I'm not the type to wish for the baseball season to end sooner than it has to, but if I could, I'd selfishly love to fast forward to next Sunday to find out the answer to one nagging question: Are the Rangers in or are they out?
Their 4-13 record in September has wrecked their chances of winning the AL West; they now trail the Athletics by 6.5 games with 10 to play and are down to their last hope, one of the two AL Wild Card spots. But given their recent skid and the tightening race for the playoffs, the Rangers are out of extra lives and get out of jail free cards; they'll have to be nearly perfect down the stretch to fight off the Indians, Orioles, Royals, Rays, and Yankees, all within 3.5 games of the Wild Card.
The sinking feeling of collapse is familiar to the Rangers. In the final week of last season, the Rangers lost five of their last six games (and seven of their last 10), and yielded the division title as a result. They still made it to the Wild Card play-in game, but they lost to the Orioles, dashing their hopes for World Series redemption following a Game-7 loss to the Cardinals the year prior. The wounds of these late-season losses are starting to reopen, and in turn the finger-pointing has begun. Manager Ron Washington's job may be in jeopardy if the Rangers don't reach the playoffs this season, and the decisions made by the front office, like not trading for more offensive help at the deadline, are under scrutiny. The players themselves are under the microscope as well -- the offense is weak, the pitching has been up and down this month -- and if they fall short of the postseason the offseason bloodletting could be severe.
On Tuesday, the Rangers snapped a seven-game losing streak, scoring seven runs and hitting three homers, a welcome surge of power that ended their longest homerless drought since 1990. On Wednesday, they had the Rays against the ropes again, but closer Joe Nathan failed to get the final strike to end the game not once but twice, and the Rays went on to win the game 4-3 in the 12th inning. Thursday night's game, the final in the series against the Rays, was the Ranger's best performance of the month. The Rangers scored eight runs on 16 hits, slamming five home runs, three of them coming off of starter Matt Moore in the third inning.
Prior to their trip to Tampa, both the Pirates and Athletics swept the Rangers at home. They dropped two of three to both the Angels and Athletics on the road to the start the month, and while they competition has not been clobbering them, they've come up short in some very tight games. The Rangers have averaged just 3.4 runs per game this month and they've won just one of the seven one-run games they've played. Of course it's no consolation that their record looks the same regardless of if they lose a close game or get annihilated, but perhaps it's enough to keep the hope alive that they can piece together better run support in the final nine games of the season, something they have struggled to do for most of the season.
The roster that Ron Washington was handed this year has presented some real challenges for a manager who is regarded as a great handler of people but has often been criticized for his lack of strategic acumen. If someone else were at the helm, there may have been a few better choices in reliever usage and many fewer bunts, but the team's weak offense -- a combination of slumps, injuries, and gaps created by the departures of Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton, and to a lesser extent, Michael Young -- aren't the sort of things even the best managers can cure. The Rangers sit right in the middle of the pack in the AL in most offensive stats; they are ninth in OPS+, seventh in on-base percentage. Overall they've averaged just 4.4 runs per game this season, which is just a touch better than league average.
The middle infield has presented a big problem for the Rangers, who suddenly found themselves with too much depth at second and short. Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler have long since earned the right to play everyday, but that blocked top prospect Jurickson Profar from regular playing time at his native positions. In the end, the Rangers kept Profar and used him as outfield depth instead of trading for it, but what they've found is that he's just not ready to face major-league hitting nightly. Profar has hit just .233/.308/.325 overall, .130/.200/.130 in the last 14 days.
David Murphy was supposed to be the everyday solution in left field, but he's had one of the worst seasons of his career. His OPS+ has dropped 50 points this season, and that's forced Washington to try Craig Gentry, Profar, and now Jim Aducci and Joey Butler, the latter two both minor-league veterans who might provide a short-term boost, but nothing sustainable. Not re-signing Hamilton was the right decision, but the Rangers haven't been able to cultivate any production in his absence, either, a problem magnified by the biggest blow to the offense, the 50-game Biogenesis suspension of Nelson Cruz.
Cruz chose to serve his suspension immediately so that it wouldn't interfere with wallet and chances of finding a team next season as a free agent, but left the Rangers in a desperate search for another bat to replace him. They traded for Alex Rios, who has been able to replicate some of Cruz's production, but the big piece that is still missing is the power.
First base and designated hitter have been two of the weakest positions for the Rangers offensively, and that's because Mitch Moreland and Lance Berkman have both stopped hitting. Moreland suffered a hamstring injury in late June, and when he returned, he had the worst slump of his career, during which he went 0-for-23. Since then, he's been tinkering with his swing and that's seemed to have messed up his approach even more, and he's hitting .235/.301/.453 on the season, .203/.285/.394 in 82 games since the end of May. Berkman, who signed a one-year $11 million deal with the Rangers this offseason has been limited to 73 games because of injuries, and he's hitting .235/.301/.453 with just six home runs, tailing off hard after a strong April -- he's hit only .212/.293/.310 in sporadic playing time since then.
Adrian Beltre (Tom Pennington )
There are a few positives to the Rangers' offense, especially Adrian Beltre who continues to be a Gold-Glove-caliber third baseman while hitting for power and high on base percentage. They also don't strike out much compared to the rest of the AL, and they are second in the league in stolen bases, thanks to the efforts of Andrus, Kinsler, and Leonys Martin. Collectively, however, the Rangers are hitting just .251/.324/.372 with runners in scoring position this season, one of the lowest figures in the league.
Since the blame is being spewed in every direction, some of that has fallen to the pitching staff. It's justified in some cases -- Nathan's inability to close out the game on Wednesday against the Rays and Derek Holland's allowing 17 earned runs in just 19 innings this month isn't helping -- but it's been the pitching that's kept them close in the division race all season. While September has been a little rockier for the staff than prior months, they aren't to blame as much as the struggling offense. Yu Darvish has been criticized for his recent losses, but that fails to take into account that of the last six games he's started, five of those have been one-run games, and in two of them, the Rangers failed to score any runs at all. His ERA for the month has been 3.38, high by his recent standards but still well within the confines of acedom.
What's worst of all for the Rangers is that now they're stuck. There aren't any roster moves that can be made to help, and they won't get Cruz back until the playoffs -- if they make it that far. Jon Daniels and company paid a high price for Matt Garza, a defensible move but one that has resulted in just three quality starts in 11 tries. The front office may ultimately regret putting more of an emphasis on run prevention rather than making a trade for another bat before the deadline (whether because they were lulled into complacence by the expectation that Cruz would appeal his sentence or not), but it's too late to dwell on that. The cards have been dealt, and the best that the Rangers can do is hope that they have enough success against the Royals to stay afloat this weekend, and that they can finish strong in the final week of the season against the Astros and Angels, against whom they have a combined 25-6 record.
September collapses take a toll on their teams. After their 2011 stretch-run debacle, the Red Sox axed their beloved manager and played the blame game for months. So too did the White Sox last year, resulting in a series of roster decisions that left the team considerably weaker this season. The Rangers are on the precipice, not only of resolving whether they are in or out, but also if a run that began so promisingly with two pennants will continue or self-destruct amidst the kind of disappointment and acrimony that was hinted at in this spring's apparent Daniels-Nolan Ryan schism. Perhaps with all of their free-agent losses, this season was fated to be disappointing. The real test, then, will not be whether they do make it to the postseason, but how they work to improve their chances regardless of if they make it or not.