America’s Team resides in Arlington, Texas. And I’m not talking about the Cowboys.
If you’re a fan of meaningful September baseball, if you’re a fan of teams returning to the playoffs after a decade drought, if you’re a fan of pretty much anyone other than the Angels and Red Sox, then I predict you will be a fan of the Texas Rangers. For the next few weeks, at least.
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They represent the greatest hope for a memorable conclusion to the American League regular season, one way or the other. A brief look at the standings would tell you why.
The Yankees, leading by nine games in the East, should win their division.
The Tigers, leading by 6½ games in the Central, should win their division.
The Angels, leading by 4½ games in the West, should win their division, too, unless the Rangers dominate the seven remaining head-to-head encounters.
Realistically, that leaves the wild card. Which brings us to Texas.
Now that the Rays have bowed out, ensuring that the AL will have a new champion, most of the league’s remaining intrigue involves the Rangers and Red Sox.
Even after the Rangers swept a doubleheader from the Indians on Tuesday, Boston held a two-game edge in the wild card standings. But Texas is close enough for manager Ron Washington’s players to talk optimistically without sounding naïve.
“We’re right there,” outfielder David Murphy said. “We’re right where we want to be. We haven’t been playing our best baseball lately, but I think everybody knows it’s time to go get it done if we want to play in October.”
Boston, with its deep roster and near-limitless resources, is supposed to be a playoff team. It will be a mild surprise if that doesn’t come to pass. But this is the most vulnerable Red Sox team since 2006, one that has counted on two aging starters (Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield) and may soon call upon an enigmatic one (Daisuke Matsuzaka).
It should be compelling theater, the upstart Rangers mounting a late charge against the famous-yet-flawed Red Sox. There’s only one problem: The underdog is undermanned.
Michael Young is injured. Josh Hamilton, too.
“It doesn’t happen perfect all the time, you know?” Ian Kinsler said with a shrug.
Kinsler, the star second baseman, raised a good point: It isn’t going to happen easily. But there’s nothing to prohibit it from happening, period.
Monday’s washout in Cleveland forced the Rangers to play the Indians three times in 24 hours: an evening doubleheader Tuesday, followed by a 12:05 p.m. ET start on Wednesday.
Kinsler joked that he hadn’t played so much baseball in so little time since he was involved “in one of those crazy tournaments” as a 12-year-old. Well, the Rangers are trying to use a sugared-up, middle-school sort of energy to play their way out of the losers’ bracket.
They outlasted the Indians, 11-9, in Tuesday’s opener, a showcase of how exhilarating and maddening their games can be. Not a coincidence that Texas had a rookie starting pitcher (Tommy Hunter), leadoff man (Julio Borbon) and No. 2 hitter (Elvis Andrus).
Borbon popped the second and third home runs of his young career in Game 1 and added a stolen base for good measure. Later, Washington called him “an offensive weapon.”
Kinsler and Marlon Byrd were picked off first base in the early innings, before Byrd socked a three-run, tiebreaking homer in the seventh. Byrd finished the day with seven hits, a franchise record for a doubleheader, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Andrus swiped two bases in the opener and made a show-stopping play deep in the hole on Jhonny Peralta’s seventh-inning grounder. Then he committed a throwing error in the ninth.
And in Game 2? Well, Andrus doubled, committed a base-running gaffe, misplayed a grounder for an error and spun a scintillating play to match the one he made in the first game.
And all of that happened in two innings. The Rangers still won 10-5.
“You know, the kid can play,” Washington said in between games. “You have to take, sometimes, the good with the bad.”
Washington was referring to Andrus, but his words could be more broadly applied.
This team isn’t an accidental contender, not with the fewest unearned runs in the American League and the franchise’s best ERA since the early 1990s. But the Rangers won’t play mistake-free baseball, either. They are simply too young to do that.
An example: Hunter was handed a 4-0 lead in Tuesday’s first game. He lasted only 69 pitches.
Another example: Relief sensation Neftali Feliz, a 21-year-old rookie, entered in the midst of a sixth-inning rally and seemed to shy away from his explosive fastball. Before too much longer, his scoreless streak was over at 20 1/3 innings. The culprit: an offspeed pitch that landed in the seats.
It would be understandable for the younger Rangers to feel more pressure these days, although a number of them seemed quite relaxed while playing video games — including the original Super Mario Bros. — in the clubhouse before Tuesday’s twin bill.
They haven’t seen September in the majors before — much less a September that means this much.
“It’s human nature, man,” veteran reliever Eddie Guardado said, when asked if some of his less-experienced teammates had seemed a little tenser lately. “I would be lying to you if I said no. That’s just the way it is.”
It’s enough to make you wonder how October-ready these Rangers really are. But an optimist could point out that their clubhouse has about as many postseason-tested veterans as did the Rays last year: Guardado, Ivan Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Kevin Millwood and Jason Grilli.
We could nod our heads and say, “Well, it’s going to be up to their veterans in September.” But that’s absolutely false. It’s up to Hunter, Derek Holland (22), Brandon McCarthy (26) and Scott Feldman (26) — the inexperienced, non-Millwood portion of the rotation. And the bullpen is largely unproven when it comes to chilly, important nights.
Young hasn’t been to the postseason, either, something Kinsler said would serve as added motivation for the Rangers over these final weeks. Young is immensely popular in the clubhouse and vital on the field. (“You can’t replace Michael Young,” Murphy said.) The Rangers miss him badly, more so than Hamilton, who could return from a pinched nerve in time for this weekend’s home series with Seattle.
Young, out with a hamstring injury, went through a battery of agility drills Tuesday. Still, he probably won’t be back until Sept. 18 at the earliest. That’s when the Angels come to Arlington for what could be a crucial series.
Until then, the Rangers have some games — and fans — to win.