The Rangers were supposed to win the World Series last year, remember?
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They thoroughly outplayed the Yankees to win the American League pennant. They had a deeper lineup than the Giants.
Most important, they had Cliff Lee.
The trendy pick was Texas in five.
The big bats were vulnerable to San Francisco’s superb starters. The pitching staff was thinner than we thought. Defensive liabilities were exposed. Lee lost twice. The Giants drank champagne at Rangers Ballpark on Nov. 1, and within a few months the Game 1 starter (Lee) and Game 1 cleanup man (Vladimir Guerrero) were gone.
One year later, the Rangers are back in the World Series. Lee and Guerrero are not. And it’s apparent that Texas manager Ron Washington has a better roster at his disposal in 2011 than he did in 2010.
Credit the Rangers’ astute front office for recognizing, and remedying, the fatal flaws of last year’s five-game flameout.
“It’s a more balanced ballclub, and that’s important,” Nolan Ryan, the Rangers CEO and president, said recently. “I feel better about our ballclub this year than I did last year.
“We’ve added some veteran presence in our bullpen. That’s been really important. Defensively, we’re a better ballclub. I think we have more strength throughout our lineup than we’ve ever had.”
Ever? That’s a strong statement, considering the franchise’s slugging lineage. But it’s hard to argue with the Hall of Famer, considering Nelson Cruz made all sorts of history with a six-homer, 13-RBI performance against Detroit in the American League Championship Series. And he bats seventh.
The odds of the Rangers hitting .190 in the World Series, as they did last year, are on par with C.J. Wilson earning more than Albert Pujols in free agency. This team’s everyday lineup is better, particularly because the principal additions, third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Mike Napoli, are two-way players.
Beltre, who finished the regular season with 32 home runs and 105 RBI, would have been a top AL MVP candidate if he hadn’t spent more than a month on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring.
As a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, Beltre was a defensive upgrade over Michael Young, who’s expected to start at first base during the World Series. (Rangers fans probably remember that their team had a 2-0 lead in Game 1 last year — until Freddy Sanchez zipped a double past Young’s outstretched glove at third.)
Napoli, meanwhile, hit for average (.320) and power (30 home runs) in his first season as a Ranger. Acquired because of his ability to play multiple positions, Napoli has steadily disproved the notion he’s a liability behind the plate. He had the lowest catcher’s ERA and third-best caught-stealing percentage among AL catchers who made at least 50 starts.
Beltre and Napoli are part of the reason Texas has improved its overall defensive efficiency since last year, according to Baseball Prospectus metrics. The Rangers won’t commit four errors Wednesday night in St. Louis, as they did in Game 1 last year.
One reason I’m confident in making that statement: Washington doesn’t have to fret about Guerrero wobbling around right field, as happened in San Francisco last year. Guerrero, normally a DH, committed two Game 1 errors and struggled so mightily on defense that Washington left him out of the Game 2 lineup.
This year, Washington has an easy fix: Young, the primary DH, will play first base.
“It’s an interchangeable part this year,” Texas outfielder David Murphy said of the DH spot. “Plenty of guys have filled that role. We don’t have to worry about our quote-unquote DH and how to get him on the field. We don’t have a DH.”
The Rangers have averaged 5.5 runs this postseason, which should be enough to win the World Series. If they have a concern, it’s that Cruz won’t see pitches to hit — particularly in St. Louis, where the pitcher looming two spots below could entice Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to pitch around him.
Cruz said Monday that he saw more breaking pitches and outside fastballs from Detroit pitchers as the ALCS went along. It hardly helped. The Cardinals’ approach to him certainly will be one of the most talked-about aspects of this series.
“If the Cardinals are smart, and if they’ve had their scouts out, he’s probably not going to get a whole lot to hit,” Murphy said.
“But I hope they do pitch to him, and hopefully this layoff won’t have affected his timing at all.” (Murphy, the usual No. 8 hitter, noted wryly that he would “definitely” pitch around Nelson Cruz to face David Murphy.)
The Rangers’ rotation actually is better than it was last year, even if that wasn’t evident during the first two rounds. Yes, Texas has had just one quality start (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) in 10 postseason games. But that performance is so out of step with what the Rangers did during the regular season that a return to the mean is likely.
“I think so,” Young said. “We have a ton of confidence in those guys. They’ve been doing it all year. We wouldn’t be here without our starters.”
While Washington can’t give Lee the ball for Game 1, he has three left-handed starters (Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison) who have been better than they were in 2010. All season, the improvement of three has been a counterbalance to the departure of one.
Besides, the Rangers already have proved that five decent innings is about all they need from the rotation. Their bullpen has been that good. Alexi Ogando wasn’t much of a factor in last year’s World Series, throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings before suffering an oblique injury.
This year, with the exception of Cruz, Ogando has been the Rangers’ postseason MVP, going 2-0 with an 0.87 ERA while pitching almost as many innings as the Texas starters.
Ogando hasn’t been the only impact reliever ahead of closer Neftali Feliz. Mike Adams, Scott Feldman and Michael Gonzalez, who were not in the Texas bullpen at this time last year, have combined for a 1.12 ERA in 16 1/3 postseason innings.
Finally, there is another, less tangible way in which the Rangers are better prepared to win the World Series this year.
They’ve been there before.
“There’s a lot of things going on, people pulling you in different directions when you get to the World Series,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said.
“The focus needs to be on the field. I don’t know how much that took away from us on the field last year. But we’ve gone through it once. It’s fresh in our minds. We have that experience to fall back on. Hopefully, it helps.”
And it should. Just not as much as Beltre, Napoli, Ogando, and all the others.