Momentum.

Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, quipped Earl Weaver, presumably sometime in the 1970s or the first half of the 1980s, at basically no point during which the Rangers could legitimately concern itself too greatly with the question as late as Labor Day.

Different story this weekend in Boston.

This has been a fascinating Texas Rangers season, one in which the rotation has significantly helped the club along to what stands as the third-best record in the American League, fifth in all of baseball.

One in which the only starts made by someone outside the original five have been three by Dave Bush (once because a doubleheader would have otherwise forced Colby Lewis to make his next start on short rest, and twice because of blisters, one belonging to Alexi Ogando and one to Matt Harrison) and one by Scott Feldman (to give Harrison extra rest), with the second by Feldman coming this afternoon to give Ogando some added time between starts.

One in which the club’s five yearlong starters each have at least 11 victories and fewer losses and none has an ERA higher than 4.32.

One in which the Rangers’ starters have a significantly better collective ERA than any of the other three teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers) zeroing in on AL playoff spots, and a lot more quality starts than any of them, too.

As Rangers fans we’ve learned, since those Earl Weaver days, to live with the inconsistencies of young pitchers whose futures we’ve chosen to throw our hopes behind, and to put up with the occasional clunker from a veteran not what he once was.

The momentum that Texas seems to have right now, as far as its pitching rotation is concerned, is in the direction each of its starting pitchers are heading as the horizon of a return to the playoffs comes into sharper view.

C.J. Wilson has had one bad start in the last month, sandwiched between two outstanding efforts against Boston and Tampa Bay clubs that needed to win.  Game One is his.

Derek Holland leads the American League in shutouts and might have tied Cliff Lee for the big league lead if he’d been left in Friday to finish a 10-0 win over Boston that he exited after seven innings (98 pitches) of two-hit ball.  He has four quality starts in his last five efforts, and six in his last eight.  He’s attacking the zone and stampeding toward a playoff start.

Harrison was brilliant yesterday, silencing a Boston attack that had brutalized (1) the Rangers the day before and (2) Harrison himself two weeks ago.  There have been concerns of late, as he appeared to have hit a wall after a brilliant two-month run from June 12 through August 8 (2.69 ERA, .261/.296/.392 slash, six home runs and 13 ground ball double plays in 11 starts), but after a skipped turn he came back yesterday with fresh legs and put zeroes up for six Fenway Park innings while his offense mounted a 9-0 lead.  The club’s winning percentage is better when Harrison starts (.615) than it is with any of the other four Rangers starters.  Cautious optimism would permit one to conclude that the Harrison arrows are once again pointing up.

Ogando’s stunning run of success lasted four months (2.88 ERA, .217/.271/.327 slash, 3:1 K:BB and 4:1 IP:BB through August 4), with only one effective start out of five since then.  He gets skipped today, with hopes that it rejuvenates and resharpens his game the way the same maneuver did wonders, at least on one day, for Harrison.  For what it’s worth (which is presumably a lot), Ogando has been awful against both the Red Sox and Yankees this year.

Lewis was brilliant (7-4-0-0-2-7) in a loss to Anaheim two and a half weeks ago, the one that nearly finished a stunning four-game sweep before Mark Trumbo turned a Mike Adams cutter around in the ninth to reenergize the Angels’ season.  Since?  Three starts, 16 runs in 15.1 innings, on 24 hits (11 for extra bases) and six walks, good for an obese .369/.419/.677 slash.  Maybe of most concern is that the three games were against the Red Sox, Angels (10 days after he’d stymied them), and Red Sox again.  Lewis has been lousy this year at home (5.70 ERA, .257/.316/.511 slash, 21 home runs in 85.1 innings), worse in Fenway (Saturday), and ineffective in his three 2011 starts against Boston, regardless of site (8.22 ERA, .344/.397/.609 slash).

Lewis hasn’t faced the Yankees this year, after his two brilliant Rangers Ballpark starts against them in Game Two and Game Six of the 2010 ALCS.  Holland was tremendous in the ALCS as well, less so against the Yankees in three 2011 starts (all in the first half).

Feldman?  Let’s revisit how we feel about him after today’s encore against the Rays, who had no chance against him six days ago in Arlington.  (Of course, Texas did nothing against Rays starter James Shields last week, either.)

But for what it’s worth, Feldman shut the Red Sox down over four innings of middle relief obscured amidst a 6-0 Rangers loss on August 25: no runs on two singles and one walk, seven of his 12 outs on the ground, three others on swinging strike threes.

There are still four swings through this rotation to go, a lot of time for momentum to be refracted or reinforced, or fractured altogether.  Plenty can change, and one of the objectives of the club’s selective deployment of the Feldman weapon over these final five weeks is to try and get its rotation a chance to head into the stretch and the post-season refreshed and in a good rhythm.

But the way things look right now, admittedly based on somewhat of a snapshot, but also taking into consideration the way everyone in the mix has fared against Boston and New York, doesn’t it feel at the moment as if the best starting four that Texas can throw out there in October would look something like this?

  • Against Boston (the ALDS opponent if the season ends with the standings in the same shape as they are now*): Wilson, and then Holland and Harrison in some order, with a real thought given to Feldman as an alternative to either Lewis or Ogando in Game Four
  • Against New York: Wilson and Harrison, probably Holland, probably not Ogando, and a decision between Feldman and Lewis for the fourth spot

(* Note: The AL West winner will face the Wild Card as long as it finishes with a better record than Detroit.  Otherwise, the AL West winner will face the AL East winner.  Texas has a 1.5-game edge on the Tigers right now.)

First things first, of course, and if Texas can come out of these three in Tampa Bay maintaining its 3.5-game lead over the Angels while they host Seattle, then the tables turn a bit in terms of remaining schedules, as Texas will have Oakland, Cleveland, Seattle (away), Oakland (away), and Seattle left before the three-set in Anaheim to finish the regular season, while Los Angeles will draw a New York club fighting for home field, Oakland (away), Baltimore (away), Toronto (away, for four), and Oakland before what the Angels are hoping will be a series with Texas that offers something to play for.

If I were writing an Angels blog, the momentum angle might focus on Jered Weaver’s composite 10.64 ERA and .327/.411/.633 slash in the game he pitched against Texas on short rest and the following start against the Twins, and the season-high seven walks Ervin Santana issued against a bad Seattle team in his first start after his short-rest effort in Texas, but since I’m not I’ll leave that for an Angels-centric discussion elsewhere.

There’s still a lot of business to be taken care by two teams headed toward Games 160, 161, and 162, a series in Anaheim that could mean everything, or nothing at all, and what this weekend in Boston made pretty plain was that the magnitude of that series is going to be determined, at least for one of the teams, by the momentum built by the next day’s starting pitcher, and those on either side of him, in what might be the most unique year of rotation pitching in this franchise’s 40 years.

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