For whatever reason, my mind plays tricks on me. For the longest time I thought the Rangers started the 2006 season by being swept by the Tigers at home, a humiliating experience because it was the Tigers, at the time a strong contender for worst team in baseball. Checking the records though, I find they lost two out of three to Boston, then three out of four to the Tigers. Either way, it put them in an immediate hole. They managed to recover though, leading the division by as many as five games by the end of May. Following a quick collapse, they hung around for a time, in fact getting back tied for the lead by mid-July, before slowly stumbling and bumbling their way down to the end of the season. This is not a true picture of the Rangers’ 2006 though, as at their best they were only six games above .500, at their worst only five games below, a truly average team in all forms, and it was the other teams in the division who stepped up and pulled away.
This year, the Rangers did start with a sweep, losing three on the road to Anaheim, then taking two out of three against the Red Sox (them again), doing a little trying now and then but slowly but surely losing ground. At the end of April they were only three and a half games out, and I had high hopes, given that they’d been playing so badly. But this time the Angels chose to kick into gear a little earlier, the Rangers chose to lose a little earlier, and by the end of May it was 11.5 games they were behind. Today it’s 17, but even that’s misleading because as of June 5 it was 16, meaning they’ve almost been keeping pace with the Angels for three weeks. It would mean a lot more if it was a few games instead of over a dozen, of course, and it would also mean more if it hadn’t been against terrible teams in that timespan.
But now they’ve beaten the Tigers twice, right after I said I thought they’d go about 3-8 against the top three teams over this next week and a half. The Tigers are now one of the top teams, and haven’t played badly, but the Rangers have outplayed them. Except for one bad inning by Aki, which was quickly redeemed, the Rangers have looked pretty good these last two days (small sample size alert). A good start by Loe, and a good start today by Willie Eyre, has helped, of course. I’m betting Willie’s start would have been even better if he hadn’t caught that ball with his forearm. Bruising was reported, hopefully that’s all it is.
The Rangers are four games away from the halfway stage of the season. A 17 game lead is too much to pull back, even if there is an argument that if the Angels can get 17 ahead in half a season, we can get them back in the second half. The Rangers have been playing semi-decent ball, but not good enough to consider even a wild-card spot.
So why have they suddenly been able to beat the Tigers two in a row? The Tigers came and won two out of three in Arlington a few weeks ago, and really looked much the dominant team. The only thing I can think of is the attitude of the players. All of a sudden, having beaten up on a bunch of bad teams, they got some confidence and started winning, and it somehow carried over to the series in Detroit. Hopefully it can continue for a while, although I recognize the irony in my having called for them to tank the season to get the number one draft pick next year.
But to get to my main point here, their pattern is showing itself again, in several different ways. Last year they started badly, then drifted for a while before wandering aimlessly to a .500 record. This year they started badly, then drifted into a funk which dug themselves a big hole. They managed to turn it a little, getting some more confidence, and now they’re playing semi-decent ball. What do they need to do to get a good start going?
This is, of course, a point I’ve harped on all year. The starting rotation has put the team in the bag so many times, having to come from one, two, three or more runs down early in the game, and that’s just knocked the wind out of their sails. Even today, I made a joke that Willie Eyre had proven himself to be worthy of the rotation, because he gave up a couple of runs in the first. He settled down well after that, and he, combined with good relief and better bats, managed to pull this one out of the fire. But what is it that causes them to start so badly? I would love to know what kind of between-game and pre-game regimen that Mark Connor has them on, because in my opinion they’re not ready when games begin. Either they’re not warmed up, or they’re tired already, or they’re hiding some kind of injury, or they’re doing something to cause blisters to pop up on their hands. Whatever it is, they need a pitching coach who can recognize these things, and make changes to stop them from happening.
And they need a manager who can recognize that the whole team follows the same pattern, starting a season badly and not ever getting in a position to make a push. Maybe they need to do things differently in spring training, to have them ready for Opening Day. Buck’s military methods didn’t work, and Ron’s passive methods didn’t either. What are they going to try differently next year to have them explode out of the gate?