Time for Rangers to snap out of it

Think maybe now the Texas Rangers will snap out of it?

The two-time defending American League champions have been mostly sleepwalking since the first two weeks of the season. They’re a mere 43-40 since June 30. And on Wednesday afternoon, they got what they deserved.

A 12-5 loss to the Oakland Athletics in a winner-take-all game for the AL West title. A ticket to the wild-card game rather than an immediate spot in the best-of-five division series, which is reserved for, you know, division champions.

Many fans sympathized with the Rangers after their crushing seven-game defeat in last year’s World Series. Few will sympathize with them for blowing a 13-game lead to an Oakland team with less than half of their near-$130 million payroll — a team, in fact, with the lowest payroll in the American League.

If the Rangers’ next sorry act is to lose at home to Baltimore in Friday’s wild-card game, we’ll be talking about them as this year’s Boston Red Sox, minus — presumably — the fried chicken, beer and palace intrigue.

The pitching matchup decidedly favors Texas, which will go with its hottest starter, right-hander Yu Darvish. The Orioles plan to counter with either lefty Joe Saunders, who is 0-6 with a 9.38 career ERA in six starts at Rangers Ballpark, or rookie right-hander Steve Johnson.

Lose this game, and even more serious questions for the Rangers will emerge.

Free-agent center fielder Josh Hamilton likely would be gone; in fact, he might be gone either way. Manager Ron Washington probably would be safe — he is under contract through 2014 — but almost certainly would be on notice after back-to-back collapses:

The final two games of last year’s World Series.

And now this.

The Rangers led the Athletics by five games with nine to play, but went 2-7 the rest of the way, including losing five of six to the A’s. Strange but true: The first time the Athletics took sole possession of first place was on the final day of the season.

Hamilton’s dropped fly ball in Game No. 162 was the perfect symbol of the Rangers’ malaise. If it’s not one thing with Hamilton, it’s another. He and some of his teammates seemed almost bored throughout much of the season, as if they could reach another World Series on command.

In the end, it bit them.

The Rangers, according to STATS LLC, batted .232 with a .698 OPS in September and October, ranking 12th and 10th in the AL in those departments, respectively.

Hamilton during that stretch struck out 37 times, the second-highest total in the majors behind Orioles whiff-master Mark Reynolds. True, Hamilton produced an .873 OPS in that span. But he also hit only one homer in his last 51 at-bats.

The Rangers’ offensive streakiness reflects their best hitter’s streakiness — the team led the AL in runs during the regular season, but scored only nine times while getting swept in the final three games by the A’s.

Hamilton, though, is far from the only culprit.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler has regressed, and infielder Michael Young is in marked decline. First base remains a trouble spot, and so does catcher when Mike Napoli is not filling the position.

Yet, for all of those disturbing trends, offense is hardly the Rangers’ biggest problem. No, their biggest problem is the problem that has haunted this franchise throughout its history.

Starting pitching.

The team’s 4.30 rotation ERA ranked only eighth in the AL, qualifying as below-average. Remove right-hander Yu Darvish and lefty Matt Harrison from the equation, and that ERA climbed to 4.76 — or about what we saw from the injury-ravaged Toronto Blue Jays.

Ryan Dempster, obtained from the Chicago Cubs on July 31, started Game No. 162 and blew a 5-1 lead, giving up five runs in three innings. His dismal performance was typical of his pattern with his first AL team. Dempster dominated sub-.500 clubs, posting a 1.88 ERA in 38 1/3 innings, but struggled against winning teams, producing a 9.10 ERA in 30 2/3 innings.

The Rangers, you may recall, wanted to trade for lefty Cole Hamels before he re-signed with Philadelphia, then got outbid by the Los Angeles Angels for righty Zack Grienke. Dempster and free-agent righty Roy Oswalt were their two big in-season acquisitions. Oswalt was a bust, and Dempster sure wasn’t Greinke.

This team is talented enough to gather itself quickly, win the wild-card game and advance to its third straight World Series. But why should any of their fans be confident that a turnaround is about to occur, even with Darvish starting the wild-card game?

The Rangers are in a far more vulnerable position than they ever imagined, and the responsibility is all their own. Either they snap out of it, or they will be remembered as quite the opposite of what their players and management team promised – a club strong enough mentally to recover from back-to-back Series defeats.

Right now, the Rangers don’t look so tough; quite the contrary.

They look like a team that has lost its way.