Requiem for a heavyweight.
When you cave to the instinct to expect your kids to be great, to be the best, behind that door over there is mostly likely a big bag of disappointment, with plenty to go around.
But expect them instead to be the best they can be? Seems fair.
Disappointment is less likely.
Not that it’s any easier to get past.
I don’t need Derek Holland to put up Cy Young efforts every fifth day. But I wish he’d trust his stuff, and pitch like he’s the one in command.
I wish Nelson Cruz made better decisions on defense. So much ability.
I can live with it if Ian Kinsler doesn’t factor into the MVP debate. But I wish he’d get on top of the ball like he can, and unleash the jailbreak run tool more often, not only when he’s on base but also when he’s trying to get there. Ron Washington acknowledged that 2012 “just wasn’t an Ian Kinsler type year, offensively or defensively,” but he believes he will rebound in 2013. When Kinsler’s the best he can be, it sets an awesome tone.
I wish Michael Young would take the approach, now that he’s a singles hitter (career-low .370 slug and .682 OPS), there’s very little upside to swinging on 2-0.
I wish Alexi Ogando wasn’t already 29 and I wish Adrian Beltre was cloneable, but I don’t think those fit in this box.
I wish this team’s running game was still a weapon, and not a hazard.
I don’t need Ron Washington to be perfect with his bullpen tactics or his sentence structure, but I do wish he didn’t rest his veterans over the course of a season so weirdly. And while it’s fine with me if Wash says, minutes after the end of 2012 baseball, “We are winners, and I’m a winner,” I wish I had more confidence that his mind was open to changing how things can get done. Winners do that.
And I wish that Wash would recognize that putting young players in their place and focusing on the dues they haven’t yet paid won’t change his own playing career.
The things I wish when it comes to Josh Hamilton, the pieces of the expectation puzzle, the craving that he’d just go out there and be the best he can be, are too many to list.
* * *
I wanted to wait a few days to write because I didn’t want this entry to be about Hamilton, and in the achy aftermath of the final two weeks of the season I was having trouble blocking his performance out of my thoughts. I wanted this to be about the team, not just one player, and about this season, not just the way it ended.
But it’s sorta inextricable. You can argue that Hamilton’s peaks and valleys helped define the Rangers’ season, not only leaning on short-term memory but also pointing to the facts.
On May 16, Texas was 24-14, owning the American League’s best record and a five-game division lead. Hamilton was hitting a stupid .404/.458/.838.
From that point through August 6, the Rangers went a reasonably solid 39-31, but gained no ground in the West. Over that stretch, Hamilton hit .214/.283/.411.
From August 7 through September 17, Hamilton hit .304/.391/.667. The Rangers matched that early-season 24-14 run, and it’s a good thing they did, as the A’s leapfrogged the Angels and cut the Rangers’ lead in the West to three games.
Between the September 18 game in Anaheim that Hamilton pulled himself out of (due to what was first characterized as a sinus infection) and his final act of 2012, a feeble three-pitch strikeout as the potential tying run in the eighth inning against Baltimore, Hamilton hit .234/.280/.383.
Texas lost 11 out of 17 games in that stretch. One more win and the season would have lasted longer.
In a season in which he had exactly twice as many total bases (324) as strikeouts (162), over those final two weeks Hamilton fanned 20 times, many times with an air of practical inevitability, while picking up 18 total bases.
In the season’s first quarter and again toward the end, he was the potentially transcendent player drafted number one in the country as a teenager, but really he was even better than that.
In the middle of the schedule and the season’s finish, he was the frustrating enigma that Tampa Bay gave up on, the fragile talent that the Reds didn’t trust long-term, but the way things ended up it felt even worse.
Not sure which was more beyond belief.
Ultimately it was tough to separate Hamilton’s epic slide from what became one for the team he’d carried for stretches on his back.
And just as the ups and downs of his season get magnified – because that’s what happens with superstars – his effort last Friday make for an easy, microcosmic distortion of Baltimore 5, Texas 1.
First inning, after Baltimore had jumped out to a 1-0 lead four pitches in (Michael Young error, practically uncontested stolen base, ordinary ground ball single to center), the Texas offense jumped out of the gate showing more life than it had in what felt like weeks.
Ian Kinsler worked a six-pitch walk, which is what good Ian Kinsler does and what you’re supposed to do against Joe Saunders.
Elvis Andrus pushed Saunders to six pitches himself, shooting a single to left with Kinsler running on the pitch and taking third, reminding all of us what good Rangers offense looks like.
Two batters into the Rangers’ half of the first, Buck Showalter was getting rookie Steve Johnson loose in the bullpen.
In steps Hamilton, coming off a 2 for Oakland with six strikeouts in 13 at-bats, no walks, and The Dropped Pop-Up, with a chance to relegate Joe Saunders to Joe Saunders-dom, to take that short-lived momentum back from the Orioles, to erase the memory of the previous two weeks, to get the crowd into a win-or-go-home game.
There were a thousand reasons for Hamilton to make Saunders work.
First-pitch loopy curve, fully recognizable out of the hand and dipping low and away, and Hamilton lunge-slaps at it, rolling into an ultra-routine, bounding two-hop 4-6-3, probably the most deflating run-scoring play in Rangers history.
Next Hamilton at-bat, bottom of the third, two outs, game still tied at 1-1, with Andrus – after an eight-pitch at-bat that resulted in a single – on first base.
Same pitch: slow curve, low and away, swinging strike.
Same pitch again: slow curve, low and away, fouled off.
Ordinary fastball on the outer half: called strike three.
Third Hamilton at-bat, leading off the bottom of the sixth, after Baltimore had just manufactured a 2-1 lead in the top of the inning (single to right, single to right with the runner taking third, sacrifice fly).
The slow curve, of course, only this one pierces the zone, middle-middle. Hamilton flick-dribbles it to mound, ending the at-bat a split-second after it started and generating the loudest chorus of boos I’ve ever heard directed by a Rangers crowd toward a Rangers player.
Fourth at-bat, bottom of the eighth. Baltimore is now up, 3-1, and Texas has pinch-hitter David Murphy and then the top of the lineup set to hit. Murphy grounds out. Kinsler singles to short, moves to second on an errant Darren O’Day pickoff throw. Andrus grounds out to short.
And up comes Hamilton, the potential tying run. An opportunity to turn dropped pop-ups and bad at-bats and smokeless tobacco withdrawals and Kimmel and movie rights and Red Bull overload into cuddly footnotes to be revisited when it became time to transition the story to the off-season contract dance.
In from the bullpen strides lefthander Brian Matusz, against whom Hamilton has been more futile than against any other pitcher in the big leagues (0 for 10 with six strikeouts and one walk before Friday). Restless, nervous energy in the crowd, begging for a redemption moment.
Fastball, 92, outer half, strike one called.
Fastball, 92, inner half, strike two swinging.
Fastball, 93, outer half, strikeout swinging.
Nothing fancy. Inning over. An even heavier boo storm, and an arm-in-arm walk with Kinsler across the infield, away from the plate.
Eight pitches, eight strikes. Four at-bats, five outs.
And the only ball Hamilton managed to get past the pitcher went for a super-deflating double play, on the first pitch he’d seen in two days – and the first Saunders pitch he’d seen in more than two years and two months.
What was he thinking?
He wasn’t, he’d probably admit.
* * *
It’s wrong to blame 2012 on Josh Hamilton. Without him, Texas would have never had a 163rd game to play. He’s the most extraordinary player in baseball when he’s locked in, and there were a couple long stretches this year when he was seeing the game in slow motion and making the field smaller in every phase. He was the best baseball player in the world.
He was the best for long enough stretches to end up – even though he “took June and July off” (his own quip) – with 43 home runs (easily a career high), 128 RBI, and a .285/.354/.577 slash.
But every one of us is weighed down right now by the sense, even if he’s not as great a player as the April and early May version, and not as big a mess as he was in June and July, that, all told, he simply wasn’t the best he can be.
Pitchers threw Hamilton fewer pitches in the strike zone in 2012 than any other hitter in baseball, and it wasn’t close – 34 percent of the pitches Hamilton saw were in the strike zone; the next 57 hitters in the rankings saw between 38.6 percent and 43.2 percent. Stated another way, the difference between Hamilton and the number two hitter on that list (Bryce Harper) was the same as the difference between Harper and number 58 (Adam Jones).
The plan to stay away from Hamilton was textbook, as Hamilton also swung in 2012 at more pitches outside the strike zone (45.4 percent) than anyone in the game. Only Delmon Young (58.9 percent) swung more frequently at all pitches thrown than Hamilton (58.9 percent).
Hamilton also had the lowest contact rate of any big league hitter in 2012 (64.7 percent of pitches swung at).
He made far more contact in 2010 (75.1 percent) and 2011 (74.6 percent).
So what happened this year? Maybe the remarkable part is those 43 bombs and good-looking .285/.354/.577 slash line, considering the hideous plate discipline numbers, but still – why was he the worst in baseball at laying off bad pitches, and at making contact with them?
It wasn’t the weight of his expiring contract and that situation, he insisted over and over. (But, as he was quick to point out in February after a publicized sobriety slip, he “can be very deceptive, very sneaky in a lot of ways.”)
He wasn’t the best he can be, maybe in part because he seemed to lose his focus (in more ways than one), to the point at which his aloof nature, a quirky aspect of his character off the field, began to typify his play. Once viewed as a player who played the game too recklessly, too hard for his own good, he finished 2012 appearing detached, checked out, embodying the club’s impossible collapse, his unique toolbox frozen up through critical moments when he wasn’t laughing at the opposing catcher’s ninth-inning jokes in what was then the season’s biggest game.
If he’d hit .285 every month, if he’d spread those 43 home runs and 128 RBI out evenly, nobody would complain. But the timing of Hamilton’s final funk is what fans will take into the winter, and probably remember if he does leave for another uniform. That, and the four-homer game in Baltimore on May 8 that lifted his numbers to a .406/.458/.840 slash line that wasn’t done climbing. That time when he was absolutely transcendent, you know, before he wasn’t.
“Josh.” Verb. To tease.
In what is a relatively thin free agent market, there will probably be teams prepared to overpay for the good stuff, ignoring the brittle body and the drama and the high maintenance and the questions about approach, if not commitment, and “It’s me we’re talking about here. Guys, it’s me. It’s Josh. It’s going to be something weird.”
His body compromised by the abuse he put it through before ever getting to Texas, Hamilton has dealt as a big leaguer with a right foot bruise, soreness and inflammation in both knees, strains of both hamstrings and a groin muscle, a pinched nerve in the lower back, an abdominal muscle tear, an intestinal virus, cracked ribs and bruised ribs and a rib cage strain, a right shoulder fracture, an unrelated shoulder bruise (with muscle spasms near his neck), a right wrist sprain, a right hand bruise, pneumonia, a viral infection, an abscessed tooth, dizziness, blue-eye sensitivity, sinus issues, and caffeine-induced ocular keratitis.
And an in-season effort to quit smokeless tobacco that some blame for the titanic slump that spanned June and July.
Those are the things we know about.
What’s next? What will the organization that pays Hamilton’s next contract get from him physically as he moves into his mid-30s? There’s no accountability partner to protect against those kinds of risks.
They can’t all be Adrian Beltre, playing through injuries that hurt to type, but with a team built on accountability, the preeminent player has to be more dependable than Josh Hamilton, doesn’t he? Especially at the cost in dollars and years that he’s about to get at age 31?
According to Randy Galloway, a Rangers official said a few days ago that Texas won’t bring Hamilton back “even if he wants to play here for free next season.”
I’d be surprised if that were the consensus sentiment upstairs, but the team has said it doesn’t plan to make a preemptive contract offer to Hamilton before he can test the open market next month. And Hamilton said he will give the Rangers a chance to match whatever offers come his way.
(Sort of. He also said God will lead him to the right place and tell him where to play. So I’m not sure what that means, unless the point is that God will tell Texas whether to match. When ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon asked for a little clarification on that point, Hamilton’s response was: “I just heard ‘wah wah wah, wah wah wah.’” OK.)
But the question is how far Texas will be willing to go, when other teams – even with the red flags and the fear of the unknown – will likely cross whatever line the Rangers have drawn internally on what they’d be willing to reinvest in him.
They wouldn’t cross that line to re-sign Cliff Lee. And then signed Beltre instead.
They wouldn’t cross it to re-sign C.J. Wilson. And then invested instead in Yu Darvish.
Some will point out that the Angels signed Albert Pujols away from the Cardinals and yet they sit at home while St. Louis plays on. That’s not a reason in itself to let Hamilton walk away, but it’s something to think about.
And the idea that you need to find a way to replace 43 home runs and 128 RBI misses a key point: Josh Hamilton is likely not going to go 43/128 next year, and the chances that he’ll do it each season beyond that just get slimmer.
Who will step up on Hamilton? Anybody’s guess. Milwaukee seems like a logical fit to me, maybe Atlanta, maybe San Francisco. But there will be a whole lot of clubs who will have meetings between baseball and business this month and next, evaluating what he could mean on the field and to the marketing department.
Meanwhile, if he does move on, the Rangers will simply reload, maybe changing the way they try to win more so than making an effort to replace one bat. This won’t be Roy Tarpley bringing a franchise down. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan recognizes the ability Texas has to move forward, with or without Hamilton: “They’ve got the goods for it: the money, the prospects, the front-office brains, the air of success.”
And, I think, the restraint.
* * *
“I don’t know the right way to describe it,” said David Murphy, one of the players who came out to take media questions after Friday night’s loss. “At some point, we just ran out of gas. We stopped playing like the Rangers.”
A pretty apt way to describe it, I’d say.
“We were tired,” said Elvis Andrus on a radio talk show Wednesday. “Real tired. Mentally and physically.”
We can all agree that the window’s not anywhere near closing for this franchise, but it’s closing for some of the core players, and maybe there was some self-inflicted pressure among that group to win while it was still together. To win it this time, and not be That Team. Maybe that took a mental toll.
As for the physical toll, Wash admitted at Tuesday’s end-of-season press conference: “If there was something I could have done differently, I could have looked at not having all my regulars play as many games as they played. I think if I could have changed that and gotten them some opportunities to get more rest, then be much fresher as we went down the stretch, it could have been a difference.
“I question myself for that,” he added. “No matter what you do in this game, there’s always something new that you learn. That’s something I’m going to apply going into next year and see where it goes.”
Self-awareness is good.
“My everyday guys, I rode them,” Wash said.
“Maybe I played them in the ground.”
We’ve talked about the historically significant workload that Washington put on his everyday players in 2012. But it goes beyond that, of course, because that core played an extra month of baseball in 2011, too, after playing an extra month of baseball in 2010.
And they weren’t ordinary extra months.
And not even ordinary extra playoff months.
In 2010 and 2011, the Rangers played 33 of a possible 38 games in the post-season. Six series, five total games short of maxing them out. It was an extraordinary grind, one that it appeared finally caught up to the club down the stretch this year, when everything was on the line.
Counting the post-season, nobody in baseball played in more games than Michael Young from 2010 through 2012. He played 506 times, well ahead of Prince Fielder’s 498. Andrus was fourth with 490.
Adrian Beltre (452) and Ian Kinsler (449) were well down the list, in the 30s, but there’s an obvious explanation, and perhaps an instructive one.
In 2011, Beltre was on the DL for 37 games.
In 2010, Kinsler spent 54 games – a third of the season – on the disabled list, with ankle and groin injuries. That was after missing six weeks in 2006 (thumb). A month in 2007 (foot). The final six weeks in 2008 (sports hernia). Two weeks in 2009 (hamstring).
But he missed no time due to injury in 2011 and 2012 – and also had that extra month of play at the end.
Nelson Cruz missed 80 games those two seasons due to DL stints.
In 2012, Texas was riddled with pitching injuries. Nine pitchers were dropped at some point onto the DL, at a total cost of 377 games.
But the only position players with DL time were Mike Napoli (33 games) and Mitch Moreland (31 games).
The Rangers made it through 2011 with a remarkably healthy pitching staff, but things evened out this year, and all you have to do is look at the number five slot in the rotation (brutal over the final month and a half, and in actuality featuring numbers six, 10, and 11) and the bullpen, which limped to the finish line, to see how the rash of pitching injuries killed this team in 2012.
The lack of injuries on the offense may have been a killer, too.
Kinsler had his worst season yet, Young his worst in 10 years, Cruz his worst as a big league regular.
That’s the case whether or not you buy that they were gassed.
There were also those strange tactical decisions to rest multiple starters in mid-May games, including some who were riding scorching-hot streaks at the plate, but it was the lack of overall rest that sticks out. Kinsler played a career-high regular season workload, outdistancing the career-high workload he’d played in 2011. Same with Andrus. So did Cruz, by a ton. David Murphy set a career high, too. Beltre hadn’t played that many games – even including post-season – since he was 27, six years ago.
I suppose Wash figured he’d have a week or so at the end of the regular season to get his key guys off the field, rested for the playoffs. Didn’t work out that way. The club basically needed to win every day over the final week – “four one-game playoffs” at the end, as Jim Sundberg described it – and by then it was too late to recharge the lineup.
Much has been made, of course, of the lifeless sweep at the hands of the A’s to finish 162, of the home series loss against the Angels that preceded it, and even the series split when Oakland visited Arlington before that. But it was the September 21-23 series in Seattle that Wash pinpointed several times last week as a turning point.
In the first Seattle game, Martin Perez put Texas in a hole before Scott Feldman came in and fired three innings of brilliant relief, but outside of Murphy the offense couldn’t get anything done, and when Miguel Olivo took Alexi Ogando deep in the eighth with a man on, boosting Seattle’s lead to 6-3, the game felt helplessly out of reach.
The following night, Harrison was outstanding, going the distance and holding the Mariners to one run, but a night after going 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, Texas went 0 for 8 in those situations against Blake Beavan, Josh Kinney, and Tom Wilhelmsen, and in a game that was a pitch away from turning around the entire night, the Rangers offense over-bunted, ran into outs, grounded into double plays, popped out a lot, and had one of those innings – two men on, no outs, top of the lineup coming up – that failed to turn into anything, a sight that would become far too familiar the rest of the way.
Wash harped last week on the failure to execute in Seattle, and lamented that the club “just couldn’t get back on track after that.” It was in that context that he acknowledged that he might have run his regulars in the ground.
The comparisons to the 2006-07 Mavericks have made the rounds. Dallas had lost the 2006 NBA Finals in epic fashion, but busted out the league’s best record the next season, only to fall meekly in the first round of the playoffs to the underdog Warriors, an outmanned Bay Area team that outplayed, out-swaggered, and out-energied the Mavs. Critics blamed Avery Johnson for riding his players too hard down the stretch, effectively emptying the tank.
Johnson denied the charges.
He admits that maybe he wasn’t the best he can be.
* * *
As the Rangers were coughing things up in Oakland last week, I started thinking back on the first 16 games that the two teams had played this year and split. Could Texas have won any of the eight losses, which might have changed everything?
May 17, at home. Tie game in the ninth, 4-4. Michael Young reaches second base on an error by third baseman Josh Donaldson. Adrian Beltre rolls out to first, but it pushes the walkoff run to third. David Murphy is intentionally walked, giving Nelson Cruz a chance to end the game with a fly ball off A’s reliever Ryan Cook.
Next up was Mike Napoli, and Bob Melvin put him on to load the bases, leaving things up to Brandon Snyder, who had pinch-hit for Mitch Moreland in the seventh.
Snyder grounded out to first.
The A’s then scored on three singles in the 10th, and held on for the 5-4 win.
Then there was July 18, in Oakland. Texas scored twice in the sixth to take a 3-1 lead. But Robbie Ross and Alexi Ogando coughed it up in the seventh, and journeyman Brandon Hicks hit his first big league home run on a 1-1 Michael Kirkman pitch to lead off the ninth and end the game.
And then just a week before the season-ending series, on September 25 in Arlington.
Texas had won the night before, extending its lead over the A’s to five games with nine to play. Down by two runs in the seventh, Beltre homered to tie the game in the seventh, and then singled to center with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth. It was the first walkoff hit of his career and felt, at the time, like it might have been the killshot on Oakland’s storybook season.
But then there was the 25th. The brutal 25th.
Feldman got the start, and retired Oakland quietly in the first. Groundout to first, strikeout swinging, pop fly to second.
Texas came out working A’s starter Tommy Milone. Kinsler singled to left on pitch number five. Andrus, eschewing the bunt, singled to right on pitch number four. Hamilton worked the count full, and singled to right, and when the ball got under right fielder Brandon Moss’s glove, Hamilton tore to third and looked like he might have had enough juice to score ahead of the throw coming back into the infield. But with nobody out, holding Hamilton at third was the safe and proper call.
Then Beltre popped out to first. Cruz grounded out to the catcher. And Michael Young struck out swinging.
It didn’t seem all that ominous at the time.
But the offense wouldn’t score again, and Oakland clawed back and won the game, 3-2, culminating with a George Kottaras blast off Mark Lowe to lead off the 10th.
Win one of those games, and the Rangers avoid the Wild Card game and head to Detroit, where they won three of four in 2012, facing a team they beat seven of 10 times overall.
But that road series was in April, and the home series against the Tigers were in June and August, and the September and October Rangers were not the same. I’m not sure Texas, with a stagnant offense that had become too easy to game-plan, was going to beat anybody in the first round of the playoffs, whether it was a one-game duel or a best-of-five.
I’ve seen a bunch of emails and tweets from fans suggesting this club wasn’t as hungry in 2012, having won back-to-back pennants. That’s crazy. I believe without hesitation that the Rangers were plenty hungry.
But maybe the hunger got swallowed by the rest.
* * *
In 2010, Texas attempted 101 stolen bases in the first half, 70 in the second half. A 31 percent dropoff.
In 2011, the club’s attempts went from 111 in the first half to 77 in the second half. Again, 31 percent down.
But in 2012, whether it was the league figuring out the Rangers’ tendencies or the club getting sloppy on the bases, both of which Washington cited last week, Texas ran less often this season, and a lot less late in the year. There were only 91 attempts in the first half – and just 44 in the second half, a 52 percent drop.
Fewer attempts in the second half isn’t unusual. Across the league those two years, there was a 15 percent decrease. But nothing as extreme as the Rangers’ dropoff.
Still, the more interesting data shows up in the success rates. While stolen base efficiency remained fairly steady across the league (in 2010, baserunners succeeded 73 percent of the time in the first half, and 75 percent in the second half; in 2011, the rate jumped from 72 percent in the first half to 73 percent in the second half; in 2012, it increased from 74 percent to 76 percent), check out what happened in Texas.
In 2010, Rangers baserunners were successful 70 percent of the time in the first half, and 74 percent of the time in the second half.
In 2011, the Rangers succeeded on 79 percent of their first-half attempts, dropping to 71 percent in the second half.
In 2012: 71 percent in the first half, 59 percent in the second half.
That includes pickoffs, of course, and the only two players in the American League to get caught wandering off more than four times in 2012 were Kinsler (6) and Andrus (5).
Not only did the Rangers run drastically less often late in 2012 – they were exponentially less effective when they tried. They ran less, they ran worse, and as a result the offense seemed to rely more on the big hit than it did the past couple years.
Too often those hits didn’t come. And I’m too bummed about that part of 2012 to dig on the numbers.
* * *
O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven.
The Rangers led the Major Leagues in runs scored in 2012 and were second in OPS, but there were times when it felt like you or I could have advance-scouted the Texas offense. Flailing at pitches outside the zone against pitchers struggling with command. Striking out or rolling over to third, when a ground ball anywhere else or a medium-range fly ball would get a run in. Stacks of bad at-bats.
The switch never flipped back on.
Even the lone run Texas scored in its final game of the year came on a double play ground ball.
Nothing came easy. It seemed like the most laborious 93-win season imaginable.
I don’t want to talk about the offense any more.
* * *
I’d rather talk about Jorge Alfaro, who I contend won’t show up among the top five Rangers prospects when the industry rankings come out this winter but who might very well be number one in at least 10 organizations.
The 19-year-old catcher was the most electrifying player I saw at Fall Instructs last week, which is not to diminish the experience of watching the Brinson-Guzman-Gallo-Beras-Mazara batting practice group, a quintet of 6’5”-ish teenagers dripping with tools and giving a system previously light on middle-of-the-order potential plenty to dream on.
But this isn’t the time to talk about those six or C.J. Edwards or Keone Kela or the other players I went to Arizona to see last week while Texas played its final four regular season games, a quick trip that I’d planned at a time when I figured the Rangers might have already wrapped things up, leaving those days to get the pitching staff in order and the lineup some rest. The same trap Ron Washington fell into.
The Rangers are years away from introducing Alfaro and Brinson to the middle of the field in Arlington and from deciding how Luis Sardinas fits, but those players and more than another dozen who just wrapped a season-ending month in Surprise are going to help keep this window open, some as Rangers, others as trade chips.
“We’ve had a heck of a four-year run here, making the playoffs the last three years,” Jon Daniels said last week, but not with any sense of closure, or gloom. “We’ve had close to 300 wins over that period, counting the post-season. A ton of firsts, a ton of accomplishments, a lot of things we’re very proud of. That doesn’t take away from the sting of how it finished, but that’s the reality.
“We’ve got something here we’re extremely proud of,” Daniels added, “and we’ll continue to build off that. We want to turn this four-year run into a 10-year run, a 15-year run, a 20-year run and create that standard long-term.”
The Atlanta blueprint.
“I think we owe our ownership that. I think we owe our fans that.”
Baseball’s never been better around here than it has been the last few years. Never even close. Can’t lose sight of that.
The window isn’t closing on the Rangers but it is on some of its players. Things are going to change this winter. Maybe Josh Hamilton leaves. Maybe Mike Napoli and Mike Adams and Koji Uehara are gone. Maybe Texas trades Elvis Andrus, Martin Perez, Leonys Martin, and Cody Buckel to Tampa Bay to get David Price and Elliot Johnson (and the Rays flip Andrus a year later for three blue-chip prospects, turning shortstop over to Hak-Ju Lee). Maybe Derek Holland ends up in Boston and Jacoby Ellsbury ends up in Texas.
Maybe Ian Kinsler is in left field. Or in right field. Or in Toronto.
I’ll write about that stuff another time. I have lots to say. Just not now.
This Rangers core – the best it’s ever had, by a ton – didn’t win a World Series, and won’t, at least not in its present form. I’m going to miss this team, in this form, which provided so many awesome memories even though it fell one strike short of flying that most elusive flag.
But that’s the cycle. The cycle hurts.
Ignore the realities of the cycle, and you get old together and become an expensive disappointment. Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan and this hungry ownership group aren’t going to let that happen. The big window is staying open.
That part doesn’t hurt. That part deserves a slow clap.
But the dull ache persists. It’s been more than a week, and it doesn’t feel much better. I watched no playoff baseball until a handful of innings Thursday and Friday, when the two teams that kept Texas from going further this year (Oakland and Baltimore) both lost ALDS Game Fives and went home, leaving standing the two clubs (New York and Detroit) that the Rangers disposed of in the last two ALCS’s to get to the World Series. Surviving in the National League are the two clubs (San Francisco and St. Louis) who beat Texas in those two World Series, and I don’t even want to talk about the experience of watching the Cardinals claw back Friday night and, one strike away from elimination and then a play unmade away after that, win the series against Washington.
Texas screwed up the final two weeks of the season, spitting up the opportunity they’d earned over the first five-and-a-half months to at least see things play out in a tournament best-of-five. Daniels summed up the truth in the season-ending presser:
“We had a very good year. We had a bad finish.”
And while those final 13 games in the division were awful, Texas still had a chance to nullify that awfulness by taking care of Baltimore at home and moving on, and couldn’t. I think the moment from the 2012 collapse that might stick with me the longest is the mind-boggling decision to lift Yu Darvish in the seventh inning of that final game.
Darvish, coming off eight straight quality starts (6-2, 2.35, .176/.235/.266 slash) in which he’d averaged 108 pitches, had thrown only 91 on the night, and there was nothing to save him for. He hadn’t issued a walk – for the first time in his 30 Major League starts. He was commanding everything, from low-to-mid-90s fastballs to biting cutters to wipeout sliders to those mesmerizing 64-mph curves. He was on the wrong side of a 2-1 score at the time, but showing no signs of tiring. There were two outs and a man on second, with Nate McLouth coming up.
McLouth, who at age 30 had spent a third of the season in AAA, the other two-thirds hitting .241/.314/.380 between Pittsburgh (which released him at the end of May) and Baltimore.
McLouth, who had never seen Darvish before that night and had gone 0 for 3 in the game, failing to get a ball out of the infield. He’d grounded into the Michael Young error to lead off the game, popped out to the catcher, and grounded out to first. He’d done nothing against Darvish.
Washington took the ball out of Darvish’s hands and entrusted it to a weary, decimated bullpen.
My eight-year-old asked why Darvish was coming out of the game.
I had no answer.
After the game Washington said he made the pitching change because he wanted the lefty-lefty matchup of Derek Holland against McLouth.
Holland, who had been hammered in his last three outings (8.03 ERA, 19 hits and six walks in 12.1 innings, .333/.397/.614 slash), was working on one day of rest, and had pitched in relief only twice all year – including that effort in Oakland two days beforehand, when he went 2.2 innings and allowed six of 14 batters to reach base, permitting the two runners he inherited to score and three more of his own to cross the plate.
Darvish isn’t Justin Verlander or C.C. Sabathia, but he shouldn’t have been pulled from that game because of any matchup, not when he had plenty left in the tank and the pen wasn’t in ideal order and he was, unquestionably, the best pitcher on the Texas Rangers staff. How anyone could have wanted the ball in the hand any of the club’s 11 pitchers other than Yu Darvish right there is something I doubt I’ll ever understand.
Things went downhill right away, plummeted further two innings later, and minutes after Jurickson Profar provided the final positive moment of the season – shooting a 95-mph Jim Johnson fastball the opposite way to load the bases with two outs and bring Murphy up as the potential tying run – we walked out of the park bracing against the first chill of the season, getting to the car and driving away from the Ballpark just in time to hear Eric Nadel deliver that sign-off I always dread:
“Until next year – so long everybody.”
And this time, it will be so long. Spring training is a few weeks further away from the end of the Rangers’ 2012 season than it should have been.
* * *
The last two years, the final report I wrote for the season followed the last baseball game played, by Texas or anyone else. This year there’s still ball being played, and that blows.
I didn’t even get the chance this year to learn a new TBS post-season theme song and get tired of it.
If I choose to tune into more than an inning here or there the next couple weeks, I’ll have to watch Nick Swisher play baseball, and Jose Valverde, and David Freese, and Brian Wilson’s teammates, and considering the role that the Yankees and Tigers and Cardinals and Giants played in the Rangers’ last two post-seasons, that’s probably going to be more irritating than therapeutic. It still feels like this report was supposed to happen in November.
One of my baseball leaders said to me a few days ago: “We need to review this. Assess it. Learn from it. And then forget about it and move on.”
And it helps when I think about how good this team has been the last four years, and how good it should be the next four, and more.
The Texas Rangers have almost always had a stack of great players. Now they have a great team.
But baseball is hard. Things don’t always work out, and really they almost always don’t. It hurts each year no matter how it ends, or when.
The worst part about this one, aside from the sadness of the reality that this core group is on the verge of breaking up at least a little bit, which is balanced some by the adrenaline of knowing that this baseball operations crew and the wicked-great ownership group that backs it are going to relentlessly hunt down ways to get better, is that there are so many key examples on the 2012 Texas Rangers of guys that, for one reason or another, simply weren’t the best they can be.
When this organization is the best it can be, there’s nobody better, and everyone else can just bring it.
I’ll take the 2012 Rangers over 38 of the 40 Rangers clubs that preceded it, because sports pain beats the tar out of sports irrelevance, because of Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar and Jorge Alfaro, and also because there’s a reload around the corner – not a rebuild – and Texas proved for much of this year that it’s capable of being the team to beat for the fourth straight season in 2013.
End of chapter.
End of book.
But not end of story.