October 2011

Ready.

When I was a senior at Hillcrest High School in 1987, our basketball team won its first state title, taking down the hated Cleburne Yellow Jackets, 51-42.

The championship game came two days after Hillcrest had beaten the heavily favored Bay City Black Cats, who came into the tournament with a No. 1 state ranking and one of the top players in the country, Louisville-bound LaBradford Smith.

I wasn’t in Austin for those two games,* but I remember the sense that after we’d conquered Bay City on Thursday, 54-51, the Saturday title game felt sort of anticlimactic.

[* The baseball team was playing in the Sherman Tournament that weekend, from which I retain three memories: (1) Pitching the final two innings of a combined perfect game win over The Colony; (2) giving up an 800-foot home run to Plano East’s Reggie Green, whose teammate Kirk Piskor hit three homers of his own in the game; and (3) having no assistant coach at the tournament because he elected instead to drive to Austin to watch the basketball games (10 years before he’d become the Best Man at my wedding).]

Bay City was the big dog.  Smith was Kobe.  Like those Super Bowls several years later when Dallas matched up with Buffalo in consecutive seasons, each time after getting past the 49ers, the win to get to the final game was the more intense one, the one that felt more like a war survived.

I’m not suggesting that Texas-St. Louis will be anticlimactic, but like the Cleburne Yellow Jackets or the Buffalo Bills or, a year ago, the San Francisco Giants, there’s a strange feeling about teeing it up against a team against whom there’s not much of a history, no LaBradford Smith or Jerry Rice or Alex Rodriguez-level villain, no real score to settle.

St. Louis does stand in the way of the ultimate prize, just as Cleburne and Buffalo and San Francisco did, but there’s not much of an edge for me going in.  Facing Tampa Bay last year, there was the stigma, the curse, of the Rangers having never won a playoff series in 38 years.  Afterwards, the Yankees, of course, were the nemesis, the smug franchise that had serially prevented Texas from ever advancing in the post-season.  This year, the Rays were looking for payback against the Rangers.  And then there were the Tigers, the club whose ballpark Texas seemingly couldn’t win in.

But the Cardinals?  Like the Giants, they’re likeable enough.  I suppose you could manufacture some venom to direct toward Lance Berkman, like Brian Wilson a year ago.  But it would be sort of forced.

There’s just no history between these teams, who have played all of three games against each other (in 2004, when a different version of the Rangers punished tomorrow’s starter, Chris Carpenter, for their one win – though I suppose it might be worth noting that Carpenter, who would presumably pitch Game Five in Texas, has a 6.99 ERA and .342/.407/.550 opponents’ slash in Rangers Ballpark), and don’t even spring-train in the same part of the country.

It’s difficult for me to gather up a whole lot of hate for the St. Louis Cardinals, which isn’t to say that Allen Craig won’t go from virtually anonymous to a key figure in Rangers history, or that Rafael Furcal won’t have a couple Edgar Renteria moments, or that Jaime Garcia won’t turn in a Madison Bumgarner performance.

Or that Albert Pujols might not go all Miguel Cabrera on the Rangers, and then some.

I like that Arthur Rhodes announced to Scott Miller of CBS Sports two nights ago: “We match up good with [the Rangers].  We have a similar lineup, but I know our bullpen is better than theirs.”

If he’s comparing the pen he’s in now to the one he was part of in May, featuring Dave Bush, Cody Eppley, Darren Oliver, Pedro Strop, Brett Tomko, Ryan Tucker, and himself, I’d tend to agree.

But that’s not what he meant, and I’m trying to let that comment get me worked up a little bit.  But it’s not working.

Still, man, I couldn’t be more fired up about the baseball games that kick off tomorrow night.  Not so much to take the hated St. Louis Cardinals down, but rather to avenge a World Series loss from a year ago and avoid having to deal with the national perception that the Rangers could be the 1970s Vikings or the early 1990s Bills, two teams I don’t think of as great ones but instead, perhaps unfairly, as teams that just couldn’t get it done.

In that sense, Pujols and Carpenter and Berkman and Rhodes and their teammates stand in the way, and that’s unacceptable.

Now I’m ready.

ALCS Game One, Texas 3, Detroit 2

Seven things:

1.         Alexi Ogando the win, Justin Verlander the loss, Neftali Feliz the save.  It happened on April 11, the Rangers’ 9th win of the season, and last night, the club’s 100th victory in 2011.

Billed, as it should be, as Number One starter vs. Number One starter, it turns out neither Verlander nor C.J. Wilson was great last night.  Texas worked Verlander for more than 20 pitches per inning, with Ian Kinsler setting the tone brilliantly.  The Rangers didn’t chase his filth out of the zone (he threw a hair under 60 percent of his pitches for strikes), making him come back in with fastballs.  They shortened up when it was called for (particularly Mike Napoli on a 2-2 single to lead off the second and Kinsler on a 1-0 single the other way to score David Murphy, who had tripled, later in the inning).

For all his considerable greatness, Verlander hasn’t been very good in his last four starts, three of which have been post-season efforts.  In those four games, he has a 1-3, 5.85 record, surrendering 19 hits (three home runs) and eight walks in 20 innings.

(You can bet Verlander – who did say that he figured something out mechanically during the first rain delay and would have returned to the mound had Texas come back up to bat before the second delay – will be a strong consideration for a Game Four start on short rest now, maybe depending on how Games Two and Three go.  Rick Porcello’s 22 pitches last night shouldn’t endanger his Game Four availability, but Verlander’s 82 ought to make it more likely that he’s brought back Wednesday, which would also put him in line for a short-rest assignment in a Game Seven.)

Wilson threw an even lower percentage of strikes (57 percent), issuing five walks (one intentional) in 4.2 innings, and while he had good stuff, especially with his breaking ball, he wasn’t sharp.  He allowed six of the first 11 Tigers to reach base, couldn’t get 10th starter Ryan Raburn out – a crime considering he bats ahead of Miguel Cabrera, Detroit’s one mega-threat – and after walking Raburn and Cabrera to load the bases in the fifth with one out, he had an 0-2 count on Victor Martinez (a lifetime .176 hitter against Wilson) before uncorking a wild pitch to bring a run home and shave the Texas lead down to 3-2.

Including his six scoreless innings against Tampa Bay in his first career playoff start (Game Two against the Rays last year), Wilson has a 1-3, 4.76 record in six post-season starts.

But for the most part on Saturday night, Wilson wiggled out of trouble, and that’s what rotation bulls do.

2.         After that Wilson wild pitch, which was followed by an intentional walk and the second rain delay, the Texas bullpen allowed two more baserunners the entire way: 4.1 scoreless innings, one hit (a bunt single in the ninth), one walk, eight strikeouts.  Verlander induced nine swinging strikes in his four innings of work.  Wilson, six swinging strikes in his 4.2 frames.  Rangers relievers: 15 swinging strikes in 4.1 innings.

Mike Gonzalez, Ogando, Darren Oliver, Mike Adams, and Feliz were each, in one way or another, absolutely dominant.  (Detroit’s pen was tremendous, too: four scoreless innings, one hit, no walks, two strikeouts.)  Baseball fans rarely credit their team’s manager for orchestrating his bullpen beautifully, but man, last night’s relief succession was brilliant stuff. . . .

. . . with an exclamation point from Good Nef shutting things down.  A heavy dose of Closing 101.

Actually, 101.4.

Napoli, who has caught Feliz all year and was hitless in five trips against him (two strikeouts) as an Angel, said after the game that it was the best he’d ever seen out of Feliz.

Darren O’Day tweeted, after the game: “Feliz’s last fastball to Austin Jackson was the singular most impressive pitch I’ve ever seen.  Painted down/away at 101 mph for the K.  WOW.”

Wilson’s responsive tweet: “Wish I could do that.”

3.         Texas has beaten the Tigers four times in 2011.  Ogando has earned all four wins.

Not sure why he wasn’t getting loose the minute play resumed after the first rain delay concluded, but I’m not going to get too hung up about that.  Especially because if Ogando (who did begin warming but only after Wilson had encountered trouble) had relieved Wilson somewhere in the double-groundout-double-walk-walk-wild pitch-groundout sequence before Magglio Ordonez was intentionally walked, then he’d have been the pitcher of record when the second delay halted action for more than an hour, and almost certainly would not have been able to come back to finish the fifth, and pitch the sixth, and pitch the seventh.

Different game, in that case?  I don’t even want to think about that.

Ogando has now pitched in nine playoff games in his career, five last year and four this month: one run on six hits and two walks in 10.2 innings, with 13 strikeouts.  He’s been extraordinary, one of the Rangers’ absolute weapons in this year’s playoff run.

4.         While Raburn and Ramon Santiago were Detroit’s unsung heroes (yes, Delmon Young might have been Detroit’s playoff Napoli, but Raburn was outstanding last night in his place), David Murphy (what a sequence) and Nelson Cruz stepped up and punished Verlander from the bottom third of the order.

Meanwhile, Josh Hamilton does look “deliriously tired” at the plate, flicking at fastballs and refusing to lay off breaking stuff down and away, and you can bet Adrian Beltre will start to see fastballs above the zone, particularly when behind in the count.  As Beltre showed in Game Four in Tampa Bay, though, things can turn around in an instant for guys like that.

On the other end of the defensive spectrum from Beltre (what a night with the glove, again), did Ordonez’s effort on the Murphy triple make anyone else think of Vladimir Guerrero’s right field work in last year’s World Series?

You almost can’t even think about taking Ordonez’s bat out of the lineup tonight, especially against a lefthander, but asking him to navigate a potentially puddled outfield could get adventurous.  And DH belongs to Victor Martinez (who, by the way, ran like a hobbled Bengie Molina on a big 5-4-3 double play in the third).

5.         I saw a “Napoli Ever After” sign in the Ballpark, and it seems Fox ran a graphic with that title during the telecast, too.

6.         ESPN’s Howard Bryant wrote a sensational column yesterday describing Ron Washington’s influence on the mindset of this team, and you really ought to take 10 minutes to read it.  It’s a tremendous piece of writing.

I participated in an ALCS preview with a USC digital news site called Neon Tommy:  http://www.neontommy.com/news/2011/10/mlb-playoffs-alcs-qa-rangers-and-tigers-writers.

But read the Bryant column if you only have time for one.

7.         Derek Holland vs. Max Scherzer vs. the elements tonight.

Rain delays bite, especially when you’re at the ballpark with young kids.  Enough of those.  The scene in the concourse during the two delays last night reminded me of Game Three against the Yankees in 1998, maybe the most depressing baseball experience of my life.

But this Rangers team, in so many ways, is completely different from those late-’90s playoff teams.

I’ll take weather concerns over worrying whether Texas could manage to get a baserunner to third base, or to get a big out from its bullpen, the things the first generation of Rangers playoff baseball gave us.

Sure hope we play tonight.

#CastleDoctrine

Cliff.

Since I was a kid I’ve bought exactly one piece of Rangers clothing with a player’s name or number on it.  It’s a red T-Shirt with “Lee” and “33” on the back of it.

Cliff Lee will always be on an extremely short list of my favorite players ever to play this or any other game.

Yes, it’s remarkable that the Phillies, winners of five more regular season games (102) than anyone else in 2011 and owners of the most ridiculous starting rotation in memory, failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs.  And that Cliff Lee’s effort in Game Two against St. Louis – in which he allowed five runs on 12 hits in six-plus innings after being staked to a 4-0 lead at home – might ultimately have been the difference in the NLDS.

But Lee gave the Texas Rangers a World Series experience, something that will benefit this franchise in countless ways going forward and something that I’ll never forget.

Lee’s departure from Texas for a club that didn’t offer the largest contract but that offered a return to a place he never wanted to be traded from in the first place effectively led to more than just the compensatory drafts picks that turned into Kevin Matthews and Zach Cone: It led to Adrian Beltre becoming a Ranger.  (You’ve got to read Brad Townsend’s excellent Dallas Morning News story this morning on Don Welke’s role in helping the Beltre deal materialize.)

I’ve gotten several emails since last night offering up this quote from Lee’s December presser in Philadelphia, or another like it: “To get an opportunity to come back and be part of this team and this pitching rotation is going to be something that’s historic, I believe.”

The fact that Lee is probably going to be on a plane back to Arkansas sometime today, while they’re busy making final preparations in Arlington for yet another Game One, clearly resonates with a bunch of you.  But this isn’t a case, at least as I see it, of an Alex Rodriguez or Kiki Vandeweghe or even Mark Teixeira, a star player who didn’t want to be here, and I don’t understand the urge to pile on Lee right now.

I was 100 percent in favor of letting Lee move on if it was going to take a seven-year commitment to keep him here, and it was a happy day for me when he shocked the Yankees by choosing a different new home.

But I’ll never boo Cliff Lee, and I’ll never root for him to fail, unless he’s in the other dugout on a night when his team plays Texas.

You won’t find many folks who expected such a matchup to not materialize in October 2011 because of the failure of the Phillies, rather than the Rangers, to get past the LDS.

But there aren’t any sure things in this game of failure, other than, in this case, a certainty that I’m not going to sit here and take pleasure in the fact that the season is now over for the best pitcher on the best team – so far – in Rangers history.

 

P.S.      Wilson-Verlander.

              Here.  We.  Go.

When past is hardly prologue.

If I were a Detroit Tigers blogger, I’d probably point out that Detroit played three series against Texas in 2011, winning two games out of three each time.  Moreover, each of the three Rangers victories were earned by Alexi Ogando, who won’t be part of the club’s rotation for the ALCS.

I probably wouldn’t point out that, in the clubs’ first series in April, Josh Hamilton was around for the 2-0 Texas win (contributing a single, walk, and run scored against Justin Verlander) but missed virtually all of the two Rangers losses, breaking a bone in the back of his shoulder on a slide home five minutes into the first of those two games.

I would ignore the fact that in the June series, the Rangers’ relief work was provided by Michael Kirkman, Yoshinori Tateyama, Arthur Rhodes, Dave Bush, Mark Lowe, Tateyama again, Darren Oliver, and Feliz.  (Though to be fair, in the two Texas losses, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison were knocked around, prompting the back of the bullpen to get the game completed.)  Mike Adams and Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez weren’t around yet, and Ogando wasn’t a bullpen weapon at the time.

Stunningly, when that June series ended, Mike Napoli was hitting .213/.344/.504, having played in 43 of the Rangers’ 63 games.  From that point forward, he hit .376/.453/.698 over 70 games.

I’d also fail to mention that Adrian Beltre was out with a hamstring strain when Detroit took two of three in August, taking both of its wins by a margin of one run.

I’d note that Detroit hit .317 against Texas in 2011, slugging .486, while the Rangers hit only .275 against the Tigers and slugged .396.

Detroit ERA against Texas this year: 3.71.

Texas ERA against Detroit: 4.96.

But I’m not a Tigers blogger, and I’m not going to break this series down position-by-position or dive any further into the statistics or make any predictions.

Detroit had an insanely hot September and continues to play well.

Texas, same thing.

And the Rangers will show Detroit a different team from the ones the Tigers saw in April, June, and August.

This ought to be a fantastic series of playoff baseball games.

ALDS Game Two, Texas 8, Tampa Bay 6

Ten things:

1.         Lots of postgame praise from Joe Maddon for Mike Napoli and the adjustments he’s made as a hitter and as a catcher, and it should carry some added weight: Maddon is not only a former minor league catcher but also served on the Angels’ coaching staff for the first six years of Napoli’s pro career.  Napoli spent each of those seasons on the Angels’ farm but Maddon was surely aware of how he was viewed by the organization, particularly given his own catching background.

It almost seems cliché now, but just as it’s confounding that Oakland could never figure out what it had in Ron Washington, I don’t know how it was that the Angels could have been that wrong about Napoli.

Know your own.

2.         Derek Holland (again a recipient of heavy run support, though not as early in the game as usual) battled.  We’ve gotten used to Holland being dominant or awful, but last night he was somewhere in between.  He had trouble putting hitters away (25 foul balls, only six swinging strikes), leading to long innings and a bloated pitch count, but to his credit he limited the damage, which would have been minimal had he been able to make a routine throw on Casey Kotchman’s high chopper in front of the plate.

It wasn’t close to the Holland we expected to see, but part of his growth in 2011 has been his ability to avoid the big inning, and to not unravel when things start going bad – something James Shields couldn’t do last night.

3.         Wash noted that Texas got things turned around offensively by no longer chasing Shields’s nasty change (which Wash pointed out Shields historically never throws for a strike against the Rangers) the second time through the order and making him bring the ball up in the zone.

4.         The overshift that the Rays are employing against Josh Hamilton and Mitch Moreland is sorta staggering.  Big potential to backfire, but Maddon seems wholly unafraid of being wrong.  In any event, both Hamilton and Moreland have found ways to beat the shift without adjusting their approach.

5.         I sorta feel bad for Evan Longoria that he signed that landmark long-term contract a week into his big league career.  He’s guaranteed $17.5 million over six years and will surely earn $44.5 million over nine years (when the Rays exercise his three option years), but he’d probably have landed double that if he’d gone year-to-year before he can be a free agent.

What a baseball player.

6.         Hat tip to reader Eric Smith for the following: Texas has been shut out nine times in 2011, including Game One of this series.  In the nine games following those shutouts?  The Rangers are 9-0, and have averaged 10.2 runs.  That’s a pretty great demonstration of resilience.

But Nelson: We need you back.

7.         Monday’s Game Three starter Colby Lewis has pitched twice against the Rays since returning from Japan.  On October 9, in last year’s ALDS Game Three (his first big league playoff appearance), Lewis shut Tampa Bay out on two singles and five walks in five innings at home, fanning five.  And on June 1 this year, he blanked the Rays on three singles and a double, walking two and setting eight down on strikes.

Lewis will face David Price, who is 0-3, 5.67 in six regular season starts against Texas, and 0-2, 4.97 in his two ALDS starts against the Rangers last year.

As for who might enter to protect a lead for Texas on Monday and on Tuesday and on any other day the Rangers earn the right to play this month, while last night’s 11-pitch effort shouldn’t operate to erase the very good month Koji Uehara had leading up to it, it wouldn’t surprise me if he and Alexi Ogando were to exchange roles, making Ogando-Mike Adams-Neftali Feliz the post-season version of Cerberus.

8.         Nap-o-li.

9.         Nap-o-li.

10.       Nap-o-li.

ALDS Game One, Tampa Bay 9, Texas 0

Eleven things:

1.         New York 3, Texas 2.

New York 6, Texas 4.

New York 4, Texas 0.

New York 3, Texas 0.

Tampa Bay 6, Texas 3.

Tampa Bay 5, Texas 2.

Tampa Bay 9, Texas 0.

The Rangers have never won an ALDS game in Rangers Ballpark.

They’re going to have to win one this year, or there won’t be an invitation to the ALCS.

2.         Texas Rangers hitting leaders, ALDS, 2011:

Josh Hamilton             .500

Nine others tied           .000

3.         The Rangers have played 26 playoff games in franchise history.  They’ve been shut out seven times.

Orlando Hernandez.  Roger Clemens.  David Wells.  David Cone.  Matt Cain.  Madison Bumgarner.

Matt Moore.

As Ron Washington said more than once in his postgame comments, Moore was special.  Texas may not see him again until late April – though depending on what happens today, Joe Maddon will have an interesting decision to make if there’s a Game Five, as he’s already said that assignment would go to James Shields – but he’s going to be an AL East factor for a long time.

4.         ESPN’s Jim Bowden on Moore, before yesterday’s game: “He has an edge because the Rangers have never seen him.  If the southpaw can get through the lineup once using primarily his fastball, he will be in great shape, since Texas won’t get a look at his off-speed stuff until the second time through.  Keep an eye on his pitch sequencing the first time through the order. If he has to resort to a lot of breaking stuff, he could be in trouble.”

First time through the Rangers lineup yesterday: 27 four-seam fastballs, two sliders, three changeups.

5.         Give me the choice to sit in a room and listen to any two managers talk baseball, and it would be easy for me.  Washington and Maddon couldn’t be any more different, but those are my two guys.  They each have a way about them that makes you understand almost immediately why their players would run through walls for their teammates and their manager.

6.         I know there’s talk that Boston might consider asking Seattle for permission to talk to manager Eric Wedge, who is under contract with the Mariners through 2013.  If I were a Red Sox fan, I’d hope for a call to the Rays for permission to talk to Maddon, who is locked up through 2012.

There’s no way Tampa Bay would greenlight it, of course.

7.         A couple things I didn’t really understand:

(a) Josh Hamilton’s decision to bunt with an 8-0 deficit in the sixth, a man on base with no outs, and two very good at-bats against Moore.  The decision was bad, the execution worse (you don’t square up like that when you’re trying to bunt for a hit; see Ben Zobrist’s technique ahead of Kelly Shoppach’s third-inning home run), and it seemed to drain whatever life remained in the 50,000+ on hand.

At that point in that game, the only thing that matters is making the 12 remaining outs as infrequently as possible.  A Craig Gentry bunt in that situation would have been bad baseball.  A Hamilton bunt was just crazy.

(b) The decision to give Matt Harrison 15 pitches in the ninth.  I know it was his day to throw a side and I understand the benefit of getting him past any potential post-season jitters, since he wasn’t part of the 2010 playoff rosters.  But Sean Rodriguez, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, and Ben Zobrist – the first four hitters in the Rays order against left-handed pitchers – have now gotten a look at him before his Game 3 or Game 4 start in Tampa Bay, a game in which the Rangers’ season could conceivably be on the line, and I guess you have to weigh one potential consequence against the other.

The Rays had seen Harrison only once in 2011, a two-inning scoreless relief appearance (Zobrist, Casey Kotchman, Upton, Matt Joyce, John Jaso, Rodriguez) on August 31.  Now they’ve seen him again.  I suppose the fact that he allowed a run on a hit, a walk, and a wild pitch while getting two outs is better survived in a 9-0 loss than at the outset of a critical start, but I still thought it was a curious decision.

8.         C.J. Wilson in Game 2 against the Rays last year: 6.2-2-0-0-2-7.  Fanned Kelly Shoppach twice (and walked him once) in four trips.

03302 is the ZIP Code for Concord, New Hampshire, and also what the scoreboard read during Wilson’s five innings of work yesterday.  There’s a bad Bret and Jemaine joke in there somewhere, but I’m going to reward you by not resorting to one.

Sure hope that wasn’t Wilson’s final game as a Ranger.

9.         Speaking of ALDS Game 2 last year, James Shields went 4.1-4-4-4-0-2 in that one.

10.       And speaking of 2010 post-season memories to erase – or to use as motivation – Shields and Derek Holland both have them.  They’ve done lots of very good things in the intervening year, and both said things before yesterday’s games that would tend to make you think they’re a lot less concerned about last October than fans of their teams might be.

My 11-year-old daughter asked me this morning who was pitching for Texas tonight.  I told her.  “Oh good!” Erica said.  I asked why she said that, figuring on one of two or three answers that might have involved a Dutchstache or his goofy interviews.

She said: “Because he’s the one we score all those runs for all the time!”  (She might have said “points.”)

And she’s right.  She’s right about the run support Holland gets (a staggering Major League-leading 9.23 runs in 2011).

But she’s also right about looking forward and not moping about what’s over and done.  The Rangers team is good about that.  I try to be.  I’m not always very good about it.

But Erica’s got me thinking straight again.  Holland has been pitching well, this team tends to score when he’s pitching for whatever reason, and Moore proved yesterday that there’s more to this than track record.

Holland has come up big many times.  His next opportunity is in seven hours.

11.       As Bob Sturm likes to remind us:  A slam dunk still counts as only two points.

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