That's right. I said a wild card spot. The Rangers are miles away from even having a chance to win the AL West. They blew those chances over their first two weeks of September, a month that has become a bitter enemy to them over the last two seasons.
On August 17, this team had a three game lead in the AL West and also a seven game lead for the AL's first wild card. Seventeen days and nine and a half games of lost ground later, they find themselves in a dogfight just for the wild card. Ron Washington said that he has never seen a seven game slump like the one the Rangers just snapped last night.
This September's collapse is a little easier to explain than last year's, but only because the problems are more obvious. Regardless, this team needs to keep moving forward and take a game by game approach.
Let's take a look at what the Rangers need to do over their final 12 games to make the playoffs. I'll also break down their remaining schedule.
1) They MUST (do I need to underline that?) win in the remaining games that Yu Darvish pitches this season.
His next start is tomorrow night in the series and season finale with the Rays. Over his last four starts, Darvish has gotten exactly ZERO runs of support, hence four losses by a 1-0 score. According to ESPN, he became the third pitcher since 1916 to lose four games 1-0. That's simply unreal and it is next to impossible to explain exactly why that happened to him this season. You can technically start with the fact that this year's Rangers' offense is statistically the worst of the franchises' last twenty years. But I don't buy that being the only reason - something else that is inexplicable is taking place here. Anyway this team needs to find a way to win the rest of his starts. In addition to much needed team wins, this will go miles towards increasing the team ace's confidence, hopefully heading into the postseason.
2) The running game must rev up again.
In the first 21 games without Nelson Cruz, the Rangers went 16-5, which was the best record in the majors over that span. How were they able to do that? By getting back to basics and utilizing an INVALUABLE team asset that I personally feel Ron Washington didn't tap into enough in the first half: speed. Sure it absolutely helped that Leonys Martin was able to step into the leadoff spot for three weeks and play well. He and the other speed guys at the top of the lineup were able to get on base at a higher than usual rate. But the results really came when the Rangers started getting back to fundamental base running - going from first to third on singles, tagging up at every chance and not giving up stupid outs like they had been in the first half (which, by the way, they still lead the majors in outs recorded on the base paths).
By doing this they manufactured runs through small ball. "Get him on, get him over, get him in" was truly the team philosophy for about three weeks and it paid huge dividends. Guys started dropping unselfish bunts and playing for each other. It really was a beautiful sight. You have to wonder where this team would be now in the playoff race without that 21 game stretch in early August.
3) Take advantage of an advantageous schedule
Going into September, it seemed like everyone was trying to make a point by saying that Oakland had an easier schedule, and that somehow this would be a huge advantage to them. I said this as well, however if you really look at both teams' September schedules, the only difference between the Rangers and A's was that the Rangers had to play three at home against the Pirates.
But now if you look at the Rangers' final 11 games, there are several "winnable" games.
Tomorrow night: @Tampa Bay
Friday-Sunday: @ Kansas City
Monday-Wednesday: VS Houston
Thursday-Sunday: VS LA Angels
The Rangers should do no worse than split with the Rays. That means they only have to win one of the two games started by Derek Holland and Darvish. The three games at Kansas City will be a challenge because the Royals are relatively hot. Also the Rangers deeply struggle with James Shields. Still, the Rangers usually play well in Kansas City and they should be able to win two out of three there.
The Rangers need to sweep Houston at home and I think they will. The Astros are definitely playing the spoiler role and will likely give the Rangers a run in a couple of these games. But ultimately the Rangers' desire to make the playoffs should far outweigh the Astros' hopes of derailing their season.
The Angels at home always seems to be a toss up. They're playing some of their best baseball over the last month and are also in that spoiler mindset. Mike Trout has kept his batting average up over .330 for a while now and Josh Hamilton, Rangers' public enemy number one, is starting to warm up a bit as well. Again though, the Rangers have something to play for and I can see them winning two out of three with their backs against the wall. Darvish will start on short rest if needed.
I think this team squeezes by Cleveland into the AL's second wild card spot and will have to play Tampa Bay in the wild card game. It's a far fall from where they were a month ago, but the playoffs are a totally new season. Getting in and starting fresh could re-energize this team.
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