Stoppers and stopdowns.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, beginning to immerse myself in Topps and The Sporting News and Garagiola and Kubek and Red Books and Green Books and Rawlings Scoremaster scorebooks, the pitchers who shut games down in the ninth inning (if not the eighth and ninth) were called, almost interchangeably:

  • Closers
  • Stoppers
  • Firemen

Times have changed.

Last night, with a display of exceptional filth, Joe Nathan was a bona fide closer.

And Yu Darvish was a stopper.

Darvish has pitched three times after a Rangers loss.  His record in those three starts: 3-0 with an ERA of 0.78.  In 23 innings over those three starts, once in white and once in gray and once in red, he’s scattered 15 hits and six walks while punching out 26 Yankees, Blue Jays, and A’s.

That’s what the very good ones do.  They shoulder the load and kill losing streaks.

Darvish, Mike Adams, and Nathan put zeroes up in every inning but one (the first), a feat matched by Oakland lefthanders Tommy Milone and Pedro Figueroa, as the Texas offense was silenced by decent pitching outside of its four-run fourth.  The lineup is sputtering.

We talk about Josh Hamilton a lot, and how Texas is a much more successful team when Adrian Beltre is in the lineup, and how Ian Kinsler is now in the conversation regarding the most complete second basemen in baseball, and how Nelson Cruz has finally broken open one of those crazy-hot streaks.  Every one of those guys has the ability to put a team on its back for a week.

The most common bullet point this season for Elvis Andrus has been the cute note that he’s on base a lot when Hamilton homers.

But look at the big league leaders in OPS (on-base plus slug), and scroll up from guys like Brian McCann, Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey, Matt Holliday, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, Mike Napoli, and Carlos Santana – look above all of them – and there sits Andrus, at .825, after putting up a .683 mark his first three seasons.

Andrus’s OPS is fourth on the Rangers (behind Hamilton, Beltre, and Kinsler).

But his mark would lead the Angels and the Mariners and the Astros.

Take a look instead at WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a sabermetric measure that looks not only at offense but fielding and baserunning factors as well, and Andrus is unquestionably among baseball’s best players in 2012.

Only 12 (Hamilton, David Wright, Austin Jackson, Adam Jones, Michael Bourn, Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp, Carlos Beltran, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Bryan LaHair, and Martin Prado) are ranked higher.

As the Rangers offense has slowed down, Andrus hasn’t.  Over the last three weeks, the club is 11-11, but Andrus is hitting .400/.463/.482, with 10 walks and only eight strikeouts in 85 at-bats (and five stolen bases in six tries).

When he pinch-hit in the game’s final at-bat on Tuesday night, grounding out to shortstop, it snapped a streak of 32 straight games in which he’d reached base.  Nobody has had a longer streak in baseball this year.

He started a new streak last night, reaching on an infield single to lead off the first after Darvish had surrendered his one run.  He flew out in the third but drove in a run in the fourth, roping a two-out single to left on an 0-2 changeup with men on first and third to push the Texas lead to a 4-1 margin that would stand.

Nothing spectacular, at the plate or in the field, but as Andrus has been so often this year, he was right in the middle of things, hitting and running and catching and throwing and igniting, and helping this team win.

I get emails and tweets from you guys every day, wanting to talk about what will eventually happen with Andrus and Jurickson Profar (and what it means for Kinsler) and when, since Andrus can be a free agent after 2014 and Profar – now hitting .289/.339/.493 as a 19-year-old in AA (giving him an .833 OPS that’s higher than Andrus’s AL mark) and in the midst of a 26-game hit streak and 34-game base-reaching streak of his own – is going to be ready well before that time.

My answer to that is the same as the one I have when the topic of Hamilton’s contract situation comes up.

I’m not thinking about that right now.  At all.  There’s a game this afternoon, and a playoff tournament a little over four months away.

In between there should be a couple dozen Darvish starts and 40 dozen Hamilton plate appearances, and no Rangers fan would argue that there’s anything more worthy of a stopdown than when those two play baseball, with the possible exception of a reasonably healthy Beltre.

But the way Elvis Andrus is playing the game right now, putting pressure on the opponent and taking pressure off his teammates, in one way or another on most nights, he’s moved himself into the category this year, at least a quarter of the way in, of serving up daily doses of #AppointmentBaseball.  While several of his teammates are getting the talk show and TV package attention, he’s quietly taken his game to an entirely new level after signing a monster contract, a sports phenomenon that gets about as much attention as who might be in line to succeed Kurt Bevacqua as baseball’s Bubble Gum Blowing Champ.

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