Rangers already seeking ways to improve

Every year during the League Championship Series and World Series, I conduct interviews for FOX with the losing manager. Usually the interviews take place shortly after the final game is over.

Not Friday night.

The doors to the visiting clubhouse stayed closed for a good 20 minutes after the Rangers lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Cardinals, 6-2.

Manager Ron Washington spoke. A number of players spoke. Pride and camaraderie were among the themes. So was a commitment to return to the Series for a third straight season.

The Rangers actually had a similar group-therapy session after falling to the Giants in five games a year ago. They then lost left-hander Cliff Lee to free agency, added third baseman Adrian Beltre, catcher Mike Napoli and others, and somewhat surprisingly, became an even better team.

As I’ve written before, the Rangers’ success at player development and growing financial might could make them the next great super-power of the American League. But there is only problem, and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I talked to player after player in the clubhouse.

The game offers no guarantees.

The Rangers might not get this close again.

Granted, I wouldn’t be writing this if right fielder Nelson Cruz had just caught David Freese’s drive with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 6. The Rangers would have won the Series, and this column would be about how they could be on the verge of a dynasty.

Heck, that might be the case, anyway. The Rangers could sign Japanese free-agent right-hander Yu Darvish to head their rotation. They could pursue one of the top free-agent first basemen, Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. They could do any number of things — and probably will.

“We’ve got find ways to get better,” general manager Jon Daniels said.

I’m not sure Daniels is right — the 2011 Rangers were pretty darned good. In fact, their only failure was in the Series against a Cardinals club that will go down as one of the storybook teams of our generation. And that failure occurred with several of their stars — Cruz, Napoli, center fielder Josh Hamilton — in various states of disrepair.

The Rangers could win the AL West next season with practically the same club; left-hander C.J. Wilson is their major free agent, and Daniels likely will let some other club overpay him. But this no longer is a question of talent, it’s a question of staying determined. And that won’t necessarily be easy for the Rangers to do.

“One of the things that was so great about this team this year, after a World Series appearance last year, is that you could tell the day that everybody showed up at spring training, nobody was taking anything for granted,” left fielder David Murphy said.

“Nobody felt like, ‘We got to a World Series, so we can take our feet off the gas a little bit.’ Everybody came hungry to spring training. Everybody continued to work hard. It paid off. We knew we had to earn it again. And we did.”

If anything, the team’s resolve should only increase next season, but I wonder if the psychological scars of this defeat will be greater than last year’s. No such scars were apparent as the Rangers took a 2-0 lead in Game 7 one night after twice failing to get the final strike necessary for victory. Still, the game works in funny ways.

Injuries occur. Players fluctuate in performance. Good bullpens, as we saw in the final two games of the Series, suddenly turn bad.

No team has won three straight league titles since the Yankees won four straight from 1998 to 2001. Those Yankees created a winning culture that stayed intact through each of their offseason makeovers. The Rangers will need to do the same.

Players such as Beltre, Napoli, second baseman Ian Kinsler and infielder Michael Young certainly set the proper tone. (“There really is not too much to assess,” Young said. “The effort level was through the roof.”) But going forward, the Rangers will need to remember how they became successful, not that Washington will let them forget.

“We’re like a family. We’re like brothers,” Wilson said. “We’ve been pulling together, working hard all year together. That’s what I said (in the meeting). I’ve never been so proud to have these guys as teammates.

“As much as baseball turns into an individual game for some people, all of our success, even our individual success, is rooted in how well we play together, push ourselves to constantly improve and help each other out.”

All great clubs are like that, no matter how talented — the Cardinals are a perfect example. Sometimes a team will grow stronger after experiencing the most bitter of disappointments. And sometimes, nothing is ever the same.

Washington, asked what he told the club after the game, said, “That I felt like they are champions, although we didn’t get the World Series trophy. Those guys committed themselves to get here this year and win this, and they did it. A lot of times it’s nothing but talk, but it wasn’t talk in that Texas Rangers clubhouse.”

So, don’t compare the Rangers to the Buffalo Bills, the only NFL team to lose four straight Super Bowls. The Rangers, looking very much like newbies, were outclassed by the Giants in their first Series. But with this one, I keep coming back to the ball Cruz should have caught, and how different it all might have been.

Right-hander Colby Lewis said the theme of the postgame meeting was, “keeping the focus,” just as it was a year ago. If the Rangers can do that, they will be that much more formidable next season. Doesn’t mean they will win the World Series. But give ‘em enough chances, and they’ll figure it out.

The meeting Friday night was a start. Lefty Darren Oliver noted that, “this will sting for a little while — and it should.” But the Rangers can’t stop now. They won 96 games, eliminated the Rays and Tigers and twice were one strike away from beating the Cardinals.

The pain of losing is searing. This pain might linger longer than most. But to quote the Roman poet Ovid, “Endure and persist; this pain will turn good by and by.”

It might be hard to make that case to the Rangers right now. But endure and persist are about their only options until next season, when they get to try again.