games over .500 at 37-32, and still tied for first place.
Mark your calendar for Monday, June 29. That is when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim visit Arlington for another three-game series.
We will know by July 2 if the wheels are truly off of the Texas Rangers bandwagon for 2009.