October 2010

Underdogs.

It was the middle of the third.  Tommy Hunter had thrown 33 strikes and just 13 balls to 12 Rays hitters through three innings, and though he’d given up a run, it came across on a terribly played pop-up to short right field.

Wade Davis, in only two innings at that point, had thrown 19 balls and 19 strikes.   

And in spite of those numbers, the Rangers were the ones who looked dead offensively, the Rays the ones who looked loose.

Frankly, the ugly 19-19 ball/strike breakdown for Davis through two was deceptive, since several of the strikes were sliders well out of the zone that Rangers hitters flailed at.  Davis should have been on the ropes.  Instead, that’s where he had his opposition.

You can safely bet that David Price won’t throw 80 percent fastballs again tomorrow.

It may be cliché to say that the offense is pressing, that the team looks like it’s playing not to lose rather than to win, but I don’t know how else to describe it. 

The Rangers’ 2-3-4 hitters, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero, were due up in the bottom of the seventh, with the score 5-2.

Seven pitches later, it was the top of the eighth.

The 5-6-7 hitters, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler and David Murphy – who have been far more productive this series than the trio they follow – came up in the bottom of the eighth, with the score still 5-2.

Another seven pitches, and it was the top of the ninth.

We are better than that.

We need to forget the mistake pitches and bad swings and bungled plays in the field and go out Tuesday and turn the biggest game in Rangers history into the biggest win in Rangers history.  More energy.  More patience.  More Cliff Lee.

You know what the Rangers are?  Very good underdogs.  That’s what this team is.  Its best players have been underdogs.  Its manager, too.  The franchise itself.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be uncomfortable as frontrunners, or unsure of how to handle it.  But they do seem to thrive when they’re backed into a corner.

And maybe that’s OK, tomorrow.  Texas is the underdog, not just because Game Five is on the road.  Momentum has obviously swung to the Rays, whose lame duck left fielder, Carl Crawford, said before yesterday’s game: “It feels like we’re winning the series right now.” 

The Rangers need to develop a killer instinct.  But for now, they’ve proven to be pretty good when they’re not the popular pick, and that, combined with the fact that Cliff Lee is getting the ball, in the decisive game of a series in which the road team has won every game, is enough for me to start feeling pretty good about Tuesday night.

Just as the Rays overcame Games One and Two, Games Three and Four no longer matter.  The opportunity to put the ball in the hands of exactly the right pitcher is here, and even if the circumstances have made Texas an underdog for tomorrow night’s win-or-go-home ballgame, that’s OK, and maybe just what this team needs.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

ALDS, Game Three: Tampa Bay 6, Texas 3.

After I got home last night and made sure that Jason Bartlett didn’t have something like 16 hits in 13 career at-bats off of Darren O’Day, I kept coming back to this:

I just don’t understand why you bring Neftali Feliz in the game there, with the score tied in the eighth, using O’Day up for six pitches, leaving Dustin Nippert as the only available reliever left (and if Cliff Lee and even C.J. Wilson really were bullpen considerations last night, that raises other questions).

That’s it.  That’s not the sole reason Texas lost, but that’s all I got this morning.  My tank is emptied.   

Today’s sort of a big game.

P.S.  Bartlett was 3 for 5 lifetime against off O’Day.  The smallness of the sample isn’t the only issue there.  There’s also the fact that the three hits were a bunt single (when O’Day was an Angels rookie in 2008), a ground ball single past third baseman Robb Quinlan (also in 2008 with the Angels), and an infield single hit in August to Joaquin Arias, playing shortstop for the first time in the big leagues since 2006.

Matt Garza is amped up.

“It’s just [about] going right after those guys.  Make them uncomfortable.  Make them think about what they’re doing, what they’re going to swing at.  Right now, they’re real comfortable.  They’re just up there swinging and hitting the cover off the ball.  So I’ve got to go in there and make them uncomfortable, make them do what I want them to do.  It’s a hard job, definitely a hard job, but somebody has got to do it.  And I feel I’m the right man for the job right now.”

So said Matt Garza, minutes after Texas 6, Tampa Bay 0 in Game Two.

“He’s a tough competitor.  He is a guy that will go out there and will do everything he can to get outs; he usually does.  It’s going to be very tough [Saturday] with him.  But we have to maintain our composure and what we have to do, more than anything else, is take advantage of an opportunity if the door opens up.  That’s all you can do.”

So said Ron Washington, about Garza.

Does that mean Elvis Andrus and Michael Young (the latter of whom is really the only Rangers hitter, along with Vladimir Guerrero, who has beaten up on Garza) need to be on guard when they dig in at the plate in the bottom of the first?  Not necessarily.

Garza on September 2, the night before a start in Baltimore, where he’d been blasted for seven runs on 10 hits (including four home runs) in 6.1 innings six weeks earlier:

“I owe them a lot of payback for the type of outing I had last time against them. . . . I’m going to make them feel really uncomfortable in the box.  So they know, this (stuff) doesn’t happen, so don’t get used to it. . . . I’m going to go in there, hair on fire, like I have been and go after them and say, ‘Hey, you got me the first time, well I’m going to shove it down your throat this time.’”

Garza went on to beat the Orioles on September 3, yielding one run in 5.2 innings.  

He didn’t hit a batter.  He just shut the Baltimore offense down.

The emotional Garza, who you might recall got into a heated argument on the mound with his catcher Dioner Navarro in a June 2008 start here, has extra motivation today.  Rangers hitters have teed off in Games One and Two, slugging .479 as a team.  Tampa Bay – baseball’s best road team in 2010 – faces elimination.  And Garza’s career ERA in Arlington, despite decent peripherals, is 6.04.  

It’s going to be a fascinating matchup, particularly early, when the late-afternoon sun could make Garza’s and Colby Lewis’s sharp breaking balls even more difficult to pick up.  

The only Rays hitter who has faced Lewis since 2003 is Jason Bartlett, who struck out on three pitches when Lewis came in for Oakland in the eighth to mop up a 5-0 deficit to the Twins.

But if that’s an obstacle for Tampa Bay today, it may not be any more significant than the one the Rangers could face simply by virtue of having treated Garza badly in this ballpark before.

Wear red if you’re headed to the Ballpark.  

The televised postgame show will be on Channel 677 (Fox Sports Southwest’s alternate signal) if you have DirecTV.

Have a great day.  

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

ALDS, Game Two: Texas 6, Tampa Bay 0.

It was 2004, a season that qualified, on the scale of this franchise’s lifetime success, as storybook.  The Buck Showalter Rangers won 89 games, fourth most in the club’s history (more, in fact, than one of their playoff teams).  Never mind the third-place finish — that was a gold star, considering Texas had finished fourth the previous four seasons (three with Alex Rodriguez).  The Rangers were three games back when the season ended, having drawn to within two games a week and a half earlier, when David Dellucci’s double past a laid-out Jermaine Dye completed an impossible comeback and a sweep of the A’s.

Dellucci’s walk-off liner to right instantly etched itself as one of the most famous plays in franchise history, earned the part-time outfielder a permanent place in Texas Rangers lore, and led to front office strategy sessions from which the “managed expectations” mantra emerged as a marketing message for 2005.

That season was Michael Young’s first season at shortstop, the second of his five straight years of 200 base hits, the first of his six straight All-Star Game appearances, and an eighth-place finish in the MVP vote.  His highlight moments of the season were a 10th-inning, walkoff single in the Rangers’ 16-15 win over Detroit, a game in which Texas trailed by 10 runs, and a 4 for 5 effort in the most important game of that season, including a pair of doubles, the second of which came ahead of Dellucci’s Double.

It was also a huge year for another shortstop, 22-year-old Ian Kinsler, who in his first full pro season hit .402 for Low A Clinton and .300 for AA Frisco, earning a starting spot on Baseball America’s Minor League All-Star Team and the Rangers’ Tom Grieve Minor League Player of the Year Award.  

Had it not been for August 2003 Tommy John surgery, 23-year-old lefthander C.J. Wilson would have been Kinsler’s RoughRider teammate that summer of 2004.

On Thursday, six years later, Young and Kinsler had the biggest hits of their lives, Wilson pitched the game of his life, and Dellucci and 2004 are no longer pet rocks that we as Rangers fans guard with our life.

I hope you’ll find a way to forgive me if I don’t have any idea how to handle this.  I believed in this team, its players and coaches, its front office, and its future, and if pressed before the season I would have agreed that this could be the year for things to come together, for Step Five to arrive.

But even once the Magic Number hourglass ran out, I don’t think in my most optimistic moments these last couple weeks that I allowed myself to imagine bringing two road wins home to kick off the playoffs.  These couple days in St. Petersburg will stick a lot longer than the Dellucci double, surreal in so many ways, to the point at which I’m oddly content, rather than frenzied as I feel like I probably should be.

This is a damn good baseball team.  With all kinds of winning intangibles outside the lines.

Yes: Young probably swung at the 3-2 Chad Qualls pitch before getting another life, destroying the next pitch 427 feet away to dead center to extend a 2-0 lead to 5-0.  That was a bad break for the Rays.  But (1) there was only one out, and though Randy Choate might have come in to face Josh Hamilton had Young fanned, and maybe three of the next four hitters wouldn’t have singled under changed circumstances, it’s not as if the check swing call would have ended the inning had it gone differently, and (2) that was a 2-0 game before the disputed call, in a game in which the Rays never did put a run on the board.

I’m not faulting Rays fans for being upset about the call.  I would have been if that were my team trying desperately to stay in that game, and in this series.  (Know what I’d like to see, at least in the playoffs?  A camera positioned at each foul pole, to give us a vantage point similar to the corner umpires for calls like that.  Let us see what the ump sees.)

But Young wasn’t rung up, and all that meant was the at-bat continued.  Young still had to do something with the pitch, and that he did, demonstratively.  He would say, after the game, that he felt no different after his home run/single/three-RBI performance from the way he did after his 0 for 4 in Game One, because his team won each time, but make no mistake: That was the biggest hit of Michael Young’s career, because it contributed in a big way to a huge win, and given when it happened and under what circumstances, it seemed to kill Tampa Bay’s will (and composure).  

Act like you’ve been there, and all that, but if it’s all the same I’m going say, despite the controversy of the moment, that that missile over the center field wall felt not only like a small piece of redemption for Young, who has had his struggles in the field and at the plate at times this year, but also a bear hug to fans like us who have hung with this team, in some cases, for a lifetime, even in the best years, of not quite getting it done.

Thankfully, no longer will we have to see an All-Star Game triple as the SportsCenter highlight of Young’s career.

As for Kinsler, whose fourth-inning home run preceded Young’s and whose RBI single later in the Young fifth were instrumental in the win as well, I have two words:

Bat path.

Man, I love that Ian Kinsler.

Then there’s Wilson.  Remember that stat from yesterday morning that I shared — that Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and B.J. Upton came into the game 0 for 16 lifetime against Wilson?

On Thursday, the entire Rays lineup was 2 for 22 (with two walks and hit batsman) off the lefthander.

Wilson would say after the game that he picked some things up from Cliff Lee on how to attach the Tampa Bay lineup (and that he was inspired watching both Lee and Roy Halladay on Wednesday), adding that Lee is a better version of himself.  Yesterday, Wilson was just about as good.  The league’s leader in bases on balls, he had terrific command of his four-seamer, slider, and cutter in particular, working in and out all day, changing speeds and keeping the Rays off balance, and in a noticeable departure from 2009, when things got a little sticky, he rose to the challenge rather than imploding.

The set-up reliever who talked the Rangers’ decision-makers into a spring training chance to prove he could pitch every fifth day has done more than prove the decision right.  He won’t face the Rays again this series, and if Texas succeeds in closing this thing out and moving on, he should not only get the ball in Game One or Game Two against New York (at home) or Minnesota (on the road), but also give us all confidence that it will be a game the Rangers have a solid shot to win.

ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian said before yesterday’s game that Wilson’s the best number two starter among the American League playoff teams, and Thursday he backed it up, in the biggest game of his life, with one of the best performances of his career, blanking Tampa Bay on two hits and two walks in 6.1 innings, fanning seven.  Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver were masterful in relief, stranding the two Wilson runners left in scoring position — the only runners Texas allowed to get past first base all day — and not allowing a hit over the final 2.2, nailing down Texas 6, Tampa Bay 0.

In that fluky 2004 season, Texas used 17 starting pitchers, getting the most starts out of 39-year-old Kenny Rogers, Ryan Drese, Chan Ho Park, R.A. Dickey, Joaquin Benoit, and John Wasdin.  The latter four of them had ERA’s between 5.46 and 6.78.  

This year, the Rangers have started only 10 pitchers, and of course it’s a dramatically better corps.

Michael Young still probably believed that 2004 team was capable of getting to the post-season, in spite of the pitching and even though Alex Rodriguez was no longer around.  The way he’s wired, until there’s
an “X” in the standings or the 27th out’s been recorded or a check swing is ruled as strike three, he’s still focused on getting it done.  The All-Star Games and 200-hit seasons never meant much beyond the respect of his peers and his ability to stay on the field, all taking a backseat to winning.  He talked yesterday about his teammates emptying the tank in Games One and Two, and how that’s the plan Saturday as well.

Young never went into a season thinking Texas wasn’t capable of being a playoff team, and certainly didn’t manage his own expectations after those 89 wins in 2004, thinking every season would end at 162 until 2010.

He wouldn’t admit this either, not yet, but he and his team are accomplishing something special right now, something that has taken a long time for him, and for us, to be part of.  I don’t know where this is all headed, and there’s still that conditioned reflex that’s probably got most of us waiting for a bubble to burst, but I’m going to try hard to let this all sink in and understand what’s happening here, as I fight through what’s going to feel like a hundred hours before Colby Lewis throws pitch one tomorrow afternoon.

Emptying the tank
Leave it out there, bring it home
Win one more: Move on

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

ALDS, Game One: Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1.

It will go down, no matter what
happens from here on out, as one of the most memorable, energizing,
important games in Texas Rangers history, and in two ways it played out
like I thought (hoped?) it might:

1. From Wednesday morning’s report: “[T]hat
[August 16] game pitted
Cliff Lee against David
Price, and offers something possibly instructive as the two get set to
tee it up again in a few hours.  Tampa Bay scored more runs, and had the
same
number of hits as the Rangers.  But through six innings, even though the
Rays
held a 2-0 lead at that point, Price had thrown 102 pitches, an average
of 17 per inning.  Lee had thrown just 66 (11 per inning). . . . [T]he
key to the Rays’ post-season fortunes, and
certainly to Game One, is David Price, and to wear him out the way Texas
did on August 16 seems like a very good idea to try and gameplan again.
. . . [I]f [the Rangers] can take as patient an approach this
afternoon — despite the energy of the day — I like our chances.
”  

2. I tweeted this an hour
before gametime, while watching batting practice: “Got a hunch today.
 Frenchy.

Elvis Andrus grounded out to third to start
the game, but it was an outstanding eight-pitch at-bat (six strikes)
that signaled what was to come.  Through four innings, Price was
pounding the zone, firing 51 strikes and only 16 balls, but the sum
total — 67 pitches, or nearly 17 per inning — was exactly the kind of
workload Texas needed to impose on the superstar lefthander.  

Price didn’t walk a batter, but
Texas managed to spoil a ton of fastballs, and punished two 3-0
offerings, one that Nelson Cruz put on top of the restaurant in
straightaway center field to push the Rangers’ lead to 3-0, and another
that Vladimir Guerrero doubled over center fielder B.J. Upton’s head to
score Josh Hamilton and give Texas a 5-0 cushion.  

But dial back, and there was
Francoeur, who attacked a first-pitch fastball from Price in the top of
the second, blasting it off the center field fence for a double that
opened the game’s scoring.

This was no Juan Gonzalez solo outburst of
offense.  There were 10 hits from seven hitters, including three
contributed by Bengie Molina, who homered and singled twice.  There was
no single star of the game offensively.

The star, of course, was Lee,
who escaped a troublesome first (in which he matched Price’s 24-pitch
output), stranding three runners, and cruised for the most part after
that, fanning 10 (six looking) without issuing a walk over seven
innings.  He threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of 27 Rays he faced,
and went 2-0 on just one batter all day.

There have been seven
post-season pitching performances of at least 10 strikeouts and no walks
in baseball history.  

Lee has the last three.

Yes, Tampa Bay barreled a good
half dozen shots that were right at Texas outfielders — don’t
necessarily write that off as purely bad Rays luck, as Gary Pettis had
Cruz, Hamilton, and Francoeur positioned well — and Lee and Price had
nearly identical lines in terms of innings pitched, pitches thrown,
strikes thrown, absence of walks, and strikeouts.  But the Rangers had
nine hits off Price to Tampa Bay’s five off Lee, and scored in four of
the seven innings Price took the hill.  Price had control but not
command; Lee had both.  

And with it, Lee gave Texas its first win in
Tampa Bay this year, and erased his own winlessness against the Rays in
2010.

He’s now 5-0, 1.52 in the post-season for his
career.  In five of six starts he’s held a playoff offense to one earned
run, or none.  His 0.72 ERA in three Game One starts is the lowest in
history among the 54 pitchers who have at least three starts in the
first game of a playoff series.

It was an uncharacteristic effort for Price,
who only two other times all season had allowed as many as five runs,
while it was exceedingly consistent with what Lee had done in the
playoffs in 2009, with what he had done for the most part since joining
Texas three months ago, and with the Game One vision the Rangers had
when they traded for him.  

Can’t we agree that even if Justin Smoak goes
on to have a Hall of Fame career, it’s OK?  Lee was brought here to
pitch that game, and he did his job really, really well.

Man, I don’t know exactly how
I’m supposed to feel.  Years of dashed Ranger hopes have me conditioned
not to get too excited, I guess, a defense mechanism of sorts to guard
against the mirage factor, but damn, in a three-hour period this team
matched what it had accomplished in its first 38 years, winning a single
playoff game.  There were a few similarities to Texas 6, New York 2 on
October 1, 1996, but some key differences as well, including having a
guy on the mound who pitched not the game of his life (like John Burkett
might have), but the game we’ve come to expect from him.

After Lee made the necessary
adjustments once he got through the first inning, and when Guerrero’s
fifth-inning missile to the wall in center gave Texas a 5-0 lead, it
felt absolutely insurmountable, and I’ll go ahead and admit that, for
the first time ever, I actually felt like throwing a claw down.  (Though
I didn’t.)  


When I got to Tropicana Field
(whose concourse made me think I was in Valley View Mall), I was
surprised to see how loose and confident the Rangers looked in BP.
 Ron Washington apparently addressed his players briefly in a pregame
meeting, and said “the heavy lifting is over and now’s the time to have
some fun.”  Washington’s postgame comments were remarkably low-key,
self-assured, and businesslike.  I didn’t expect this realization, but I
think Washington is a manager perfectly suited to lead a team in
October.

Much like his number one starter.

A few other observations:

Hamilton, Cruz, and David
Murphy put on tremendous batting practice displays (in Hamilton’s case
not strictly clearing fences).  Murphy looks ready to go, even though
he’ll apparently sit today’s game out despite righthander James Shields
getting the ball for the Rays.

None of Cruz’s pinball-game BP shots were as
majestic as his third-inning bomb, though.

Cruz continues to hit good
pitching.

Price threw his fastball 80 percent of the time
yesterday (higher than his 74 percent average during the season), even
though Texas (.297) led the Major Leagues in hitting the fastball in
2010, per ESPN Stats & Information.  The Rangers went 8 for 25
(.320) against the Price fastball in Game One.

Tampa Bay was
uncharacteristically conservative on the bases in the first inning.  Not
sure it would have changed much if Jason Bartlett had been sent home on
Evan Longoria’s one-out single to left (and it’s pretty clear he would
have scored), but when Lee proceeded to punch Carlos Pena and Rocco
Baldelli out, leaving Bartlett on third (and Longoria and Carl Crawford
on first and second), it took some air out of the crowd, at least.

When Andrus grounded into a fielder’s choice
in the second inning (following Francoeur’s run-scoring double and
Molina’s run-scoring single), ending up on first base as second baseman
Sean Rodriguez flipped to the shortstop Bartlett to record out number
two, I momentarily thought to myself that, if Michael Young were to
follow with a double, Andrus on first might have actually been more
likely to score than Molina would have from second.

That said, I bet someone a
quarter that Andrus was going to get picked off at some point in the
game.  He was completely confused by Price after reaching on that
fielder’s choice in the second, darting back to first two or three times
on Price deliveries to the plate.

Jorge Cantu was wearing some
sort of wrist brace on his glove hand and arm before the game.  Whether
or not that had something to do with how bad he looked against Price,
striking out three times with bat speed that didn’t have a chance, I’m
not sure he’s the club’s best option at first base, regardless of who’s
pitching.

Washington worked with Cantu and Mitch Moreland
on short-hop throws before the game, firing throws in the dirt from all
points on the infield.  It’s probably something he did with Pena when
they were in Oakland together, too, and Pena could have used the work
yesterday.  He struggled digging a couple low throws early in the game.

Washington said he didn’t
believe Neftali Feliz was nervous in the ninth, but instead was
“overhyped,” and just needed to settle down.  After Feliz threw eight
balls and four strikes to Pena and Dan Johnson to start the ninth, Mike
Maddux strode to the mound to calm his closer, and he proceeded to throw
eight more pitches — all strikes — to close things down.  Impressive.
 And maybe important, as there’s a benefit to getting that first
playoff experience out of the way for a young closer who will be counted
on in bigger spots this post-season.

I find this sort of
interesting: In save opportunities, Feliz posted a 2.18 ERA in 2010.  In
non-save opportunities (like yesterday’s), his ERA was 3.54.

Home teams that have lost Game
One of a Division Series have gone on to lose 20 of 28 series.

The last to win one of those
was the Angels, who came back in 2005 to beat the Yankees in five games.
 The Los Angeles bench coach was Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Ben Zobrist, who homered,
doubled, and barreled a lineout to right field against Lee on Wednesday,
is 5 for 10 with a sac fly and sac bunt and three RBI against Lee in
2010.  (He also rifled a Feliz fastball to right for the first out in
the ninth, with two runners on.)  If Lee does sign with New York this
winter, he and Zobrist (who is under Rays control through 2015) are
going to see each other a whole lot for years to come.

By the way, Lee allowed no hits
between Zobrist’s double to lead off the second inning and Zobrist’s
seventh-inning homer.

I guess I understand the initial thought
process behind giving Shields the ball today and Matt Garza the Game
Three assignment in Texas (not that I agreed with it), but it now makes
less sense with Tampa Bay in what has to be characterized as a must-win
situation today.  Shields, whose ERA is 7.59 since the start of
September, leads the league in earned runs allowed, hits allowed, and
home runs allowed.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Shields has
the seventh-highest ERA (5.18) of any pitcher to ever start Game Two of a
playoff series. 

Then again, Shields held Texas to two runs
(one earned) on four hits and a walk over seven innings at Tropicana
Field on August 18, after he’d blanked the Yankees on four hits and a
walk (11 strikeouts) over 7.1 innings earlier in the month.  Don’t get
overconfident.  Those were two of his three best starts of the season,
and they weren’t that long ago.

Guerrero is a .394/.394/.636 career hitter
against Shields, with just one strikeout in 33 at-bats.  Julio Borbon,
who gets today’s start, is 4 for 9 with only one strikeout, and Andrus
is 3 for 6 without striking out.  Michael Young is 4 for 14 (.286) but
two of those hits left the yard.  Hamilton has one hit (a home run) in
10 trips against Shields, who was his teammate on the 2001 Low A
Charleston Riverdogs.

Longoria, Pena, and Upton
against C.J. Wilson?  

A combined 16 lifetime at-bats.

Zero hits.

ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian is touting
Wilson as the best Number Two starter in the American League playoffs.

Great day for Jon Daniels and
his crew, as July pickups Lee and Francoeur and Molina each came up big,
as did winter acquisitions Guerrero and Darren Oliver.

I guess it wasn’t a huge shock
that the Rays left Dioner Navarro and Brad Hawpe off their ALDS roster,
and while I admit I wasn’t keeping up with their roster decisions very
closely, I was a little surprised that Jeremy Hellickson, Jake McGee,
and Willie Aybar didn’t make the cut.

Figures that Doc Halladay would
basically make what Lee did an afterthought not only for Phillies fans
cringing at what Lee did Wednesday afternoon, but also on MLB Network
and ESPN.  (Even the ruling on Greg Golson’s catch in the ninth inning
of Yankees-Twins is getting heavier rotation this morning nationally.)
 I know at least a couple DFW TV stations are out here.  Hope they left
Rangers-Rays enough time in the sportscast after breaking down the
latest angle on the tip Dez Bryant left the Pappas Bros. wait staff.


We’ll get to the designation
for assignment of Rich Harden (a non-story) to make room for enigmatic
righthander Ryan Tucker, claimed off waivers from Florida, another time.
 It is, however, sort of ironic that on the day that Texas wins Game
One of its first playoff series in more than a decade, the pitcher the
club signed over the winter presumably to seize that role suffered the
ultimate procedural indignity.

When Darren O’Day relieved Lee to start the
Rays eighth, and retired the strength of Tampa Bay’s order — Upton,
Crawford, and Longoria — after John Jaso had singled to start the
inning, the air-conditioned silence in the stadium was deafening.
 There’s something surprisingly invigorating about being in a hostile
sports environment whose hostility has been completely vaporized, and
getting the chance to act like you’ve been there before — even though
you haven’t.  

I got chills when Andrus stepped up to the
plate for the game’s first pitch.  But I was very content as late as the
eighth inning, with an almost uncomfortable awareness of something I
wasn’t sure I deserved.  

The next assignment falls to Wilson, who’s
picked up a thing or two from Lee in the last three months, including an
approach based on trust in your stuff (his is tougher to do anything
with than Lee’s) and an attack on the strike zone.  That’s exactly what
Texas needs from Wilson today, as he attempts to give the team a 2-0
lead in a series headed afterwards to Arlington, where memorable,
energizing, and important could await on a level this franchise has
never had within reach.


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Cliff Lee vs. David Price.

That “get your head outta your butt and let’s play baseball” game we talked about yesterday, the one that kicked off Cliff Lee’s run of four ugly starts before he was temporarily shut down with back issues, was on August 16.  Tampa Bay won, 6-4, scoring four runs in the eighth inning, an epic disaster of a frame in which Texas arguably gave the Rays as many as seven outs.

That was the Joaquin Arias game, though one thing I’d forgotten about it was that Arias didn’t start, but instead was inserted defensively in the bottom of the seventh (after Mitch Moreland had hit for Andres Blanco in the top of the inning).

But more to the point, that game pitted Cliff Lee against David Price, and offers something possibly instructive as the two get set to tee it up again in a few hours.  

Tampa Bay scored more runs, and had the same number of hits as the Rangers.  

But through six innings, even though the Rays held a 2-0 lead at that point, Price had thrown 102 pitches, an average of 17 per inning.  Lee had thrown just 66 (11 per inning).

A clearly fatigued Price threw seven more pitches in the top of the seventh, only one of which was a strike — a pitch that Bengie Molina doubled to deep left center ahead of a four-pitch walk by David Murphy that ended Price’s day.  Texas clawed back by scoring twice that inning and twice more in the eighth, giving Lee what seemed then like a safe two-run lead with six outs to go . . . before the Arias inning in the eighth.

Yes, Tampa Bay’s bullpen is solid, and on a tear right now (finishing the season on a run of 32.2 innings without allowing an earned run).  But the key to the Rays’ post-season fortunes, and certainly to Game One, is David Price, and to wear him out the way Texas did on August 16 seems like a very good idea to try and gameplan again.  

Much is made of the fact that C.J. Wilson leads the American League in walks allowed.  But Price allowed the sixth-highest total in the league.  The Rangers drew five walks off Price in that six-plus-inning effort two months ago, and if they can take as patient an approach this afternoon — despite the energy of the day — I like our chances.

I went back yesterday and read the report I wrote on July 4, the one in which I spent a crazy amount of time imagining what a conversation between Seattle and Texas about a trade for Lee might look like, what I thought it might ultimately take to get him, and whether I’d do it.  

He was acquired for this series, and this game.  He’s fanned 25 Rays this year, and walked two.  He’s allowed four stolen bases all season, neutralizing the aspect of the game that Tampa Bay relies on so heavily to create runs.  Yes, he’s 0-3, 4.56 against the Rays in 2010, but let’s dig a little bit on that.

On May 5, just Lee’s second start of the season after returning from an abdominal strain, he gave up five runs (four earned) over eight innings, but he’d allowed only two runs going into the eighth, an inning that went this way: flyout to right, infield single, bunt single, looping single to short left center, lineout to shortstop followed by a throwing error by the shortstop, ending Lee’s day.  (Sound familiar?)

On May 16, Lee took a complete game loss, giving up two Tampa Bay runs (single scores in the seventh and eighth innings) on five hits and one walk, fanning 10.

And then there was the August 16 debacle.

Lee really hasn’t been too bad against Tampa Bay this year, running into trouble only in the late innings, and even then as a frequent victim of crummy hits and poor defense.

His otherwordly 10.28 strikeout-to-walk rate features a 12.50 mark against the Rays.  Tampa Bay’s .613 OPS trails eight other Lee opponents.  Only three teams (Detroit, Oakland, Kansas City) struck out more frequently against Lee this year.

And again, Texas acquired Lee for October.  

Last year, he started Game One of the NLDS for Philadelphia, getting a complete-game win over Colorado.  He allowed one run on six hits and zero walks, fanning five (adding a single, sac bunt, and stolen base of his own for good measure).

In Game Four of that series (which was on regular rest), he gave up three runs (one earned) on five hits and three walks, striking out five Rockies.

In Game Three of the NLCS, he fired eight scoreless innings, scattering three Dodger singles and no walks while punching out 10.

In Game One of the World Series, Lee held the Yankees to one run — unearned — on six hits and zero walks in a complete-game win in Yankee Stadium, setting 10 hitters down on strikes.  He came back in Game Five, with the Phillies facing elimination, and got another win, permitting five runs over seven-plus innings — but just two runs going into the eighth.

What do you think the experts were saying before that Game One performance, as Lee had given up four New York runs on 16 hits and five walks in 12 innings (3.00 ERA) during the season?  Bet they weren’t anticipating 9-6-1-0-0-10.  

Lee is a big game pitcher.  A Game One pitcher.

It still shocks me that the Rangers got Lee — and more Seattle cash than they’ve had to pay Lee themselves — without giving up more.  And, to a lesser degree, that Lee said yesterday: “I enjoy it here in Texas.  It’s been a good ride so far, and yeah, I could see myself being here in the future. . . . It looks like it’s going to be a good team for years to come.  And that’s what I want to be a part of.  I want to be a part of a winner.”

It’s not time to get ahead of ourselves and start thinking about whether Cliff Lee could be a Ranger for the next five or six years, but when he says things this week like, “Hopefully we do some damage here in the post-season, win the World Series, and that will make things a lot easier on me,” it’s hard not to be thinking about the long term at least a little bit.  

Then again, what else is he going to say?  

Man, I’m exhausted.  Couldn’t fall asleep last night.  So I’m probably not thinking clearly in the first place.  I need this game to start.  I have no interest in overthinking this game anymore (but if you want some more analysis, and a really good breakdown, look no further than to our own Scott Lucas), and there’s absolutely no good reason to be thinking about the long term right now.

Of course, that’s what we’ve all been conditioned as Rangers fans to do.  To think about the future.  Because the present always had that “Just wait for where this team will be” undercurrent, so we could maintain our sanity.

That changed this year, and it changes in a big way today.

Price vs. Lee.  An encore, in a sense, of that miserable August 16 game,  But maybe with a different defense on the field, and hopefully a similar offensive approach, and the same pitcher, the consummate big game pitcher, healthy again, Texas could grab the opener of the series, stealing with it the home field advantage.  

Game One is always important, but in this series it seems even more so than usual, given how much Texas relies on its ace, and how much the Rays depend on theirs.

Cue up the anthem.  Please.

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Ready?

David Price is a career 0-2, 7.45 pitcher in four starts against Texas.

Then again, the Rangers didn’t win in three trips to Tropicana Field this year (and have lost 10 of 12 there), and overall were just a 19-25 team in 2010 day games.  

But is that all about circadian rhythms, or natural daylight, the latter of which will be kept out by the dome?

Cliff Lee’s stretch of four bad starts in a row in August started in Tampa Bay on the 16th of that month – the Joaquin Arias game that prompted the manager to say, after the game, that his message for his club was to “get your head outta your butt and let’s play baseball.”

Tampa Bay’s starting pitchers other than Price since August 31 are 4-11, 5.85 in 23 starts.  That includes 0-4, 7.59 from Game Two starter James Shields, over six games.

The Rays run wild, and the Rangers have difficulty suppressing the running game.  

The Rays have been held to two hits or fewer seven times in 2010.

Will Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando stand up to the pressure?

Will Joaquin Benoit and Jake McGee?

Evan Longoria and David Murphy (who probably wouldn’t start against Price anyway) may be good to go physically, but what about their rhythm?

Does any of the above matter?  

When I go to the movie theater, I like the previews.  They could show twice as many as they do and I’d be cool with that.  But I’m tired of waiting for this series to start, tired of the previews.  

I need Elvis Andrus to step in against David Price so I can stop thinking about all the reasons this series could go wrong, or go perfectly.

They don’t play these games on paper, and in the case of some teams and some players they don’t play them that often.  

Somebody’s going to have a Darren Oliver start.  Somebody’s going to make a Dean Palmer throw, or a Kevin Elster play unmade.  Somebody might even put together a Juan Gonzalez series.   

Someone could join the Billy Hatcher/Scott Brosius/Bucky Dent/Bill Mazeroski list by doing something in this best-of-five that will end up redefining his career.

I’m prepared to be fired up and devastated and anxious a lot, at times all of it in the same inning.  Then again, I’m not.  I don’t think I’m really prepared for this at all.  Ready, maybe, but not prepared.  

I’m not exactly sure what the next few days of Newberg Reports will look like, but my guess is that they’ll look different.  If you’re not following me on Twitter (http://twitter.com//newbergreport), this might be a good time to start.  

Back at you next from Sunny St. Pete.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Stuff.

Three years ago today, Cleveland set its ALDS roster, choosing 22-year-old rookie lefthander Aaron Laffey for the 11th and final spot on its pitching staff.  He hadn’t even been on the club’s 40-man roster until August 4, but having gone 13-4, 2.88 between AA and AAA forced his way into the picture.  He went 4-2, 4.56 in nine late-season Indians starts, initially lasting two starts before an option back to AAA and then returning on August 25 for the rest of the season.

Laffey was one of two Cleveland pitchers (along with fellow rookie Tom Mastny) not to appear in the club’s three-games-to-one series win over the Yankees, as the Indians advanced to face Boston in the ALCS. 

In Game 6 of the ALCS, with Mastny already having appeared in Games One, Two, and Five against Boston, Laffey made his first and only playoff appearance.  The Red Sox (who had won Game 5 after Cleveland won three of the first four games) had jumped out to a 4-0 lead on Fausto Carmona in the first inning.  Down 4-1 in the third, Carmona issued two walks and gave up a J.D. Drew RBI single to start the inning, and Rafael Perez was called on from the bullpen.  He got Jason Varitek to fly out but proceeded to give up a single, double, walk, and single.  With the score now 10-1, in came Laffey.

The young lefty got out of the inning with no further damage and proceeded to fire three scoreless frames, marred only by a Mike Lowell single in the sixth. 

Laffey made just that one post-season appearance for the Indians, a mop-up effort by any definition.  When he was put on the club’s playoff roster on October 4, 2007, it was at the expense of Cliff Lee, whose 5-8, 6.29 record had followed seasons of 14, 18, and 14 wins out of the Cleveland rotation – the first three full big league seasons of Lee’s career.

The next year, Lee went 22-3, 2.54, easily claiming the AL Cy Young by leading the league in wins, ERA, walks per nine, and home runs per nine.

And now this man is the apparent reason that Lee, who went 4-0, 1.56 in five post-season starts last year, is on the Rangers’ playoff roster, and slated to start Game One in Tampa Bay in two days:

Eduardo+Nunez.jpg

 

Almost five years ago, on November 18, 2005, Tampa Bay outrighted outfielder Josh Hamilton, who had spent the previous three tumultuous seasons on the club’s restricted list, as part of its effort to clear roster space to add righthander James Shields, catcher Shawn Riggans, and first baseman Wes Bankston (Plano’s own) to the roster to make sure they weren’t exposed to the Rule 5 Draft.

Hamilton came off the restricted list late in 2006, appearing in 15 games in July for the Hudson Valley Renegades (the next-to-last of which was a 6-4 loss to the State College Spikes, in that club’s first season of existence, having been moved from Augusta, New Jersey by new owner Chuck Greenberg). 

But that 50-at-bat resurfacing didn’t convince the Devil Rays to do with Hamilton what they’d done with Shields, Riggans, and Bankston the winter before.  Tampa Bay purchased the contracts of outfielder Elijah Dukes, righthander Mitch Talbot, and utility player Elliot Johnson in November 2006, protecting them from the Rule 5 Draft, but not of Hamilton, a decision that led the Reds to pay the Cubs to draft the 25-year-old in a prearranged deal on December 7, and that led Cincinnati to move him to Texas a year and two weeks later for Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera, and that will have led to Hamilton, a second-time MVP candidate, stepping up to the plate in the first inning on Wednesday, before Lee ever takes the mound.

There’s not really a point to any of the above, other than an opportunity for me to work off some restless energy on an off-day between the games that count for 30 teams and the ones that only eight get to play. 

I can say I remember what this was like 11 years ago, but I think I’d be lying.

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Twitter  @newbergreport

Surprise report, v.2.

It might shock a small few of you that from time to time I’ll go overboard on a player.  For every Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler and Derek Holland who has opened my eyes in Surprise there’s a Juan Moreno and a John Hudgins and a Johnny Lujan.  You’re advised to have the salt shaker handy when I get amped up about a prospect based on a small sample of firsthand, uninitiated observations.  

With that said, there’s a player out here who I was resigned a year ago to put on the second list but now has me thinking he might be back on track to fulfilling all the promise he arrived with.  He’s a player who slid quietly through last year’s Rule 5 Draft, and was really never much of a candidate to be protected in the first place.  That’s probably about to change.

There could be any number of reasons that I was so high on Fabio Castillo when he signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2005.  Maybe it was the monster bonus he landed as part of the Rangers’ J2 class that summer (reported to be as much as $400,000).  Maybe it was the general lack of high-end pitching prospects in the system once you got past Danks, Volquez, Diamond, and Hurley.  Maybe it was what Castillo (along with Cristian Santana and Johan Yan) represented, a hopeful return to prominence in Latin America after years of relative irrelevance internationally, in what was A.J. Preller’s first J2 crop since joining the organization.

My enthusiasm gained conviction with the 5.2-inning, one-single, zero-walk, 14-strikeout effort he put up in his next-to-last start of the 2006 Dominican Summer League season, five months after I’d seen him in Surprise and said of the big righthander, who sported a prototype pitcher’s build at age 17: “Castillo’s what they look like.”  

Maybe so, but his productivity, like Santana (a catcher who is now a left fielder/DH) and Yan (a shortstop who is now a relief pitcher), wasn’t measuring up.  Castillo’s ERA pushed up against 6.00 for Spokane in 2007 and sat at 6.75 as a starter for Clinton in 2008 (and 4.53 as a reliever), and while he was better out of the Hickory bullpen in 2009 (4.05, .269 opponents’ average), he was a fourth-year pro pitching in middle relief in Low Class A and by then had been passed by what seemed like a thousand others in what had become a pitching-rich system.

Then came 2010.  Assigned to the hitter-friendly California League out of spring training, Castillo allowed earned runs two times in his first 12 appearances (more than half of which lasted more than one inning), and he never really slowed down.  In 36 Bakersfield relief appearances, he scattered 41 hits (two home runs) over 51.2 innings, good for a .219 opponents’ average, the lowest of his career since that 2006 run through the DSL.  Castillo fanned 65 and walked 26, posted a 1.92 ERA, permitted five of 19 inherited runners to score, and he was 1.40 times more likely to coax a groundout than an out in the air.  

His velocity was up to 94-97, he was commanding a nasty slider, his second-half ERA was 1.04 (.189 opponents’ average, 2.31 G/F, no home runs), and late in August — in the midst of a stretch in which he hadn’t allowed an earned run in 15 games (17 innings, nine hits [seven singles and two doubles], six walks, 26 strikeouts) — he was promoted to Frisco for a bigger challenge.  

Castillo gave up a couple runs in his first AA relief appearance but put up scoreless efforts his next four times out (including two appearances in the Texas League playoffs).  His stuff was creating a buzz that had been missing since his first couple years in the system.  A buzz that might be the strongest of any pitcher in Surprise right now.

I went to the Advanced Instructional League game yesterday, knowing in advance that Castillo was slated to pitch the ninth.  There were other reasons I was looking forward to that game — Tanner Sheppers, Miguel De Los Santos, and Ovispo De Los Santos were also pitching — but I was keyed up to see Castillo more than any of them.  

Scheppers (15 strikes, five balls) sat 94-96 and had a very good curve in his inning of work — a real key for him — and both De Los Santos’s were dirty though inconsistent.  Hector Nelo (who didn’t finish his inning due to some physical issue) and Trevor Hurley were impressive, as was center fielder Ryan Strasbourger, whose arm strength and run tool are drawing some Craig Gentry comparisons.

But the best position player I saw on Friday was Reds catcher Yasmani Grandal (impressive at the plate and behind it — Cincinnati has a good problem with Grandal and Devin Mesoraco coming, a problem I’d very much like to see Texas help alleviate).  

So when I saw that Grandal was due to bat fourth in the top of the ninth inning, I was cool with it when Reds outfielder Denis Phipps singled sharply to left on the first pitch he saw from Castillo.  I wanted to see a Castillo-Grandal matchup.

But then, after Cleveland shortstop Juan Diaz grounded out to second, moving Phipps to second base, Castillo (who sat 93-95 and touched 96) and catcher Vin DiFazio teamed up on a double play, as Reds second baseman Cody Puckett swung through 1-2 high heat and DiFazio cut Phipps down trying to steal third, leaving Grandal stranded on deck as the inning ended.

Castillo is what they look like again.

So are outfielder Jordan Akins, a physical prototype, and baby catcher Jorge Alfaro, both of whom stand out in drills and allow you to dream big about what they might be, and third baseman Christian Villanueva, who stands out in everything he does.  The 19-year-old from Mexico (who hit .314/.365/.431 in his first season stateside) is remarkably smooth defensively, fundamentally sound, and has lightning quick hands at the plate that led one Rangers instructor to suggest he could develop along the same lines as countryman Vinny Castilla, whose power didn’t arrive until he was a 27-year-old in his fifth big league season.

Between Villanueva and Mike Olt (also having a tremendous camp) and Tommy Mendonca, there’s more playable depth out here at third base than there’s been in years.  

Righthanders Richard Alvarez and Roman Mendez threw bullpen sides alongside each other Friday morning.  Alvarez looks stronger, and better, every time I see him.  He’s more polished than Mendez, whose raw stuff is impressive, if inconsistent.  

As pitching coordinator Danny Clark and about four others from the Rangers’ crew of instructors worked with Mendez on some mechanical checkpoints, I couldn’t help but think that the projectable 20-year-old, the new toy who came over in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade with Boston two months ago and thus is getting Rangers instruction for the first time, is Exhibit A of why those guys love their job and keep grinding it out anonymously, behind the scenes.

Righthander Luke Jackson, who probably would have been sitting in an Intro to Chemistry class at Miami on Friday morning if he hadn’t decided in August to sign, followed Alvarez and Mendez in the bullpen.  But he and Clark spent his 10 minutes with no catcher, and no baseball, working strictly on mechanics, specifically on balance points.

Thinking about college football this morning?  Jake Skole probably is too, which is not to say he regrets deciding on pro baseball.  Check out Spencer Fordin’s feature on Skole for MLB.com.

One last morning of Instructs for me, then it’s back to Texas, with full focus on playoff rosters and Game 1 and Game 4 matchups (the latter of which I have to believe depends on whether Texas is up 2-1 or down 1-2, despite reports) and why a former Rangers GM is a far more likely candidate in Queens than the current one and the welcome ice-cream-headache intensity of post-season baseball.  For now, righthanders Justin Grimm and David Perez are among the young pitchers I e
xpect to see in action today, and I’m looking forward to it.

But this has been a position player’s camp, for the first time in years.  And it’s fair to say that the MVP of camp so far, if you talk to enough people with the organization, has been shortstop Luis Sardinas.  Between Sardinas and Jurickson Profar, not to mention Leury Garcia and Hanser Alberto, the depth this franchise has at shortstop behind Andrus is going to create some excellent opportunities for the front office.  Young shortstops with tools who play defense and contribute offensively help get deals for veteran pitching done.

I’d be going nuts, with conviction, about Profar’s and Sardinas’s future if it weren’t for the cautionary tale of Fabio Castillo’s development into a pitcher who, despite monster stuff and good health, went undrafted in December, as he should have.  

Then again, Castillo’s resurgence in the summer and fall of 2010 has been so encouraging that, because I am who I am, I might as well go ahead and start sweating whether Texas will be able to keep Profar and Sardinas from leaving via free agency in 2020, and worrying about the clubhouse impact when the two are running against each other in the Arlington mayor’s race.

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Surprise report, v.1.

My first trip out to Fall Instructional League was three years ago, a decision triggered by two factors:

    a. A big league season that was limping to a last-place finish, 19 games back in the West; and

    b. The explosion of high-end prospects the franchise had added since I’d been in Surprise that March for spring training

There was a third reason, related to the second: I didn’t know how I was going to rank all those players added in the June draft and the July trading season and otherwise in that winter’s Bound Edition Top 72, without getting the chance to see them, even if for just a few days.  

Looking back at the roster of 45 that suited up in 2007 for Instructs — which primarily features only players from the lower (mostly short-season) levels of the farm system, plus a handful of upper-level players who need some extra work — you can see a ridiculous amount of impact on the 2010 playoff club.  Among those 45 were:

* Elvis Andrus
* Neftali Feliz
* Tommy Hunter
* Julio Borbon
* Mitch Moreland
* Derek Holland
* Max Ramirez
* Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, who helped produce Cliff Lee
* Michael Main, who helped produce Bengie Molina
* Evan Reed, who helped produce Jorge Cantu

That’s not to mention the Rangers’ top pitching prospect at the moment, Martin Perez, or the club’s top position player prospect, Engel Beltre, who were at their first Rangers camp as well.

The Rangers would probably admit that there may never be another fall crop like that one — for starters, we hope never again to be that team that’s selling off players like Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton in July — but the point is that while the dozens of young players who are gathered here from leagues in Arizona, Washington, North Carolina, California, Texas, and the Dominican Republic for one final month of instruction are a footnote in a season like this one, spending a couple days on the back fields this time of year serves as a reminder of the importance of keeping the pipeline flowing.

Names like Luke Jackson and Luis Sardinas and Jake Skole may be more familiar than David Perez and Christian Villanueva and Jared Hoying, but there are prospects everywhere you turn out here, some of whom we’ve known about since the day they were drafted or signed internationally — and others who, like Holland and Ian Kinsler before them, will have opened eyes internally well before their numbers draw anyone’s attention outside the organization.

By time I got from the airport to the complex on Thursday morning, most of the 67 players invited to Instructs were locked up in the late innings of a high-intensity Fungo Game, where everyone — including pitchers — took their turns at the plate, not stepping in against anyone on the mound but instead digging in with both a bat and a ball in hand.  Jayce Tingler’s squad won the game in dramatic fashion, in front of a crowd of maybe 12, as righthander Cody Buckel tripled and righthander Tanner Scheppers banged a walkoff sac fly to deep left center.

(The Scheppers swing, poorly phone-photographed by me:)

scheppers_fungo.JPG

It was an off-day on the Instructional League schedule (those are necessary in 108-degree heat), setting the stage for the Fungo Game, but the Advanced Instructional League did play, as the Rangers-Royals squad traveled to Maryvale to take on the Brewers-Mariners team, in front of a crowd of 44.  

While AIL lineups are a mix of players from the two clubs that share the roster, each day only one of the two clubs sends its pitchers, and yesterday was a Royals day.  (I hear that Scheppers and camp star Fabio Castillo will pitch in today’s AIL game, which might be enough for me to take that contest in rather than the standard IL game.)

But I did get to see five Rangers prospects in action: third baseman Mike Olt, shortstop Leury Garcia, first baseman Jared Bolden, left fielder Josh Richmond, and designated hitter Vin DiFazio.  The only one who distinguished himself in the chances he got was Garcia, who had a couple impressive at-bats and made a tough play on a ball slowed by a deflection off the pitcher’s glove look easy.

You see these players over enough Marches and Septembers and you start to color in the picture, but for a fan like me to leap to any real conclusions on a young player in such limited looks would be foolish, considering that even the Rangers folks who watched John Danks every day as a farmhand and the Red Sox officials who watched David Murphy every day in the minor leagues underestimated what they had.  Scouting isn’t easy.  And I’m no scout.  I don’t know what Garcia will become, but he sure is fun to watch, with that plus arm and plus-plus speed in that not-quite-5’10″, 160-lb. frame, and while a lot more has to come together for the 19-year-old, the capacity is there for him to make it.

Garcia’s not going to be Rafael Furcal despite the nickname, and a scout who really likes the player may lack the conviction to predict an Erick Aybar future, but Andres Blanco was a legitimate prospect once, well before his career was redefined as “journeyman,” and if years from now Garcia solidifies a bench role for a contender, maybe even stepping things up in place of a key injured veteran for a few weeks, that would be OK, too.  Blanco has a place in this game, and one day Garcia might as well.

While the big league team, which last night extended its division lead to a franchise-high 11 games as it tunes up for playoff baseball, is a bunch of grown men acting like kids with their claw-and-antlers bit that’s led to a T-shirt craze, the organization is using T-shirts to try and help make men out of a bunch of kids in Surprise.  The workout shirts in the above photo say the following on the back:

“I trust my teammates.
I trust myself.”
– Michael Young, All-Time Texas Rangers Hit Leader

And the coaches’ shirts:

The Ranger Way:
Attitude.
Discipline.
Teamwork.
Sacrifice.

The work being done out here by the organization isn’t all about mechanics or technique.

Back home on Thursday, Neftali Feliz was busy setting a Major League record for saves by a rookie, nailing his ninth in nine tries against the Angels and 39th overall.  Three years ago, he was at Fall Instructs, a 19-year-old with 81.1 career innings in three pro seasons, all at the short-season level, making him less experienced than Andrew Doyle is right now.  Is there another Feliz in this year’s group?  Doubtful, but read this:

[His] delivery has some moving parts and some wrist funk in the back, but there are no red flags and his arm is exceptionally loose and fast.  His explosive fastball sits in the mid-90s and tops out at 98 mph.  He also flashes a plus slider that reaches 87 mph, though it’s inconsistent.  His developing changeup also shows promise, giving him the makings of a three-pitch starter’s repertoire.  [He] has No. 1 starter upside if everything comes together for him, but his command is a work in progress, as he needs to do a better job repeating his arm slot and release point.

That’s not a 2007 writeup on Feliz, but instead a September 2010 Baseball America writeup on righthander Roman Mendez, who was just named the number five prospect in the New York-Penn League based on the work he did this summer as a Boston farmhand, before coming to Texas in the July trade f
or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Mendez is slated to throw a side today, and I can’t wait to see it.

Meanwhile, the Rangers had six of the top 20 prospects in the Northwest League, as league managers recognized shortstop Jurickson Profar (number 1), Olt (4), lefthander Miguel De Los Santos (10), catcher Kellin Deglan (11), Skole (13), and Hoying (16) in Baseball America’s survey.  BA’s Jim Callis calls Profar the fourth-best prospect in baseball among those who haven’t yet played in a full-season minor league.  Lefthanders Robbie Erlin (5) and Robbie Ross (15) were recognized in the South Atlantic League rankings, but they’re not out here.  Most full-season prospects are back home, recovering from the long season.

The focus right now, properly, is on Josh Hamilton’s return to action tonight, Cliff Lee’s outstanding tune-up effort last night, and whether the Rays will be able to hold the Yankees off this weekend after losing again last night.  I don’t ever mean to suggest, by all the attention I pay to what goes on in the minor leagues, that its significance is somehow greater than how it factors into making the big league team better, through scouting and player development and trades.  

It’s ultimately about what goes on in Arlington, but part of that involves what’s going on right now in Surprise, as kids Michael Young has never heard of all wear a shirt stamped with his words, and all compete to one day get where Young and his teammates are, not only playing big league baseball but gearing up to extend things beyond 162.

It’s Time in Texas
But Surprise development
Widens the window

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

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