Another Post-Season Party for the Rangers?
Uncertainty over opponent at press time
By Dic Humphrey
For the second year in a row, the Rangers have won the West and will open the playoffs this Friday. Unlike last year, the race with the Angels was much closer in September. Texas won the division with a flourish, though, going 18-6 to pull away from Los Angeles. The clincher came last Friday with the ball club winning in Arlington, then waiting two hours for the results of Oakland and Los Angeles. Oakland won to the delight of the 10,000 fans or so who waited at the park watching the game on the big screen in right field.
With the playoff berth in hand, the questions become “when,” “where” and “who.” New York is the one seed with the best record in the American League. Texas was still fighting Detroit for the two seed on the last day of the season. Friday will find the Rangers in either Arlington to host Boston or Tampa Bay, or in New York to face the Yankees.
Rangers’ manager Ron Washington said last Friday that having his team rested and ready to play is more important than home field advantage. Despite unusual lineups, the Rangers continued to win their next four games after clinching; and with one win needed to take the two seed, Washington committed to play his “A” team Wednesday night.
Holland moves up
In regard to the playoff starting rotation, Washington announced that C.J. Wilson would be the Game One starter shortly after clinching. No surprise there. There was some thought that Colby Lewis, statistically the worst Ranger starter this season, would start Game Two, especially if that game was in New York as Lewis has been far better on the road than at home.
However, when the Rangers sent Lewis out for his Tuesday start in Anaheim without restrictions on the number of pitches he would throw, it was obvious he would not be starting again Saturday. Derek Holland is the most likely candidate to take that start, and why not? He finished the season 9-1 with a 2.77 ERA in his final 15 starts. At this point in time he is arguably throwing even better than Wilson. It is generally assumed that Alexi Ogando is the starter shuffling to the bullpen, and that Matt Harrison and Lewis will be the three and four starters in some order.
The playoff roster is always interesting. Teams are looking for assets that can help in a short series with off days. That is different than the considerations for a roster built to win the most games over a 162-game schedule.
On the pitching side, the smoke signals out of Arlington seem to be heading toward a 12-man staff. Most teams shorten their rotation to four or even three pitchers and go with 10 or 11 pitchers in the playoffs, allowing an extra position player or two. However, after perusing the Rangers’ roster, there are not many position player candidates to be added. Teams often like an extra speed guy off the bench; but with the Rangers’ intention of starting David Murphy against right-handed pitchers, joining Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz in the outfield, the Rangers already have good speed on the bench in Craig Gentry and Endy Chavez. The only realistic move is to add Matt Treanor as a third catcher to give more flexibility to play Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba in the same lineup.
On the last day of the season the debate continued as to whether to carry a 12th pitcher or Treanor. Michael Kirkman may be the beneficiary if the decision is 12 pitchers. He was a starter most of the season in AAA, so gives the Rangers a pitcher capable of multiple innings, and he is left-handed.
Also, Andres Blanco is still suffering from back problems. Esteban German may take his place on the playoff roster as the backup infielder.
In a better position?
The Rangers will go to the playoffs with a better team than last year’s. This pitching staff is better overall. The bullpen is at least as good, and the starters are better. The triumvirate of Harrison, Holland and Ogando has really made the difference. The catching corps of Napoli and Torrealba is a material offensive upgrade over Treanor and Benji Molina last year. Defensively they throw better and at a minimum call an equally good game. Adrian Beltre is a better bat than Vlad Guurrero was last year, and a better defensive third baseman than Michael Young.
It is also a team that is far better from the experience of last year’s playoff run. The players are more assured and confident. When this team clicks, it is simply the best team in the American League.
Lastly, this team has a better manager than last year’s Rangers. Ron Washington has the confidence from taking a team to the World Series. He’s become a much better strategist. He has a team that believes in him and plays hard for him.
No matter how good it looks on paper though, the playoffs are a crapshoot with short series that can be dominated by a couple of hot starting pitchers. Good teams, such as the 2001 Seattle Mariners that won 116 regular season games, lose in the first round. Not so good teams, such as such as last year’s Giants, can win the World Series. Texas’ playoff fate can go either way. Hopefully, Ranger fans will see a bunch of Ranger games in October.