Wash had plenty to be disturbed about
Anyone suggesting that it's too early for a team to be stressed about a series in early June wasn't watching the Texas Rangers on Saturday. A team that prides itself in the fundamentals officially lost its way in a 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
Rangers manager Ron Washington normally has the utmost confidence in his players, but what he witnessed Saturday had to embarrass him. It's one thing to make three errors in a game, but that wasn't even the worst part. Shortstop Elvis Andrus, who is having an All-Star caliber season, committed the unpardonable baseball sin of arguing a call before the play had come to completion. Believing that Mike Trout's groundball had grazed a baserunner, Andrus fielded the ball and immediately made his case to the umpire.
Washington came out to visit with that umpire, but surely he was already seething about his shortstop's decision. That moment helped convince Washington that he needed to conduct the dreaded team meeting. He didn't want to reveal all the details of that session, but he did flash a sadistic smile late Saturday as he told FOXSportsSouthwest's Jon Rhadigan that he felt pretty confident the players understood his message.
Whether or not the meeting had anything to do with it, the Rangers responded with a 7-3 win over the Angels on Sunday to avoid being swept. They have a 4 ½-game lead over Los Angeles, which sounds a whole lot better than 2 ½. It's premature to suggest Saturday's meeting jump-started this team. The Rangers need to play well over an extended period before we decide to turn Washington's postgame message into some type of watershed moment.
The thing that troubled Washington the most in the first two games in Anaheim was an apparent lack of confidence from the Rangers. This is a lineup that shouldn't fear anything, but losing so much ground to the Angels over the past couple weeks may have planted a seed of doubt. Washington is the most confident manager/coach I've covered over the past 10 years. Even the legendary Bill Parcells was a constant worrier who didn't always project confidence in himself or his players. Washington's personality has had a dramatic effect on his players, but something didn't look right to him Saturday night.
"We played a little tight," Washington told reporters before Sunday's game. "That's something we haven't done. I think I run a very loose clubhouse. So that's out of [character]. I can put up with us leaving runners on base. I can put up with us not hitting. But I can't live with us not catching the ball. We pitch, catch and play defense. Those are things that we haven't done lately."
Washington knows the Rangers wasted an excellent outing from Yu Darvish on Saturday. He was more efficient than his counterpart C.J. Wilson and deserved a better fate. It seemed so out of character to see third baseman Adrian Beltre drop a ball when he had a chance to nail a baserunner at the plate. And Andrus made three errors in a four-game span to put his season total at seven.
Washington needed to do something to get his attention. Only last week, Andrus told me that one of his keys to success this season was learning not to think about his previous plate appearance while standing at shortstop. But he appeared to lose focus Saturday.
"The main focus [Sunday] was at a whole different level today than yesterday or the last two weeks," said Andrus. "Yesterday's talk kind of opened everybody's eyes and minds a little bit and we really didn't try to do too much today. We wanted to get on base, see a lot of pitches and just do our game plan."
Even suffering a sweep to the Angels shouldn't have caused panic among the Rangers, but they had to be relieved to salvage a game. The series felt bigger than it actually was because Los Angeles had made up so much ground.
It also turned into somewhat of a coronation for the Angels' 20-year-old center fielder Mike Trout, whose fingerprints were all over Saturday's 3-2 win. The Rangers took a bit of steam away when they successfully challenged Trout's arm from left field a couple times in Sunday's win. He may not be a five-tool player along the lines of Josh Hamilton, but he's obviously a special talent.
The Angels won two of three games without any significant contribution from first baseman Albert Pujols. Outside of one monster game in last year's World Series, he hasn't caused the Rangers a lot of angst. He scored a huge run for the Angels on Saturday, but he only reached base because Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli misplayed his fly ball to short right field.
In the first two games of the series, the Rangers let the Angels off the hook too many times. They were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position Friday and then hit into four double plays against Wilson on Saturday. They finally had some timely hits in Sunday's win, including a 484-foot blast from Nelson Cruz.
Some of us were premature in thinking the Rangers could bury the Angels this early in the season, although a nine-game deficit will play tricks on your mind. The Rangers would be wise to stop worrying about the Angels until the two teams meet again in late July.
They need to dominate the weaklings of the A.L. West. And that starts this evening against the A's. Losing a series to Los Angels in early June isn't the end of the world. But it doesn't take a team meeting to drive home the point that a 5-7 record against the Mariners and Royals is unacceptable.
And that's why this Oakland series, in a lot of ways, is just as important as the one in Anaheim.