April 2011

Hunted.

Back on March 18, my final day in Surprise:

It’s back to Texas now, with my thoughts momentarily fixed on what Feliz does tomorrow and how it impacts the biggest decision this team has to make over the next two weeks, but more generally trained on the first week in April, when the Rangers host the Red Sox – in the unfamiliar position of being the Hunted.  It kinda fired me up to see that Boston manager Terry Francona told reporters this week, regarding his decision to slot Josh Beckett fourth in his rotation after Opening Day assignments the last two years: “I just think watching the way last year unfolded, we want him to get off to a good start.  We’ll pitch him in [our second series,] in Cleveland.  I think that’s a good place for him to start.”

I’m not used to the idea that other teams, especially formidable ones like Boston, might actually be game-planning around Texas, rather than the other way around.  But I like it.  I like it very much.

The Rangers have now won 15 of their last 21 against the Red Sox, whose writers are focused squarely on Boston’s bad play these first two days, following a bad spring training.  But there’s more to it than substandard work out of the visitors.  The manager over there was giving the reigning AL champs (who had their own sluggish camp) a little credit a couple weeks ago.  You can bet he is right now, too.

Matt Harrison against Clay Buchholz today.  The Red Sox try to stave off the sweep in a series that already belongs to Texas.  Josh Beckett will watch again from the dugout, slotted after Boston’s day off to go Tuesday in Cleveland, where the Sox want to get him off to a good start, pitted against Indians starter Josh Tomlin.

No day off for Texas tomorrow, and regardless of what happens this afternoon, the lack of an off-day before Seattle arrives is feeling pretty good.

Hey there, John.

Murphy’s lob.

It was the play that will have the longest life of any from Opening Day 2011 in Arlington, the one that will show up on next year’s season-opening video montage.*  The metrics may or may not judge it to be the decisive play in Texas 9, Boston 5, but it will have the most staying power.

[* The montage that Chuck Morgan played just before the Rangers took the field yesterday was the best movie I’ve seen in a long time.  Getting chills as I type this.  Five minutes of pure gold.  Hopefully it’s played before every home game.  And that video board: Can’t say enough.]

On the mound was Daniel Bard, whom every Boston writer and plenty around here and nationally had traded to Texas (if not Clay Buchholz or Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden) two winters ago for either Taylor Teagarden or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was now Bard’s teammate and behind the plate, no longer in the Tony Pena splits he was flashing earlier in the game, putting the signs down for Boston’s best relief pitcher.

At the plate was David Murphy, the former Red Sox prospect, drafted by that club in the first round in 2003 (19 spots before Saltalamacchia, Atlanta’s supplemental first-rounder that year), three years before Boston made Bard its first-round pick.  Murphy was 3 for 23 (.130) for his career as a pinch-hitter, and had never faced Bard (against whom Julio Borbon was 0 for 1).

Bard, at least until the seemingly inevitable point at which he unseats Jonathan Papelbon as Boston closer, is basically what the Red Sox were banking on Eric Gagné being when they traded Murphy and Engel Beltre and Kason Gabbard to Texas for him on July 31, 2007 (the same day the Rangers picked up Saltalamacchia in the Mark Teixeira trade with Atlanta).  He’s been a lockdown eighth-inning weapon for the better part of two seasons (something Gagné wasn’t close to for Boston in 2007, when he put up the worst numbers of his career in 20 late-season appearances and was no better in the post-season).  Not once in Bard’s 73 games pitched in 2010 did he give up more than two runs, and he did that only three times.

The Rangers’ lineup came into the game 2 for 19 (a Josh Hamilton double and Elvis Andrus single) lifetime against Bard, with two walks and nine strikeouts.

But to expect the percentages to play out would be to turn down a ticket to the game.  Jon Lester had never given up three home runs in his previous 123 big league starts.  Texas took him deep three times in the first four innings yesterday.  Lester was third in the American League in strikeouts last year.  He didn’t set anyone down on strikes yesterday (only the second time in his career that’s happened).

Probabilities aren’t certainties, and if they were nobody would have believed that a game pitting Lester against C.J. Wilson would feature nine runs scored in the first four innings, but no runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh, a three-frame stretch in which the two bullpens were asked to get as many outs as the dueling number one starters.

Bard had gotten Nelson Cruz to fly out lazily to right field before walking Mike Napoli and yielding a Yorvit Torrealba single to right.  Ron Washington pulled Borbon back and sent Murphy to the plate.  Murphy, who doesn’t produce as a pinch-hitter.  Against Bard, the Ranger-killer whom he’d never faced.

Four-seamer, 96, ball one inside.  Changeup low and away, swung through.  Another changeup, this one buried in the dirt and inside, watched for ball two.  Another four-seamer at 96, taken just outside for ball three.  Murphy had worked the count to 3-1, with two runners on, a tie game, and Ian Kinsler on deck.  An exquisite hitter’s count.

And Bard threw what would have been ball four, yet another 96-mph four-seamer at the belt that was even further outside, but Murphy swatted it to left, looking at first like he’d spoiled a pitch to run the count full until the ball stayed on its line and never faded foul, kicking up left-field-line chalk to bring Napoli and a lumbering Torrealba home.  The score was 7-5.

Texas wasn’t finished, as Andrus and Hamilton – the two Rangers who’d ever hit safely off Bard coming into the game – each doubled in a run after a Kinsler strikeout, and Neftali Feliz was assigned the comfortable task of securing a four-run lead and closing things down in the ninth, minutes after Murphy had defied the numbers (and the laws of physics, seemingly) and helped Texas get an Opening Day win in the books, just as Saltalamacchia had done a year ago in what was the first memorable moment of the most memorable Texas Rangers season (though the final meaningful moment of Saltalamacchia’s Rangers career).

It was a moment that gave lift to plenty of kneejerk reactions in its aftermath (sorry, but I’m in the Hamilton-in-LF camp, and Murphy is not a starting center fielder), and an overly melodramatic Newberg Report, but that’s what Opening Day is, an opportunity to make too much out of things for those of us waiting months for something to make too much out of.  No apologies here.

Other than to apologize for not going into a bunch of other things I’d planned to go into.  I tend to forget how tired I am each year after Opening Day and Day One of the draft, and this is all I’ve got in me this morning.

But I hope you’ll make plans to stop by Barnes & Noble this afternoon for the Newberg Report book signing.  We’re at the Parks in Arlington location (3881 S. Cooper St # 2027, Arlington, TX 76015) from 1:00 until 3:00.  Come on out and we can talk about C.J. Wilson logging a strikeout swinging per inning yesterday, or about center field, about the three-man bench, about the video board, about Chris Davis, about Mason Tobin, about Rich Harden starting the season on Oakland’s disabled list, about what’s on your tailgate menu before the ring ceremony and that bad-ass pregame video montage and Colby Lewis vs. John Lackey at the Ballpark tonight.

You can bring your 2011 World Series Bound Edition or buy a copy at the store.  Hope to see you in a few hours.

Page one.

It’s your favorite author’s brand new book, just out of your mailbox and out of the corrugated box and out of the shrink-wrap.

It’s anniversary reservations at that restaurant.

It’s the last day of school, May 25, 1983, and Return of the Jedi opens as soon as the bell rings.

It’s a new season of The Shield, a new Radiohead CD, a cold beverage and some Chuy’s fresca by the pool with a bunch of friends.

It’s Chuck Morgan’s voice and Eric Nadel’s voice and those smells.

The Magic Number is 163.  It’s a beautiful number.

There are no more sleeps to count off, only the aggravating crawl of the clock.  Fight through it.

Here’s to the awesomeness of a pennant-defending Page One.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers