By Mark Miller
While the road to get to the playoffs has been tougher, the chance to finally win a World Series is within reach for the Texas Rangers.
After winning the American League West title by nine games in 2010 and 10 last year, Texas has faced a much better division this year. That was a major reason they still hadn’t locked up the top spot in 2012 through Monday.
“We arrived in February and our focus was continuing to be the group that it was in 2011. That’s what we wanted to do and I think we accomplished that,” said manager Ron Washington after his team clinched a playoff spot with a win in Sunday’s finale of a day-night double-header against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “But there’s unfinished business. We’re very happy we’ve got another opportunity to play in the post-season again but our goal is not over with yet.”
Still, the veteran leader is happy to have another chance at the ultimate goal.
“I’m so proud of the guys in the clubhouse,” he said. “I’m proud of my coaching staff. I’m proud of the organization. We hung together through a lot of adversity never dropped our head when things weren’t going right and to me that’s what I’ve got in my clubhouse.”
Sunday’s win provided another example of the perseverance that has defined the current group. Down 4-0 in the first inning after closer Joe Nathan blew just his third save in the ninth inning of the opener, the Rangers rallied for an 8-4 lead before holding on to win 8-7. Nathan redeemed himself with a strong ninth inning.
“These guys don’t quit,” Washington said. “They’re very resilient. They fight and the thing I love about them the most is there’s never any finger-pointing. We go down together; we go up together. They’re a class act.”
That’s been especially true after coming within one strike twice of taking the 2011 World Series.
“You would think there would be a letdown but because these guys take each game for what it is, there is no letdown,” Washington said. “They come out there and try to play the best they can every single day.”
After Monday night’s 4-3 loss at Oakland, the Rangers still didn’t know their playoff fate. If they beat the Athletics either Tuesday night or Wednesday afternoon, they’ll repeat as A.L. West champions and open the playoffs on the road either Saturday or Sunday. If not, they will enter Friday’s one-game crap-shoot that is this year’s wild-card game. That contest could be at home or on the road.
The Rangers do know they will play either the A’s, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers or New York Yankees. Here’s how Texas fared against each.
ñ Oakland – after clinching their first playoff spot since 2006 on Monday night, the A’s held an 9-8 season edge over the Rangers. Oakland’s pitching has shined despite a record 99 starts by rookies. Entering this week, the A’s were second in the A.L. with a 3.51 ERA led by Jerrod Parker (13 wins), Tommy Milone (13) and A.J. Griffin (7), all with ERA’s below 4.00.
ñ Orioles – the other American League surprise under Manager of the Year candidate and former Rangers skipper Buck Showalter. The team has been a virtual Rangers’ East with pitchers Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop, catcher Taylor Teagarden, first baseman Chris Davis and outfielder Endy Chavez all playing key roles. The Rangers won five of the seven meetings this year.
ñ Tigers – the team the Rangers beat in the 2011 A.L. Championship Series and in seven of 10 times in 2012 is back as Central Division champs. While the biggest addition was first baseman Prince Fielder (.313 average, 30 home runs, 108 runs batted in), two holdovers have made even more noise. Third baseman Miguel Cabrera (.329, 44, 137) could become the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 while Justin Verlander (17-8, 2.64 earned run average) might win the Cy Young Award again.
ñ Yankees – now that shortstop Alex Rodriquez and first baseman Mark Teixeira have returned from injuries, New York is back at full strength. Players like Derek Jeter (.316, 15, 58), Curtis Granderson (.228, 41, 102) and Robinson Cano (.308, 31, 88) have fueled the offense. On the mound, C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kurada and Phil Hughes each have at least 15 wins and Rafael Soriano has made up for the absence of closer Mariano Rivera with 42 saves in 46 chances. The Rangers, who split six games with the Yankees, would prefer they meet in the ALCS instead of the wild card because they don’t want to play one game in New York to advance.
Ian Kinsler/Elvis Andrus – the top of the lineup must reach base to allow the middle of the order to drive in runs.
Mike Napoli – one of last year’s playoff heroes (.345, 3, 15 RBI) started 2012 slowly, then missed 33 games with an injured left quadriceps. He returned strong in 13 September games with six home runs and 15 runs batted in and really had his hitting stroke back in Sunday’s finale with two homers and six RBI.
Alexi Ogando – if he pitches like he did early in the season (1-0, 2.48 until straining his right groin in June) the seventh inning and more could be history. If he reverts back to how he threw after returning from the disabled list (1-0, 4.20), the Rangers will have bullpen problems especially if Mike Adams can’t go with shoulder injury.
Bench – the reserves haven’t responded in limited playing time and must produce when needed for Texas to succeed in the playoffs. The Rangers likely will be going with young but talented players like Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar in addition to Geovany Soto and Craig Gentry to back up their regulars.
The Rangers entered last year’s playoffs as the hottest team in the majors with a 19-6 September record and 14 wins in their final 16 games. This year they finished the final full month at 15-13 including a 3-3 final homestand after a 3-3 road trip. Through Monday they had lost six of 10.
While the team was inconsistent, some players had stellar Septembers. Beltre hit 11 homers and added 19 runs batted in while batting .337. Young was next of the regulars at .301. On the mound, Darvish was 3-0 with a 2.21 earned run average with only seven walks and 39 strikeouts in 36.2 innings. Harrison was 3-2, 3.00, Holland 3-0, 3.96 and Dempster 3-2, 4.71. The best reliever was Uehara, who yielded just one hit in 9.2 innings, walking one and striking out 17.
Figure the Rangers will wait right up to Thursday morning’s deadline to turn in their playoff roster. Who is healthy will be the biggest factor especially with question marks in Adams and Olt.
Mike Olt/Brandon Snyder
Mike Adams/Mark Lowe/Tanner Scheppers
Martin Perez/Michael Kirkman
Which Rangers team shows up will determine how long much longer they play in 2012. If it’s the April (17-6), June (19-9) or August (19-10) team, there could be a World Series banner hanging over Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. If it’s a repeat of July (9-14) or the inconsistency of May (14-14) and September, it might be one series and done.
The key is the offense returning to the top to bottom consistency of the past two seasons and it starts with getting people on base to allow the team to run and put pressure on the defense. It also will take more of what has marked the Rangers the past three seasons.
Every time they desperately needed to win, they did. Even when their fans have become a bit nervous, they haven’t. They believe in each other so much they are able to put the past, even the immediate past, behind them quickly.
“We don’t get worried. We’re competitive for a living so worry is nothing that comes to us,” Young said. “We have guys who care for each other. We all put in a lot of hard work. We’re a veteran club that knows what it takes to win.”
“We’re a team that’s tough to put away,” said second baseman Ian Kinsler last Thursday after beating Oakland. “Other teams know that we’re very good. They also know our chemistry is very good. They’ve got to fight through that.”
AL Wild Card Schedule
Oct. 5 – at higher seed
(All games televised by TBS/TNT)
Oct. 6-7 – Game 1 at lower seed
Oct. 7-8 – Game 2 at lower seed
Oct. 9-10 – Game 3 at higher seed
Oct. 10-11 – Game 4 at higher seed
Oct. 11-12 – Game 5 at higher seed