Nothing against the Mariners, who I fully expect to be in the race through September, but the Rangers were a tired team going into that series. Their play over those four games reflected how tired they were.
Playing tired isn’t an excuse for being outplayed in every phase of the game like they were in Seattle, but it is an explanation for the Rangers' uncharacteristic play given the way the season has gone so far.
Ron Washington said Ian Kinsler was as tired as he’s seen him going into the break. Maybe his All-Star snub was, in fact, good for the Rangers' season.
Kinsler wasn’t the only player fighting exhaustion. It’s no coincidence that Kevin Millwood’s worst start of the season came on the last road trip before the break. Jason Jennings, easily the most used arm in the pen, has been inconsistent lately.
Of all the All-Star breaks throughout sports, Major League Baseball’s is the one most needed for a variety of reasons, especially for teams playing in heat as hot as the Rangers have in Arlington. The Rangers, in fact, caught an even bigger break this season with an extra day off before resuming the season Friday night at Rangers Ballpark against the Minnesota Twins.
Every other team in the American League West has a game on Thursday.
When their season does finally resume against the Twins, the Rangers will be in position to do something special. They will either be two games out or one game out depending on what the Angels do against the A’s. The last time they were in a position to contend was 2004 when they entered the break two-and-a-half games up in the West.
These Rangers are hoping for a better result than that of the 2004 team. In fact, they’re looking for a better result than the three playoff teams the Rangers fielded in the late '90s. Those teams went a combined 1-9 in three first round losses to the eventual World Champion Yankees.
The 2009 Texas Rangers have something those teams did not: consistent starting pitching and an extremely efficient defense to back that pitching up. They may not match the firepower the Rangers used to have on offense, but when you have pitching and defense on your side, you don’t need to slug a team to win.
With the emergence of Tommy Hunter, and the eventual return of Matt Harrison and Brandon McCarthy, the Rangers have a competitive rotation that more often than not will give the offense a chance to win the game. Kevin Millwood has been an ace all season and there is no reason to think he won’t continue to be so.
However, the Rangers have to find a fifth starter until Harrison comes back. Dustin Nippert has proven to be very good for about four innings, but that’s just not going to get the job done.
The only other alternative that gives the Rangers the best chance to win is to let electric lefty Derek Holland take over the spot until Harrison is healthy enough to return. Once Harrison is ready then Holland can go back to the pen to continue his development.
To replace Derek Holland in the bullpen, the Rangers can bring up top prospect Neftali Feliz to get his feet wet in the big leagues. Anyone that doubts this kid is ready should look at his performance out of the AAA pen.
In his last 10 games, Feliz has 25 strikeouts compared to three walks. Granted, some of those games were as the starting pitcher, but a 25-3 K/BB ratio is, in a word, dominant. It’s time for the next challenge in Feliz’s development.
The bullpen has overcome a shaky start to become strength for the Rangers this season. Darren O’Day and Jason Jennings have done an outstanding job setting up the eighth inning for CJ Wilson who in turn has done a good job handing the ball to Frank Francisco in the ninth.
The one phase of play that has not been consistent has been the Rangers offense. Without Josh Hamilton, the entire offense slumped badly in June. The slump was so devastating it dropped the Rangers from four-and-a-half games up to one-and-a-half games back over a couple of weeks.
Thankfully, Josh Hamilton returned in early July and the offense has started to hit the ball again. The demotion of Chris Davis to AAA Oklahoma has opened the door for regular playing time for Hank Blalock and Andruw Jones.
They have both responded well, hitting bombs like they used to a few years ago. There is absolutely no reason why the Rangers offense can’t finish in the top five in the league if they stay healthy and consistent the rest of the way.
With prospects like Neftali Feliz and Justin Smoak soaring to the big leagues, the Rangers have many internal options to help the Rangers make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
If they do, their starting rotation could make October a very interesting month for the Rangers fanbase. If they don’t, they can look forward to next season when Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz could anchor one of the best rotations in club history.
One thing at a time, though. They have a division to win first.