October 2012

Spike.

My first year to come to Fall Instructional League in Surprise was 2007.  The Rangers had added so much high-end talent that summer — through the trades of Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton, a draft that included five first-round picks, and an impressive July 2 international class — that the opportunity to see so many key new players in one place for a few days was one I felt like I had to take advantage of.
Among position players, there were trade acquisitions like Elvis Andrus, Engel Beltre, and Max Ramirez and draftees like Julio Borbon and Mitch Moreland, but the real strength of that fall’s group was on the mound, where the pitchers who’d joined the system since spring training included Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter, Blake Beavan, Neil Ramirez, Michael Main, Beau Jones, Evan Reed, and a 16-year-old kid from Venezuela coming stateside for the first time, named Martin Perez.
It seems so long ago, because even back then there was a buzz about Perez, and his stuff and his makeup and his competitiveness and his potential for Johan Santana-dom.
I would see Perez at Fall Instructs in 2008, too, and again in 2009, and in 2010 as well.
It’s sort of shocking that he’s still only 21.
Perez is a tremendous pitching prospect, one who’s consistently been among the youngest at whatever level he’s pitched and flashing (inconsistent) streaks of success.
But even the best young players hit potholes.  Sometimes you win.  Sometimes you lose.  Sometimes you balk.
I saw something Monday afternoon that, while unrelated to the Rangers’ present push to put itself in the best possible playoff position, served as a reminder that, in baseball, you can’t just roll the balls out there and count on a certain result.
The Rangers’ FIL squad traveled to Glendale yesterday to face the White Sox.  A team of prospects from a top five farm system against a team of prospects from a bottom five farm system.
This was the Rangers’ lineup:
CF  Lewis Brinson
SS  Luis Sardinas
RF  Nomar Mazara
C  Jorge Alfaro
3B  Joey Gallo
1B  Ronald Guzman
LF  Jairo Beras
DH  Nick Williams
2B  Luis Marte
I mean, c’mon.
Chances are none of those players will be ranked among the Rangers’ top three prospects this winter.  And yet I would submit that at least seven of them would be Chicago’s number one prospect right now.
Surely I was about to witness a hide-tanning.
Right?
White Sox pitchers Todd Kibby and Yelmison Peralta, the first of whom is a 21-year-old drafted in the 37th round in 2011 who spent his first two pro seasons in the short-season Appalachian League, the other the owner of a 0-5, 7.26 record in the Dominican Summer League this year, were perfect through three innings.
Facing that vaunted Rangers nine in those three spotless frames, Kibby and Peralta struck seven of them out.
And though Brinson and Sardinas singled to start the fourth, Mazara and Alfaro and Gallo proceeded to go down on strikes.
Twelve outs (14 at-bats), 10 strikeouts.
None of the Chicago prospects carried themselves as if they were part of one of baseball’s worst minor league systems, and I’m guessing few of them bothered thinking about the likelihood that if they were in the Texas system, many of them wouldn’t have been invited to Fall Instructs, or maybe even back for 2013.
For four innings at least, in front of a crowd of 100 (that large only because Scout School was in Glendale for the day), the White Sox were the Arizona Fall Instructional League mini-version of the playoff-bound Oakland A’s.  And the obscenely talented Brinson-Sardinas-Mazara-Alfaro-Gallo-Guzman-Beras-Williams-Marte assault team had as much chance against something called Todd Kibby and Yelmison Peralta as Michael Young, David Murphy, and Mike Napoli had against Grant Balfour 10 hours later.
Most of the guys in that FIL lineup will be fine, of course — Texas ended up winning the game — and while it’s silly to ever suggest that a sample of teenagers like that is going to produce more big leaguers than not, that’s a limb I’d have plenty of company on.  They just looked awful their first time and a half through the order, and that happens in baseball, the game of failure.
Martin Perez will be fine, too.  He bounced back after the brutal first.  While convenient, it’s hard to pin Oakland 4, Texas 3 all on him, especially being asked at age 21 to win a game that big in hostile territory against a team playing with extraordinary swagger and momentum.  He kept the team in the game.  The offense, once again, had almost no life.
I’m not sure it qualifies as irony, but the fact is that Napoli virtually ended the Angels’ season on Sunday with his six-RBI performance that ended with him squeezing a foul pop-up — and he ended the Los Angeles season once and for all last night when he swung through strike three, emptying the Oakland dugout and bullpen.
I have a handful of notes I was pumped to share about what happened in the Rangers-White Sox game — including a conclusion I’ve reached that one player in particular, who probably won’t show up on anyone’s off-season list of the Rangers’ top five prospects, would be number one in at least 10 other organizations — but I’ll dust those off another day.
At the moment, while the morning talk shows are 100 percent Cowboys, I woke up with the same thought in my head that I fell asleep with.
Yesterday I wrote, in the context of the Rangers choosing not to over-celebrate their playoff clincher Sunday night: “Hand the ball to the referee.  Act like you’ve been there.”
But now I’m thinking about that comment in a different context.
Two years ago, the Rangers clinched their first AL West title since the ’90s in O.co Coliseum (or whatever it’s called now, or then).  They have two chances to do that again, tonight or tomorrow, with Matt Harrison and Ryan Dempster getting the ball.
I hate this, and it’s overstating things a good bit, but this feels a little like going to St. Louis for two, needing to win just one.
As T.R. Sullivan pointed out this morning: “If the Rangers don’t win one of their next three games, their season is over.”
Yesterday: “Hand the ball to the referee.  Act like you’ve been there.”
Today?
Act like you haven’t been there, are urgently and relentlessly determined to get there, and spike the damn ball so hard that Grant Balfour has an entirely different reason to fire off a raging fusillade of F-bombs.

The hunger game.

Late last night, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Gil LeBreton tweeted: “Not sure The Ballpark in Arlington (its rightful name) has ever seen a day like Sunday.  Nearly 95,000 people saw two playoff type games.”
Those 95,000 paid brought the season total to a final, franchise-record-obliterating 3.46 million fans — over 500,000 more than last year’s record-setting number — but the other math is what stuns me.
Texas averaged 42,720 fans per game this season.
That includes Monday nights in May against the Royals.  The Twins during the week school started back up.  Games against Cleveland.
In a building capped at a little more than 48,000, nearly 43,000 Rangers fans came out to the Ballpark on average.  It was good for what will be baseball’s third-best attendance mark in 2012 (behind Philadelphia and the Yankees), and that’s awesome.
Yesterday’s 95,000 were put through an emotional wringer, as they saw Texas drop its sixth out of nine with a ninth-inning meltdown by the best closer in club history in Game One, and then, after an uncomfortable wait of almost three hours, watched the Angels plate four off of Derek Holland (strikeout-single-double-single-homer-double) before he’d recorded the second out of the game.
I probably won’t forget those two sequences, the first of which I heard just after landing in Arizona, boxed in alone inside a compact car in another state with nobody to hear me yelling things I wouldn’t want anyone to hear, the second in a far stranger setting: a Surprise sports bar packed with a hundred football fans watching the five late games on two dozen TV’s, one of which, next to the pool tables without a table or chair nearby, I asked to be flipped to a baseball game.  “No problem, no sound.”
Four very quick Los Angeles runs, viewed alone while leaning against a pool table in another state, where nobody could hear me yelling things that at that point I didn’t care if anyone could hear.
And then Derek Holland recorded 19 outs without another run coming across, during which time Texas put up 1-2-3-0-2-0 to do what 90 minutes earlier had seemed impossible.
But when Howie Kendrick, maybe the least fearsome hitter in the Angels’ lineup, hammered a seventh-inning Holland pitch with two outs, two on, and an 0-1 count, turning 8-4 into 8-7 with Los Angeles still having seven outs to play with, Ron Washington visited Holland for the second time in the game, this time taking the ball to hand it off to a beleaguered Rangers bullpen, decimated not only by injury but also a dose of high-leverage work several hours earlier.
Up to the task, Robbie Ross and Koji Uehara (good grief) and Joe Nathan fired 2.1 innings of near-perfect relief, throwing strike one a beautiful seven times out of eight, holding the Angels hitless and walking one.  When the crazy-hot Torii Hunter worked a six-pitch free pass off Nathan after Albert Pujols had popped out to start the ninth, given what had happened that afternoon, I can only imagine what that packed house was feeling compared to the discomfort I was fighting through in virtual isolation in a sports bar that had almost every TV locked in on Eagles-Giants.
Nathan wouldn’t throw another ball.
Mark Trumbo lineout to right, on 0-2.
Kendrys Morales foulout to catcher, on 0-1.
A very precarious foulout to catcher, and the way the day and week had gone, a collision between Mike Napoli and Mike Olt seemed as likely a result as Napoli squeezing the 27th out.
In retrospect, of course, I should have expected Napoli to haul in the game-ending out even if it had been hit to the fence in right center field.  What a beast.
Napoli homered twice and nearly three times in the space of four innings, driving in six runs on a night when the team needed every one of its eight, finishing the season as a .442/.567/.904 hitter (six home runs, 11 of 23 hits for extra bases, more walks [13] than strikeouts [12] in 67 plate appearances) against the team that had given up on him.
“Sometimes there’s going to be that hitter you don’t match up well against,” Mike Scioscia said after the game, before an unhappy flight.
I really wish he’d said “that hitter you don’t match up well with,” because that would have been double-meaning-fully awesome.
Napoli effectively clinched a playoff berth for three American League teams with his heroics, a fact that seems sorta silly on its surface, but then again not really.
The number nine hitter for the Angels, Chris Iannetta, drew a walk in Game One of Sunday’s twinbill (after falling behind in the count, 0-2) that may have been the key moment of that game.
He’s an Angel because that club needed to find a catcher this winter, having dumped Napoli the winter before.
Last night Napoli, the Rangers’ number eight hitter, ended Game Two with a catch halfway up the third base line, virtually ending the Angels’ season.
And he extended his own club’s season, which was surely going to happen at some point, but the fact that it happened at home, in front of the last 48,000 of those 3.46 million, was pretty cool.
“We had a light toast,” said Ron Washington afterwards, “and I congratulated them on what they accomplished to this point.”
Hand the ball to the referee.  Act like you’ve been there.
One win in Oakland these next three days, and Texas wins the West, avoiding the Wild Card play-in game.
I don’t want to think any more about what the Rangers, sending Martin Perez to the hill tonight with bullpen issues brought on by injuries and a day-night doubleheader, would need to do today, tomorrow, and Wednesday had they lost the game that they were losing 4-0 in the top of the first.
I don’t have to, because they didn’t.  And the Angels now have to root for Mike Napoli and the Texas Rangers for three days.
LeBreton offered up a second tweet late last night: “Rangers are a talented but tired team.  But when challenged in second game Sunday, they found their hunger again.”
Which reminds me, I think I can eat again now.
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