Rangers Hold Division Lead as Brutal June Schedule Looms

The Rangers have had some successes to enjoy up to this point in the season but also have more work to do.
Photo Courtesy: Dominic Ceraldi

By Wiley Singleton

The season is a third of the way over and the Texas Rangers still hold the AL West lead. The Rangers have used great starting pitching and a lethal offense to maintain the foothold over the best team in the AL, the Houston Astros. The Rangers finally have pitching and it shows. Martin Perez has been solid. Dane Dunning has been great from the bullpen and rotation. Jon Gray has been excellent. So has Andrew Heaney despite a few blow up starts. Nathan Eovaldi has been the best of all. He was the best pitcher in baseball in May, posting an ERA below 1 and hard carrying multiple games in lieu of Jacob deGrom. The Rangers showed through May they have the starting pitching depth to handle a deGrom injury. deGrom is currently on paternity leave and will be approaching his return after he spends a week or so with his family. Eovaldi showed why he was the Red Sox ace, turning in one brilliant performance after another as the Rangers temporary ace. 

The offense has been incredible. The Rangers lead MLB in runs per game. They have been patient at the plate. They have shown an incredible ability to string together big innings. This has a lot to do with the fact they lead the league in batting average and are second in on base percentage. Semien has been getting on base every day from the leadoff spot. He has pop, speed, and is great on defense. The man hitting in the 2 hole behind him, Corey Seager, missed a month but has been putting up MVP numbers before and after his injury. He is the engine of the offense and has been a force. Nate Lowe hits after him and is solid. Adolis “El Bombi” Garcia consistently hits cleanup. He is on pace for over 140 RBI and is one of the most dangerous hitters in MLB at the moment. The main reason for this is his decreased chase rate and improved plate discipline.  Top prospect turned every day player Josh Jung is consistently hitting 5th. The Texas Tech grad has shown incredible pop and consistency at the plate and deserves to win Rookie of the Year. Jonah Heim has been hitting over .300 much of the season and is worth a DH spot even when he does not catch. Those six players makeup the consistent 1-6 spots in the Rangers lineup. The other positions are fielded with platoons. Ezequiel Duran plays several positions, has pop, but was recently hurt. Josh Smith is fast, can play multiple positions, and plays with grit. He is a solid utility man with room to grow. Outfielder Leody Taveras has finally developed at the plate and is hitting over .300. He also has great speed and defense. This is one of the biggest factors in the Rangers offense being good. Having the defensive-minded Taveras pop off on offense was one of the Rangers major win conditions to be a playoff team this season. Robbie Grossman and Travis Jancowski have been solid in the outfield when they get time. Grossman walks a fair amount and has a knack for the big homer. Jancowski is a defensive-minded lefty that has spent most of the season hitting over .300. The glaring issue of the outfield has been solved by these players. Everyone knew Garcia was going to be good, but the other spots were huge question marks. The rise of Duran has been massive for this team. Duran is a clutch young player with a penchant for big homers. He plays in the infield sometimes too, like Josh Smith. Grossman and Jancowski being solid has been huge for Texas. It looked like this team was going to have a blackhole at LF all season, but the outfield overperforming expectations is the main reason the Rangers are first in runs scored. 

The bullpen has been the Rangers biggest weakness by far. Jonathan Hernandez and Jose Leclerc were expected to be two top end fireballers relied on in big spots. They both have lost their control and have been awful. Brock Burke has been solid. Will Smith, the closer, has been incredible. Guys like John King, Josh Sporz, and Cole Ragans are just too inconsistent. The Rangers will need to make a trade for an established bullpen arm before the trade deadline. Even if they make the playoffs they will not make it far with this bullpen. The starting pitching and thunderous offense have masked the ineptitude of the bullpen for the most part. But so far this season there have been multiple awful games the bullpen has choked; including a couple of memorable fiascos against the lowly Reds and Athletics. 

The Rangers have looked great through the first third of the season. The starting pitching has looked razor sharp and the offense menacing. Many fans are starting to talk about playoffs and a pennant race. It is time to pump the brakes on focusing on these things. There is still a ton of season left and the Rangers lead over the Astros usually sits somewhere between 2-5 games. Although it is refreshing to see good baseball for the first time in six years, Rangers fans should enjoy the ride of the regular season and not look to September. The Astros are very scary and are going to get their 93+ wins. The difference between having to make a run out of the Wild Card seed and division winner seed is huge. The Rangers top priority is still winning the division. Going into the season the Wild Card seemed like a reasonable goal. But after seeing the potent offense put up monster innings and the legitimate pitching staff pop off, Rangers fans have a right to be excited.

The Rangers brutalized the pathetic Rockies in Texas. They dropped 31 runs on them over the best of three series and none of the games were close. The top 5 hitters in the Rangers lineup were particularly lethal in this series. Semien, Seager, Lowe, Garcia, and Jung tortured the Rockies pitching staff. Those five are really using the consistency of the lineup to find their groove and support each other. Many skippers, like Joe Maddon, will constantly tinker with the lineup and move players around to different spots in the order. Rangers Skipper Bruce Bochy has taken the opposite approach. He has kept hitters in the same spots all season. He even did this when offense carry Corey Seager went down for a month. He simply slotted whichever player was hot into Seager’s #2 spot in the lineup, allowing Semien, Lowe, Garcia, and Jung to remain comfortable in their spots. Baseball players are creatures of habit and rhythm. Allowing them to maintain this over the course of the long season has paid off huge for Bochy. Hitters’ roles also slightly switch depending on their spot in the lineup. A leadoff hitter is expected to get on base and have speed. The second hitter needs to be patient to set up the steal but also have power. The third hitter is supposed to be the toughest out. The cleanup hitter is supposed to drive in runs. Moving players around to different spots in the order means the player has to change his hitting mindset and win conditions daily. In Bochy’s static lineup the players know where they will be hitting when they come to the park. They have looked remarkably relaxed and work well as a team.

After crushing the Rockies the Rangers went up to Pittsburgh and won 2 of 3. The loss was due to a bullpen implosion. Josh Jung was great in this series and collected at least an RBI in every game. The rubber match of this game was particularly interesting because Will Smith had to come in and make one of the most clutch saves in baseball history. The 8th inning began with Texas up 3-2 and closer turned comedian Jose Leclerc making a mess like Artie Lange. Leclerc allowed back to back singles and a walk before being yanked like an impacted tooth. Skipper Bochy, pushed to his strategic and mental limit regarding his bullpen, was forced to shove all in and bring in his most reliable arm: lefty Closer Will Smith. 

Smith has a tremendous curveball and solid heater. Smith got a fly out and ended the bases loaded inherited mess with a massive strikeout. He then proceeded to 1-2-3 the 9th inning for a massive 5 out save. Not only was it massive within the context of the Rangers season, but also in MLB history. It ranks fourth all time in WPA (win probability added) for a relief pitcher in a game. Essentially the advanced stat said Smith was responsible for half the win. Tepid, hard to understand and quantify advanced stats be damned. In a season marred by constant embarrassing bullpen blowups and easy series lost to sewer teams; Will Smith butchered the opposition like Clint Eastwood gunning down five Mexican murderers in rapid succession in A Fistful of Dollars. 

There were two good AL teams last season that dominated the Rangers when Texas came to visit: Seattle and Baltimore. Being able to beat these possible Wild Card opponents on the road was an important thing for the Rangers to show they could do. They already did it in Seattle a few weeks ago. They traveled to Baltimore and proved they could do it there too. The Rangers won the opener in their new signature way: hammer the opposition with double digit runs stemming from a massive inning. The eight run 4th inning included a Corey Seager grand slam that showed power not seen in Baltimore since Frank Sobatka’s term. The Rangers won the next game off a gem from Andrew Heaney. The final game of the series featured neither Dane Dunning nor Jacob deGrom. The Rangers had to start green rookie Cody Bradford. He was solid but the offense only scored two and the Rangers failed to sweep. Still, it was an impressive series win against a crucial opponent. 

The Rangers then traveled to the Motor City to face the poor Tigers. Eovaldi turned in his final gem of May, although he had to labor more than normal. He lasted 5 shutout innings but threw 95 pitches. The Rangers held a 5-0 lead late in the game when miraculously Hernandez and Leclerc both made scoreless appearances. They held the shutout and the Rangers won the opener. Martin Perez did not have it in the second game of the series. He got popped for 6 ER in 4.2 IP. The Rangers employed their new favorite build order of scoring double digit runs. This strategy was assisted by rookie righty sidewinder Grant Anderson throwing 2.2 IP of scoreless ball. Grant struck out 7 of 9 batters faced. He was electric. He has a nasty two seamer and changeup. His windup mimics that of Pat Neshek. This kid could be one of the main answers to the Rangers bullpen woes. Grant and the Rangers hung on to win that one 10-6. The Rangers then lost another rubber match where they had the chance to sweep, 3-2.

The Rangers have outperformed expectations so far this season. The starting pitching has been incredible despite deGrom getting hurt multiple times already. deGrom has been great when healthy. The offense has been truly staggering, especially the depth of the bench and quality of outfield play. This has been the best start through the first third of the season in Rangers history. June will be the true test for this team though. The Rangers will play the following teams in June: bitter rival and similarly skilled Mariners, 2011 World Series rival Cardinals, AL juggernaut Tampa Bay, the Shohei Ohtani/Mike Trout led Angels, AL star-studded playoff team Toronto, the Yanks in NY, and they finish the month against the hated Astros. If the Rangers can remain in 1st through June, then Rangers fans can start to get excited for a potential playoff berth. As it stands, this team is exciting and worth watching for the first time in years. 

Upcoming Schedule – All Times Central
6/2 – vs Mariners – 7:05 p.m.
6/3 – vs Mariners – 3:05 p.m.
6/4 – vs Mariners – 1:35 p.m.
6/5 – vs Cardinals – 7:05 p.m.
6/6 – vs Cardinals – 7:05 p.m.
6/7 – vs Cardinals – 7:05 p.m.
6/9 – @Rays – 5:40 p.m.
6/10 – @Rays – 3:10 p.m.
6/11 – @Rays – 12:40 p.m.