Roger Federer is a first-rate, kick-ass power-baseliner. It’s just that that’s not all he is. There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.
David Foster Wallace wrote that in 2006, in a 6,500-word piece called “Federer as religious experience” that he penned for The New York Times’ Play Magazine.
I can’t remember who recommended the article to me, but it was sometime in the last year or so, more than four years after Wallace took his own life. I’ve always been fascinated with Federer’s strangely un-superstar-like persona, and with Wallace’s ability to write, though I hadn’t paid as much attention as I’d have liked to either giant. Here was a two-birds’ chance to catch up a little bit.
I printed the article as soon as I found it, and put it in a spot on two different desks where I’d see it all the time and not forget to set some time aside for it. It sat for a long time, though, many months, crossing over at some point from something I couldn’t wait to get to, to something I couldn’t wait to get rid of.
A couple nights ago some friends invited my wife and me to play a little tennis, something I don’t think I’d done since before kids, since before the Rangers had played in a single playoff game, since before I was out of law school. But it sounded great.
It was a blast. I think I probably have some sort of addiction to sports muscle soreness, and I got a heavy dose Sunday night that ought to carry me all week.
I’m not sure when the last time was that I’d flipped on a tennis match, but I woke Monday morning and watched Nadal-Brands and then Berdych-Monfils while I got some work done.
And I finally grabbed the Wallace article.
And kept thinking it could have been written about Yu Darvish.
These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive (on TV) only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game — as a child, he was also a soccer prodigy. All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.
It’s a brilliant article by an exceptional writer, and it made me wish Wallace were alive, sharing his gift with us still. I know he was a big tennis guy and doubt he’d have invested himself that way on a baseball subject, but I bet he’d have been able to recognize that Darvish is different, to see the beauty and genius of his game.
I’m a huge fan of John Perrotto’s “Scouts’ Views” feature in his “On the Beat” series for Baseball Prospectus. A couple weeks ago he shared this comment on Darvish from an unidentified big league scout: “For me, he’s the best pitcher in the game now. I’ll know I’ll get my share of arguments, but he’s downright filthy and throws seven different pitches for strikes. He’s made the cultural adjustment, and he looks a lot more comfortable than last year. He was pretty good last year as a rookie, but he’s dominant now.”
In 11 starts this year, Darvish has only twice allowed more than a hit per inning (six in five innings once, seven in six innings another time, both Darvish victories). Only two times has he fanned fewer than a hitter per inning (six over eight frames in his 130-pitch win over Detroit a couple weeks ago, and five over six frames the next time out, a 1-0 loss to the A’s). Three times in 2013 he’s struck out 14 batters: His first start, when he was very nearly perfect against the Astros; on May 5, in just seven innings of a 4-3 walkoff win over Boston (his first no-decision of the season); and last night, his only other no-decision this year. Darvish is now 7-2. Texas is 8-3 when he gets the ball.
Roger Federer didn’t always win, either, even at his peak.
Perhaps because my brain is incapable of working in any other way, as I watched Rafa Nadal battle back to dispose of his opponent Monday morning, the mild physical resemblance to the similarly short and left-handed Martin Perez made me think about the afternoon game to come, Perez’s season debut at the front of the doubleheader in Arizona. Perez is never going to be the career force that Nadal has been, but the talent is there to be the best guy out there on a given day.
It wouldn’t happen for Perez yesterday.
Or for Darvish, who set 14 Diamondbacks down on strikes without issuing a single walk. The first-place Diamondbacks, owners of one of the best team OPS’s and one of the lowest strikeout rates in the National League. Arizona brandished some first-inning Darvish Kryptonite (his first-inning ERA this year is 9.00; it’s 1.99 in innings two through nine) and then got a shocking two-run bomb from rookie Didi Gregorius (the only D-Back starter not to strike out) in the eighth. Otherwise, Darvish was fantastic, as usual, but it wasn’t enough as Texas felt it had to rely on Jason Frasor in a ninth-inning spot when you’d rather have a more reliable reliever available.
One of the most depressing things about losing that game, maybe even more so than the fact that it sealed a doubleheader and series sweep for the other team and resulted in the Rangers’ first three-game skid of the year, at a time when the A’s and Angels are at their hottest, was that it came on the one day out of five that Darvish gets to pitch. Hate to waste those.
Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.
The other time that Darvish punched out 14 and walked none was in his season debut, when Marwin Gonzalez hit a fastball through the box to break up his perfect game with two outs in the ninth. It came on Darvish’s 111th pitch.
The fastball Gregorius hit over the fence last night in the eighth: Darvish’s 111th pitch.
And at that point, though the game was merely tied, the ultimate result felt inevitable, given the load the bullpen had carried in Sunday’s 13-inning game before the flight from Washington to Arizona for yesterday’s twinbill.
Brutal result, but that’s baseball.
Darvish will get his next chance this weekend at home, against Kansas City, before which Roger Federer will take on Somdev Devvarman in the second round at Roland Garros.
Maybe they’ll both lose, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The thing with Federer is that he’s Mozart and Metallica at the same time, and the harmony’s somehow exquisite.
I didn’t see Federer’s first-round match on Sunday, but I’m going to make an effort to catch this next one. He’s not what he was in 2006, but there’s still some Mozart and Metallica in him, and for all the similarities between him and Yu Darvish that I can’t stop thinking about, there’s that one big difference – that while Federer is arguably on the downside of an extraordinary, virtuoso career, the arrows are all pointing in one very different direction for Darvish, poised every fifth day to be delivered 100 times with an eel-like all-body snap, lithe and uneccentric, equal parts Mozart and Metallica, and though I missed most of Wallace’s career in real time and, frankly, Federer’s too, I take great comfort in knowing that I’m going to be right here for Darvish’s entire Texas Rangers career, experiencing every first-rate, kick-ass turn religiously.
It was Wednesday morning, October 26, 2005. The Rangers’ 28-year-old general manager had been on the job three weeks and had just offered this comment to Baseball America’s Alan Schwarz, who asked if there were any advantages to being a GM at such a young age: “Not just myself, I think that there is an energy level, a creativity, maybe a little bit of a . . . I don’t want to come across as cocky, because that’s not me, but maybe a little bit of a fearlessness as far as taking chances.”
Oh, man. Baseball adrenaline.
I got a phone call that Wednesday morning to drop everything. A buddy had four tickets to that night’s World Series Game Four in Houston, with the White Sox able to wrap up a sweep with a victory.
Maybe I’d have been on board even if I wasn’t baseball-rejuvenated at the time.
Or maybe, having never been to a World Series game – or even a playoff win – I’d have jumped on it no matter what.
It was a crazy-great ballgame. Starters Brandon Backe and Freddy Garcia were locked up in a scoreless battle through seven, giving way to pinch-hitters and bullpens at that point, and Chicago was a bit better in relief, holding the Astros scoreless as the Sox scratched out a run in the eighth and held on for the 1-0 win and a pile-on at the mound before a stunned, silent Houston crowd.
In that same Baseball America piece, Schwarz asked Daniels what the first order of the business was for his reshaping of the Rangers roster. Said Daniels: “Our bullpen is a focus. That was probably the biggest difference from the quality run we made in 2004 and this past year.”
In 2004, the club’s seven busiest relievers (Carlos Almanzar, Francisco Cordero, Ron Mahay, Doug Brocail, Frankie Francisco, Brian Shouse, and Erasmo Ramirez) posted a collective ERA of 3.12. But in 2005, Tommy John surgery wiped out Almanzar and Francisco’s seasons. Brocail and Shouse appeared more than anyone other than Cordero and were awful (5.41 ERA), and Mahay (6.81 ERA) pitched himself out of a defined role. Joaquin Benoit emerged as a bright spot in the pen, and so did Kameron Loe, but the club wanted to look at him as a starter.
Mahay and Shouse, while not overpowering, had given Texas an effective look out of the pen from the left side in 2004. The club had no such weapon in 2005. The White Sox did.
Neal Cotts was a key starting pitcher prospect in the Chicago system as soon as the White Sox acquired him from Oakland (where Grady Fuson had drafted him in 2001’s second round) in the 2002 deal centered around Keith Foulke and Billy Koch. He’d posted a 2.16 ERA in his first look at AA hitters in 2003, fanning 133 in 108.1 innings, and when Texas traded Carl Everett to Chicago that summer, the Rangers (whose Assistant GM by that time was Fuson) asked for Cotts but Chicago refused to put him on the list of eight that Texas was allowed to choose from (righthanders Frankie Francisco, Josh Rupe, Felix Diaz, Wyatt Allen, and Enemencio Pacheco, lefthander Corwin Malone, outfielder Anthony Webster, and second baseman Ruddy Yan).
At the time of the Everett trade, Baseball America called Cotts one of the 40 hottest prospects in the game – in an article written by current Rangers Director of Pro Scouting Josh Boyd.
Cotts got four late-season starts for the White Sox (two against Texas) and was brutal (12 runs on 15 hits and 17 walks in 13.1 innings), but he made the roster in 2004, pitching well in relief for six weeks before faltering, finishing the season with a 5.65 ERA despite passable peripherals.
Things fell into place for Cotts in 2005, as he held opponents to an anemic .179/.286/.241 slash line (even better against right-handed hitters than lefties) and posted a 1.94 ERA as a key part of what would be a stalwart relief corps for the last team standing. In that World Series sweep of the Astros, Cotts appeared in all four games, throwing 31 pitches (all to A.J. Pierzynski) over 2.1 scoreless innings and allowing only one hit (a Lance Berkman single) while punching out two.
He was never the same.
Truth be told, in looking back at the Illinois native’s seven big league seasons with the White Sox and Cubs, 2005 stands out as the outlier. In his other six seasons, his ERA was 5.46. He had half as many walks as innings pitched and was too homer-prone.
The seventh of those seasons (2009) lasted less than two months, as the lefthander needed mid-season Tommy John surgery.
Then, while rehabbing a year later, he needed surgery to repair a torn hip labrum.
And then three more hip operations to get rid of an infection that wouldn’t go away, wiping out not only his 2010 season but 2011 as well (after the Yankees took a look that spring and released him because they didn’t think he could pass a physical and didn’t want to be on the hook indefinitely for his medical, and the Phillies reportedly shied away for a similar reason). There was no real good reason to think Cotts wasn’t done.
As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports tells the story, Cotts’s agent Joe Bick approached Daniels before the 2012 season and asked if he’d be interested in a look at the then-31-year-old who hadn’t pitched since posting a 7.36 ERA three years and five operations earlier. Rangers pro scout Scot Engler, whom we discussed a couple days ago as the engine behind the Ross Wolf signing, had a history with Cotts and recommended that Texas kick the tires.
Said Bick to Daniels, according to Rosenthal: “I will tell you right now — there is no way in hell he can pass your physical because of his hip.”
Said Daniels to Bick: “I don’t care. If he’s good enough, we’ll find a way.”
Maybe a little bit of a fearlessness as far as taking chances.
Bick told Rosenthal that Cotts’s physical amounted to heart rate, blood pressure, let’s roll.
Texas gave Cotts a minor league deal – no surprise – but didn’t even extend an invite to big league camp, something that journeymen like Mitch Stetter and Sean Green and Greg Reynolds and Joe Beimel were able to land that spring.
A week into camp, Cotts was throwing so well on the back fields that Texas moved him over to big league camp, and before long fellow lefthanders Stetter and Beimel and Ben Snyder had fallen out of the competition for a final job on the Opening Day staff, with Cotts and Robbie Ross battling until the veteran strained a lat muscle with a week to go in camp.
He wouldn’t pitch again until June. And when he did, his velocity was down and he wasn’t very effective, and when Ross was placed on the disabled list at the end of August, Texas didn’t take the opportunity to add Cotts to the expanded roster in September.
Texas offered Cotts an opportunity to come back in 2013, again on a non-roster deal but this time with an official invite to big league camp. In October, I haphazardly predicted that he would make the Opening Day staff in April.
Camp didn’t go particularly well (16 hits in 7.1 innings, though he did fan 11), and Cotts put up less of a bid than longer-shot Nate Robertson for the left-handed relief job that Joseph Ortiz ultimately seized.
Assigned to the Round Rock bullpen, Cotts got ripped in his third appearance of the year, giving up three runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of the fifth inning against the Iowa Cubs, and – as recounted in detail by Express pitching coach Brad Holman in an excellent interview by Lone Star Dugout’s Jason Cole – Holman pulled Cotts aside and had him tweak one timing mechanism in his delivery. The results since then have been ridiculous.
In a dozen subsequent AAA appearances and then three this week with Texas, Cotts has thrown 23 innings, allowing zero runs on 12 hits and three walks, and setting 41 of 80 hitters down on strikes. His rate of 16.43 strikeouts per nine innings while with Round Rock leads AAA baseball.
After exactly half of those final 12 Express efforts (an April 29 win in which he faced those same Iowa Cubs – who had scored nine runs earlier in the game – and punched out six in three perfect innings), I texted a Rangers official:
“I take it Cotts doesn’t have an out?”
I asked because when veterans sign non-roster deals, they often negotiate in a specified date – often the 1st or 15th of a particular month, if during the season – on which they can opt to take instant free agency if not in the big leagues. I also asked because there’s no way Texas would have been able to prevent Cotts from exercising such an out if he had one and if the Rangers didn’t bring him to Arlington.
A couple weeks later, Nick Cafardo wrote in the Boston Globe, citing the freakishly strong roll the lefthander was on: “Cotts could be had, as the Rangers have a team policy that they will let go of players such as Cotts if they are unable to put them on the roster.”
Daniels told Rosenthal that three or four teams called him about Cotts after that note ran, wanting to give the 33-year-old a big league job. Daniels refused to discuss the reliever. He was about to give him a job here.
Texas purchased Cotts’s contract, something the club hoped for a year and a half it would be persuaded to do, on Tuesday. He pitched that night, getting Oakland’s John Jaso and Luke Montz to ground out and Yoenis Cespedes to strike out in the ninth inning, all in the space of six pitches in what would be a 1-0 loss.
He pitched again the next afternoon, relieving Wolf with Cespedes and Jaso on first and second with nobody out in the sixth inning of what was then an extremely precarious 3-1 Texas lead.
Brandon Moss, five-pitch strikeout.
Josh Donaldson, four-pitch strikeout.
Seth Smith, three-pitch strikeout.
Cotts then worked the seventh. After surrendering a leadoff double to Derek Norris, he got Eric Sogard to ground out to second, Adam Rosales to line out to second, and Coco Crisp to foul out to first, preserving that 3-1 lead that would stand up as Texas avoided getting swept at home.
Getting Thursday off with the rest of the team, Cotts was summoned again last night, relieving Justin Grimm in the seventh and inducing a comebacker before putting two on (walk, single), but then he got Kendrys Morales to fly out to end the inning and keep the Rangers’ lead at 9-3.
Whether Texas will have Cotts available tonight after last night’s 18 pitches is unknown, but he’s clearly one of Ron Washington’s go-to relievers at the moment, with a short-term track record as well as a long-term dues payment that the manager admittedly places a lot of importance on. At this point, if the Rangers decide to go back to just three lefthanders in the bullpen, Ross and Cotts – who battled a year ago for one spot – are almost surely the two whose jobs are most secure, with an Ortiz option or even a Michael Kirkman designation for assignment more likely right now.
My baseball adrenaline being what it is, and perhaps spoiled as I now am, I’m dying for this club to get back to a World Series. I’ve now been in the stands for two season-ending pile-on’s, one that I had no real emotional investment in and one that sucked, and I’m craving another.
And my vision of what that will look like has Neal Cotts showing little regard for a hip issue that almost cost him a career and heaping himself on top, just like he did eight years ago as I froze my tail off in Houston, Texas, watching a baseball season end and imagining what that would look like as my own team’s new General Manager was setting a long-term course built on scouting, player development, and maybe a little bit of fearlessness as far as taking chances is concerned.
This is not a slide puzzle, or part of Mike Olt’s latest battery of vision testing.
Those, on top, are the 24 Rangers pitchers who reported to big league camp in February as members of the 40-man roster. Among them were Jeff Beliveau and Roman Mendez and Justin Miller and Matt West and Rule 5 pick Coty Woods.
On bottom are the 14 pitchers who were invited to big league camp even though not on the roster.
That group included big leaguers who couldn’t find roster jobs but were given a chance by Texas to win a job (Derek Lowe, Neal Cotts, Kyle McClellan, Yoshinori Tateyama, Randy Wells, Evan Meek, Collin Balester), longshot journeymen (Nate Robertson, Yonata Ortega), minor leaguers off the roster that the club wanted to see against big league hitters (Nick Tepesch, Cody Buckel, Jake Brigham, Johan Yan), and Ben Rowen, a minor leaguer who started camp on the back fields but forced his own look late in March.
Texas ran 38 pitchers through big league camp, looking not only for the 12 to go to battle with out of the gate but also another five or 10, or maybe 15, it would likely take to get through the season.
Ross Wolf: Not in the picture.
Now, to be fair, the 30-year-old, though not in big league camp, was one of the 43 pitchers who appeared in a spring training game for the Rangers. Teams bring “just in case” arms to every exhibition game so that when a scheduled pitcher can’t get out of a prescribed inning it doesn’t disrupt the plans for when the other scheduled pitchers will pitch.
Sometimes those are prospects a year or two or more away rewarded with the opportunity (Jerad Eickhoff, Jimmy Reyes, Victor Payano).
Sometimes they’re Ross Wolf, and even the hardest-core of you might decide when Ross Wolf takes the ball against the Padres in an ugly seventh inning in early March that it’s a decent time to go buy some Dippin’ Dots, or a Rangers hoodie.
Wolf did get into four spring training games, and completed 2.1 total innings that Texas didn’t have to stretch someone else out to take care of. In those 2.1 innings, opposing hitters, some of whom were late-inning journeymen, if not just-in-case players themselves, hit .417, with five base hits and two walks. Two of the hits cleared a fence, in fair ground.
If you asked 100 diligent Rangers fans in late March which was more likely – that Wolf would be released before camp broke, or that he would start a game in Arlington in May – the percentage choosing the latter would surely have been lower than the percentage of empty boxes in the graphic above.
I wrote the other day about Texas officials squinting their eyes and seeing a starting pitcher this spring in Josh Lindblom, in spite of the fact that he hadn’t started so much as a minor league game since May 2010.
Wolf’s last start was in 2005. He made one start that year, in mid-May, in Class AA for the Marlins, and lasted three innings.
Before that, Wolf’s last start came in 2002, the summer in which Florida drafted him in the 18th round out of Wabash Valley College.
The Marlins were still called “Florida” then. The year before that, the Nationals were still the Montreal Expos, who drafted Wolf in the 47th round out of Newton High School in Wheeler, Illinois, but didn’t sign him.
After his 11 starts (4.66 ERA) in that 2002 season, in the following decade Wolf made the one May 2005 start and 483 relief appearances.
Fourteen of those 483 games pitched in relief were out of Florida’s big league bullpen in August and September of 2007 (11.68 ERA).
Another 11 came in the second half of the 2010 season, when he posted a 4.26 ERA for Oakland. Texas saw him three times, putting five runs on his ledger over 3.1 innings – and that doesn’t count the three of four inherited baserunners who also scored.
Wolf’s stint with the A’s came after seven years with the Marlins and a year and a half with the Orioles. The Oakland experiment lasted a few months, after which Wolf signed with the Astros and spent the 2011 season in Oklahoma City. Baltimore brought him back in 2012, but three weeks into the season released the righthander from its AA roster. Texas signed him to provide bullpen depth that season in Frisco and then Round Rock and then Frisco and then Round Rock and then Frisco.
The Rangers decided to bring Wolf (2.09 ERA in AA, 4.76 ERA in AAA) back for the 2013 season.
But he wasn’t in the picture.
And he said this would be it. He’d planned to retire at the end of 2013.
Texas put him in the Frisco rotation to begin the season. He pitched the eighth, ninth, and tenth innings of a RoughRiders loss to Arkansas on April 6, blowing a save in the eighth and taking the 4-3 loss in the tenth.
When Texas designated Beliveau for assignment to make 40-man roster room for catcher Robinson Chirinos a week into the AAA season, the organization moved the experienced Wolf up to Round Rock, where he was expected to work out of the bullpen.
When Matt Harrison was shut down and Justin Grimm was recalled, Wolf was moved into the Express rotation.
He would make six starts, allowing more than two earned runs in none of them.
Nick Tepesch develops a blister on his final pitch against Detroit on Friday night.
That same night, Wolf held Colorado Springs to two earned runs on five hits and two walks in seven innings, fanning six.
Yesterday was Tepesch’s and Wolf’s day to pitch, and Tepesch couldn’t go.
The A’s, having disposed of Lindblom and not allowing Texas to get anything going offensively on Yu Darvish’s day, were poised yesterday for a sweep in Arlington, with Wolf getting the ball in front of an offense struggling lately to score. In fact, the Rangers wouldn’t make any noise on this day after their fourth batter of the game.
Texas hadn’t been swept at home since the summer 2010, when Wolf was last in the big leagues.
Thanks to Wolf, it wouldn’t happen again yesterday.
He gave Texas five innings. Allowed three hits, two walks, one run. Got into trouble at times, and got out.
He earned his first big league win, in his first big league start. On a day when Texas needed a win, as much as a first-place club can need a win in May.
Now, it’s far too soon to assume that this will be any more than a Brian Sikorski or Bryan Corey story, or that Wolf will even get a second start for Texas, or that he won’t go ahead and retire in five months.
But if Tampa Bay doesn’t designate Robinson Chirinos for assignment and doesn’t then agree to trade him to Texas, and if Matt Harrison doesn’t hurt his back, and if Nick Tepesch’s right middle finger holds out for one more pitch – if any of those things doesn’t happen – Ross Wolf probably never sees the big leagues again.
Here’s another picture.
That’s Scot Engler. He’s a pro scout for the Rangers, and I’d bet more of you had heard of Ross Wolf a week ago than had heard Engler’s name.
The former University of Montana tight end has scouted baseball professionally for 13 years, these last six with Texas.
In 2001, he was with the Expos, when they drafted Ross Wolf.
In 2003, he joined the Marlins, who had drafted Ross Wolf the summer before.
Since joining the Rangers, he’s been responsible for recommending Neal Cotts, whose awesome story I’ll get to another time. He was one of a few pro scouts Texas dispatched to Japan to scout Darvish. He and fellow pro scout Keith Boeck were instrumental in recommending Darren O’Day. This year he recommended outfielder Jim Adduci, who had an outstanding camp and, after a slow start, has been on fire for Round Rock and could be an option down the road, if needed.
Engler was also the one to endorse Jeff Beliveau, and then the man who took Beliveau’s roster spot, Robinson Chirinos.
Which set things up for Ross Wolf, another of Engler’s recommendations.
There are lots of Scot Engler’s we never hear about, guys who are part of the spine of this organization, guys who make the Rangers one of the elite talent-accumulating franchises in the game.
You may not be familiar with many of them, but make no mistake: They’re a huge part of the big picture.
I’ll make sure you hear about Engler again when I get around to the Neal Cotts story.
Ross Wolf, in the meantime, made sure, on one afternoon in May, you’ll never forget his name.
To help families in Moore, Newcastle, and other communities in the Oklahoma City and Norman areas, you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief, donate to the Red Cross online, or donate by phone at 1-800-RED CROSS.
I’m not sure which is the biggest shock as far as Miguel Cabrera is concerned: (1) that he was a shortstop for the first two years of his pro career in the Marlins system; (2) that in his three full minor league seasons he never hit more than .274 or more than nine home runs; or (3) that he had only eight 2013 home runs coming into last night’s game, tied with Raul Ibanez and Yuniesky Betancourt, among others, and trailing John Buck and Wilin Rosario.
For me, only Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols keep Cabrera company on the short list of the greatest hitters of the last two generations.
I dumped 65 tweets during Texas 11, Detroit 8, among which was this one that I’m not backing off of:
“I shouldn’t want to, given his age and defensive fit, but whatever it would take to get Giancarlo Stanton, I’d give up for Miguel Cabrera.”
Last night, Cabrera was evidently the 23rd player in MLB history to fill a day’s box score with at least four hits, three home runs, five RBI, and four runs scored, but in the last 80 years, the only other to do so in a loss was Bob Horner, a July 6, 1986 game in which the Braves fell to the Expos by the familiar score of 11-8.
Another thing that happened on July 6, 1986 was a 5-2 Texas loss to Detroit, completely ordinary except for the fact that it would be the last day on which the Rangers would lead the AL West until three years later.
Different story these days, as Texas has now occupied the top spot in the division 209 of 231 days since the 2012 season began, and 524 of 564 if you want to dial back to May 2, 2010.
I don’t pick that date arbitrarily, as it was the day the Rangers sat alone atop the West for the first time in the 2010 season, which ended with Texas in the World Series.
The Rangers beat Seattle, 3-1, that May 2, 2010 afternoon.
The Mariners’ starting pitcher was Doug Fister.
Tonight’s starting pitcher, for Texas, will be Josh Lindblom. His last start before 2013 was also in May 2010, when his AAA Albuquerque ERA ballooned to 7.06, prompting a shift to the Isotopes’ bullpen. That was five years after he was drafted by the Astros in the third round but didn’t sign, three years after the Angels drafted Matt Harvey in the third round but didn’t sign him (sorry for getting off-topic; no I’m not), two years after Lindblom was drafted by the Dodgers and fast-tracked, one year before Lindblom’s big league debut, two years before he was traded to the Phillies as part of a package for Shane Victorino, and two-and-a-half years before Philadelphia sent him to Texas in the Michael Young trade.
In every one of Lindblom’s seven starts for AAA Round Rock this year (4-0, 2.23 [2.08 ERA overall]), Jurickson Profar started behind him, six times at shortstop and the last time at second base. He’ll start at second behind Lindblom again tonight, and in this paragraph there are two reasons I’m really looking forward to tonight’s game, a third of which might be that Miguel Cabrera will be out of town.
Lindblom was a middle reliever in whom Texas saw a starting pitcher. Going back the last time through the rotation, though, you see that the Rangers’ starters came from Oakland’s minor league outfield (Alexi Ogando), Japan (Yu Darvish), Day Two of the 2010 draft (Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm), and the 25th round (Derek Holland).
The Texas Rangers are very good at talent accumulation.
Their scouting soldiers and generals are going start holing up in Arlington soon, if they haven’t already, synthesizing and tuning up plans for this year’s draft, when there’s no reason for us not to be confident that they’ll add another Lewis Brinson or Joey Gallo, find another C.J. Edwards in the late rounds, swipe another high-end shortstop or two since someone’s going to be traded before long, or grab a toolsy catcher to start dreaming on.
Maybe “and” rather than “or.”
And maybe, a couple years from now, when I’m going to allow myself to hope that Cleveland is still pretty good, and that the Royals were able to move their rise forward, joined by the Twins behind Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton and whoever they get for Josh Willingham, Detroit will decide it’s time to re-core things and move 32-year-old Miguel Cabrera, just as they boldly moved Curtis Granderson to get younger four years ago, and that Texas can take some of its middle infield prospect strength, and more than that, and go get the former shortstop from Maracay, Venezuela, pair him with another shortstop from Maracay, Venezuela, and more than that, and make one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen a Texas Ranger during the greatest period of Texas Rangers baseball anyone has ever seen.
When Yu Darvish completed the top of the fifth inning on Friday night, a crisp 11-pitch frame against perhaps the most dangerous heart of a lineup in the league, Texas had reached the quarter pole of the 2013 season. Torii Hunter bunted out, Miguel Cabrera grounded out to Mitch Moreland, Prince Fielder singled to right, and Victor Martinez flew out to center.
At that point, Darvish had allowed four runs in those five innings on seven hits (including two homers and a double), an intentional walk, a wild pitch, and two run-scoring sac flies. Not a particularly sharp effort for the Rangers’ ace, at least to that point in the game, but this was the most productive offense in the American League he was facing, and it was good enough to win.
The next two nights, Texas would throw its number seven and number eight starters at the Detroit offense, and be without Ian Kinsler, its most sabermetrically productive offensive player, in both games. The Rangers’ starting catcher remained out of action, leaving the club’s beleaguered backup and recently designated-for-assignment call-up to handle number seven on Friday night and number eight on Saturday.
Number seven held the Tigers to two runs over five innings in what would be a 2-1 loss – just the Rangers’ third loss in one-run games out of 12.
Number eight held Detroit to two runs over 6.2 frames in a decisive 7-2 win.
A win that was the Rangers’ 28th of the year. No other team in baseball has as many.
Texas sits at 28-15, good for baseball’s best record, and the best 43-game record in franchise history.
The club’s +51 run differential is baseball’s best.
The Rangers’ 6.5-game edge in the AL West exceeds the other five division leads (1.0 + 1.0 + 1.5 + 1.5 + 1.0) combined. The seven-game lead they’d built after Darvish-Verlander was the first such lead this early in a season since Boston and Milwaukee led their divisions by as much in 2007.
The Rangers have played 25 road games. Twenty-eight of the other 29 teams have played fewer.
The club has yet to lose a game it led at some point by two runs or more, probably more meaningful than its 3-0 record when Robinson Chirinos starts behind the plate.
Except Chirinos has caught Nick Tepesch, a secretly injured Alexi Ogando, and Justin Grimm. Number seven, an ailing number five, and number seven.
I still like the two-run lead note better.
MLB.com’s Richard Justice is the latest of the national writers to pen a sentence like this one: “Few people were picking the Rangers to finish in front of the A’s and Angels in the AL West after an offseason in which they traded their clubhouse leader, Michael Young, and lost Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and two key relievers, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara.”
Every time I see that particular column, I hear in my head Jon Daniels’s comment, issued as early as November and as recently as this week, which never sounded like spin or bluster coming from him:
“We like our team.”
It’s Derek Holland vs. Doug Fister tonight, in front of a national TV audience.
Then tomorrow Josh Lindblom – number nine – makes his Rangers debut against Bartolo Colon and the A’s. Lindblom has appeared in 101 big league games with the Dodgers and Phillies, zero of which have been starts. Before this season, his last 65 minor league appearances had been out of the bullpen. But Texas, having acquired Lindblom from the Phillies in the Young trade this winter, saw something different, and the 25-year-old was off to a 4-0, 2.08 start out of the Round Rock rotation (.173/.232/.295 slash) when word emerged that he’d be recalled for Monday’s start in place of the injured Ogando.
He’s the Rangers’ number nine starter (I suppose number 10 if you’re in the Neftali-Feliz-as-starter camp, which I’m not), and I’m very interested in what happens tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, the draft approaches, and then the international free agent sign date, and then the trade deadline becomes a big part of the focus. This organization has given us lots of reason to feel good about those things, too.
These are, still, the good old days.
Last year proved that really good stories can have horror endings, but really good stories are better than the alternative, and I suspect you’d rather take the best record in baseball at the completion of the first quarter and whatever’s behind Door Number One as far as 162+ is concerned than to be invested in what’s going on in Los Angeles.
We like our team.
For the last time conscience calls
For a good friend I was never there at all
Yesterday Joe Sheehan wrote this in the Joe Sheehan Newsletter: “I tend to graze, particularly on short-schedule nights where I can follow 3-4 games without getting overwhelmed. Not tonight. At 8, this game gets the full-screen treatment and stays there for three hours. These might be the two best teams in the AL, and the starters are two of the top five starters in the game: Justin Verlander taking on Yu Darvish. . . . This isn’t a game you analyze. This is put-your-feet-up, close-the-laptop, pour-a-drink baseball.”
Well, yes, and no.
Agreed on the part about steering clear of over-scrutiny, which is partly why yesterday morning’s word count was what it was.
And normally, I’d be all about the last part, too, but I didn’t watch any of the big Boston series, and that turned out pretty well, so it felt like the right thing to do last night was to watch no baseball.
Actually not completely true. I’d bought tickets 45 days earlier to see Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band whose first release was a few weeks after the epic Nolan Ryan-Roger Clemens matchup on April 30, 1989, a 2-1 Rangers win in which the two horses each threw over 120 pitches. Lots of local media referred to that game yesterday in previewing Darvish-Verlander. Forty-five days ago, I didn’t know who would be pitching on May 16, but I knew who would be playing at the Kessler, and I wasn’t going to miss that.
And for that matter, I didn’t see that initial Ryan-Clemens matchup, either, I can’t remember what I spent that Sunday afternoon doing, but as a college sophomore it probably wasn’t trying to find a place showing the Rangers game, and back then you couldn’t get Holtz and Nadel on Austin radio.
I sit here this morning looking at a box score that looks nothing like the pitchers’ duel that Ryan-Clemens not only promised but also delivered. I see 17 hits and 14 runs, a third inning that evidently lasted almost an hour, a 7 for 16 night from the Rangers’ bottom four (including a Geo Soto homer off Verlander that was so Bengie-Molina-off-David-Price and a two run-scoring Mitch Moreland doubles that were so Mitch Moreland), two Verlander bases-loaded walks, and 90 Darvish strikes. One Rangers debut (Cory Burns) and one former Rangers farmhand’s big league debut (Evan Reed).
An epically hyped regular season matchup that turned out to be the worst of Verlander’s 253 career starts.
But I didn’t hear a minute of Eric Nadel. I was instead spending my Thursday night at his favorite place. While he spent his at mine.
(My socks, it should be pointed out, however, did not match.)
The Rangers’ offense put a beating on baseball’s preeminent moundbeast, something they did with a bit of regularity back in the early-’90s days that Toad brought back with precision last night, before a standing-room-only crowd that measured maybe 500, including me and, as I would find out, at least six of you, too.
There’s indecision when you know you ain’t got nothing left, but not for me last night. I had somewhere else to be, which felt just about right the way this season has started, and the upshot is that Texas 10, Detroit 4 is a game Sheehan and I just aren’t going to analyze.
I will say this, however: Thursday night rocked.
I’m the guy who thinks mismatching my socks is the right baseball thing to do, so I’m not going to continue to dismiss the way Texas seems to play in Oakland. It’s pretty ugly.
Now, baseball being what it is, it shouldn’t necessarily be cause for alarm that a good team coming off a four-game win streak, and seven of nine, would regress a bit to the mean when traveling to the house of another good team, one coming off losses in six of seven and due for its own market correction. Good teams still lose more than 50 times a year. They also tend to win more games than they lose.
But you thought the same thing I did in the top of the seventh, as Ian Kinsler, sporting a batting average better than his career best and a slug higher than his career best, stood in against a lefthander with two outs and men on second and third: It probably wasn’t going to happen.
Or maybe it occurred to you earlier, when A’s nine-hole hitter Michael Taylor, who hadn’t drawn a walk in his 44 big league plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 (54 trips if you go back to September 21, 2011, when Texas starter C.J. Wilson lost him), drew a Derek Holland walk with two men on in the fifth . . . and a Robbie Ross walk with two outs and a man on in the sixth . . . hours before he’d be optioned back to AAA Sacramento.
Or maybe it was seeing Holland, entrusted with a 3-0 lead and featuring a really good changeup, unable nonetheless to get out of the sixth, allowing the final 10 A’s he faced to go 6 for 9 with a run-scoring “Luke Montz” sac fly.
You were thinking what I was thinking. The best team in the league wasn’t going to get it done.
You start to develop a feel, for better or worse, when you watch a team day to day, season to season, and O.co Coliseum is not only a terrible name for a stadium, it’s also been a brutal place for the Rangers to play for a good while now.
Going into last night’s game, Texas had lost 9 of 11 in Oakland.
Including those three disgusting games in October.
The first of which Texas had tied in the fourth.
The second of which Texas led in the fifth.
The third of which Texas led, 5-1, after three. Before losing by seven runs.
Nobody’s been a better regular season club than the Rangers since this stretch of ineptitude in Oakland began, and yet Texas seems overmatched in that ballpark, a vibe that I was able to shake off for about half an hour last night after Mitch Moreland did Mitch Moreland things to a Bart Colon pitch in the fourth, but that resurfaced in the fifth and took root after that.
Even when Texas tied the game back up in the eighth, it still didn’t feel very good.
Men on first and second in the top of the ninth with Kinsler and Elvis Andrus coming up, just one out, and I’m not exactly counting on a lead.
Each goes down on strikes, meekly.
There’s no reason for this team – which Richard Justice of MLB.com points out has been in first place for 490 of 526 days since June 8, 2010, including 204 of 226 days since the 2012 season began – to be this good, and yet so irritatingly ham-fisted in Oakland.
Argue small sample size if you wish, but only if you were reasonably optimistic when Texas had Lance Berkman on third with one out in the sixth, two men on for Kinsler in the seventh, that golden opportunity for Kinsler and Andrus in the ninth, or even just one of those situations.
How’d you feel when Adrian Beltre unleashed on a 3-0 pitch in the 10th and gave Texas a 5-4 lead? Better, I’m sure. But good?
How about when Moreland blasted his second shot of the game minutes later?
I was only sort of confident. Which is crazy.
Joe Nathan coaxes a lazy fly to center from Josh Donaldson, previously 4 for 4, in two pitches to start the bottom of the 10th.
And I was still more certain that Geovany Soto would double-pump his next throw back to Nathan and then wipe the dirt in front of the plate than I was that Texas had this one locked up.
And now I know I’ll be going to work on about four hours’ sleep in the morning, no matter how this one would end.
Now it was Oakland with men on second and third – the tying run and the walkoff run – and just one out. And suddenly Nathan can’t find the plate. The first three of his 19 pitches had been strikes, but only five of the next 16, just one of which was swung through.
Four more out of the zone, intentionally, and they’re loaded up with one out. Daric Barton is up, though it feels like it doesn’t matter who is due, as long as he has an elephant (appropriately) on his shoulder.
Ball. Foul. Ball. Foul.
I have a sudden, unwanted premonition that Barton is going to hit a screaming, one-hop rocket to Moreland, and he steps on the bag – cursed to make a decision I know he knows better than to make, because this is O.co, after all – and throws to second, but Brandon Moss alertly stops short of the bag with the force gone, allowing John Jaso to cross the plate with the tying run.
The stupid premonition still haunts me until Barton swings through a slider low and outside – just Nathan’s second swing-and-miss of the night, on what was his 30th pitch. Two outs.
Still feels like something bad is imminent as Eric Sogard steps up with two outs in this objectively ordinary mid-May game with subjectively mid-September adrenaline levels that I barely remember Derek Holland pitched in.
First-pitch slider, up and over and really fat, and Sogard absolutely squares up, barreling a laser between first and second, the kind of bat-on-ball contact you don’t even feel when its yours.
The game is over, one way or the other.
Kinsler gloves it, making the play look easier than it was, and the game is over in the right way, the way I never really felt it would until Kinsler lobbed the ball toward first.
Which is just dumb, but this is baseball – spectacularly tense mid-May baseball – and with a chance this afternoon to win the damn series, in the O.co mausoleum, this morning’s sock decision is simply out of my hands.
Yu Darvish is an ace.
The stats bear it out, and so does the scouting.
It’s not just the dizzying array of plus pitches in the arsenal.
Or the strikeouts, or the WHIP.
Or the consistency.
It’s all that, plus the 22 wins the last two seasons that lead all American League pitchers (his 301 strikeouts lead baseball in that time).
But it’s something else, too.
This year Darvish has a 6-1 record, and Texas is 7-1 in his starts, and there’s something else underneath the surface of those results that makes him such a beast for this team.
These are the relief pitchers who have worked on days Darvish gets the ball:
Michael Kirkman: 7 games (5.0 innings)
Jason Frasor: 4 games (2.2 innings)
Robbie Ross: 3 games (3.0 innings)
Joe Nathan: 3 games (3.0 innings)
Tanner Scheppers: 2 games (3.0 innings)
Derek Lowe: 1 game (1.2 innings)
Keep in mind these are almost all wins. Wins are when your key relievers typically get their work.
But Nathan, Scheppers, and Ross have each worked in fewer than half of the games Darvish has started.
Kirkman, the Rangers’ least effective pitcher to date, has worked in seven of Darvish’s eight starts, eating up innings. Again, Texas is 7-1 in those games.
The Rangers’ offense gets some credit, of course. Those 7.2 runs of regular support it’s giving Darvish play big. But Darvish keeping the opponent at bay, deep into games, is huge. On average he gets the second out in the seventh inning, and it’s more than that.
Avoiding having to overwork the best relief pitchers on your team, a potential issue when you’re a team that wins lots of baseball games and plans to need to win a bunch of them in October, is something an ace allows you to do.
C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison have been great here since this team became a World Series contender, but they didn’t consistently make that possible. Cliff Lee did, but that was for three months.
Darvish, more often than not, gives the bullpen stars a night off.
And that obviously bodes well for the next day’s game, when the bullpen is relatively rested. Texas started the season winning five games-after-Darvish in a row, before dropping the last two (both Nick Tepesch starts).
The eighth of those is today, as Tepesch goes again. He’ll pitch to Robinson Chirinos, who has never caught any of the Rangers’ current pitchers. The bullpen could be key today. Scheppers and Ross are rested and ready to go. After 19 pitches last night, maybe Nathan will be, too.
Darvish held Houston to three hits and three walks over seven innings last night, punching out eight, and we all view it as an off-night for him.
Still, it was a night when Frasor and Kirkman were tasked with closing the thing out, and had the situation not gotten out of hand in the ninth, that’s how it would have played out, and Nathan would have been able to watch the whole game with Scheppers and Ross behind the left field fence.
Yu Darvish takes the ball every fifth day, and more often than not he doesn’t give it up until the game is fairly well in hand.
That’s what aces do.
Happy Mother’s Day to my wife, and to my mother, and to all of you who qualify.
And to Ikuyo Darvishsefat, who has given us a seriously awesome gift.
I promise: This is not going to be a post hand-dipped in schadenfreudian bacon-chocolate, but I do want to lead into my point with a quote from Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal, who delivered 1,100 words on the plight of the Angels this weekend and included this quote, two-thirds of the way in, about the club that now sits with a record better only than the two lowest-payrolled teams in baseball, the stripped-down Marlins and the brutal Astros (who beat Los Angeles last night):
“But want to know what is really scary? For the Angels, in the foreseeable future, this might be as good as it gets.”
Rosenthal goes on to talk about the fact that shortstop Jean Segura and lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin and righthander Johnny Hellweg were sent away in Angels trades, with nothing left to show for them, while they also forfeited first- and second-round draft picks in 2012 for signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson (they didn’t make their first selection until 114th overall) and a first-rounder in 2013 for signing Josh Hamilton (they won’t pick this June until number 59). The Angels’ farm system is widely considered to be baseball’s worst, decimated by recent trades and compromised going forward by high-end free agent moves.
There’s not really a correlation between the fact that St. Louis and Texas are each one win short of the most in baseball, have two of the top three or four farm systems in the game, and didn’t put up any more resistance than they did as Pujols and Hamilton bolted for Anaheim, but, you know, the best organizations tend to feature a strong mix of aggressiveness, good judgment, and restraint. The others don’t.
The idea that Hamilton, who hit four home runs on May 8, 2012 to lift his season slash to .406/.458/.840, would be hitting .202/.248/.287 on May 8, 2013, a fifth of the way into his first Angels season and a twenty-fifth of the way into his eighth-of-a-billion dollar Angels contract, would have been rejected in Hollywood, but then again, you know. And now I’m getting all schadenfreudian again.
Maybe there’s an Angels fan out there celebrating the Rangers’ third two-game skid in a week and a half, and hey, Los Angeles is only 8.5 games back – the A’s were 13 out last year as late as the end of June.
Maybe there’s a Los Angeles fan who gets to the games late and leaves early rejoicing at the developments that have seen Mike Olt and Cody Buckel jump out to brutal starts that, at least for now, don’t appear to be physical, that have Martin Perez just now getting his season started and Ronald Guzman still waiting, and that led Jurickson Profar to exit last night’s game in Las Vegas with an apparent hand issue.
But depth is king in minor league development – there are a hundred reasons prospects end up not making it, so you hedge against that reality by pushing and pushing to keep the pipeline full – and while Olt and Buckel have struggled out of the gate, set aside the last couple nights and look at what Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm have done overall. And Tanner Scheppers, whose fastball was too straight last year. And Joseph Ortiz, who slid through two Rule 5 Drafts unprotected before landing on the 40-man roster this winter and making sure in camp he wouldn’t need that first option.
And Joey Gallo, whose 10 home runs are exceeded in pro ball only by Atlanta’s Justin Upton (12) and Corpus Christi’s George Springer (11).
And Gallo’s Hickory teammate Lewis Brinson, who’s on the minor league leader board with seven bombs of his own while playing a premium up-the-middle position.
And don’t get me started on Gallo’s and Brinson’s teammate Jorge Alfaro, who plays the up-the-middle position I’m desperate to see Texas find a stable answer at, a potentially elite defender at catcher who came into 2013 with 12 career home runs in 604 at-bats, and who now has eight in 109 at-bats this year, including four the last four nights. (I’m reminded of this comment a high-ranking Rangers player development official shared at Fall Instructs in September about Alfaro: “It’s starting to come together – and when it gets there, it’s over.”)
All three are 19 years old, Brinson as of today.
And Jake Brigham and Neil Ramirez, and Luke Jackson and Victor Payano, and C.J. Edwards and Alexander Claudio.
And Roman Mendez.
Check that one out if you have a minute.
As for Josh Lindblom and Robinson Chirinos, who are on the roster, and Neal Cotts, who is not, you may get the chance to check them out on Fox Sports Southwest by summertime.
Bob Nightengale (USA Today) tweeted this weekend: “The Texas Rangers are in first place on this week’s power rankings, playing better than anyone envisioned, and only getting better.” But let’s widen the lens.
Think back on Rosenthal’s quote about the Angels, and you might agree we can flip it as far as Texas is concerned:
“But want to know what is really scary? For the Rangers, in the foreseeable future, things might actually get better.”
They’re 20-13. The only team with more wins is Boston, who got spanked in Arlington this weekend.
The outfield defense is brutal, a few aging hitters look like aging hitters, the pitchers and catchers aren’t controlling the running game, the rotation has been racked by injuries.
They’re 20-13, and no team has a bigger division lead than the 2.5 games the Rangers have on Oakland. (While the Angels are closer to fifth place in the West than to third.)
And in July, when Giancarlo Stanton is healthy again and maybe available, and when David Price is dealing again and maybe available, and the trade market gets populated by names we haven’t even though of yet as available, Texas will be able to talk about Grimm and Gallo and Jackson and Mendez, not to mention Leury Garcia and Luis Sardinas, Hanser Alberto and Rougned Odor, Wilmer Font and Lisalverto Bonilla, Engel Beltre and Nick Williams, and plenty others who will be on selling clubs’ watch lists.
And I’m betting Olt is back in a groove, and maybe Guzman, too.
The Cardinals will be able to compete with Texas at trade deadline time. Boston, too.
So can Kansas City and Pittsburgh, if they hang around, but there are a few others (Houston, San Diego, Minnesota to start) who won’t be buying in July, even though they could.
The Angels won’t be buying, and they wouldn’t be able to anyway.
Of course, the same probably could have been said a year ago, when they took Segura and Hellweg and Ariel Pena from an already weak system and mortgaged them for two ultimately meaningless months of Zack Greinke.
Jim Bowden (ESPN/XM) spitballed this one over the weekend: “[H]ere’s my made up trade rumor of the day. . . Profar, Grimm and Olt to Tampa Bay for David Price . . . who says no?”
But it’s a hypothetical you can’t even entertain in Anaheim.
I’d suggest the Angels will be sellers this July, except for that problem of not having a whole lot of meaningful pieces they can sell.
It’s a safe bet that the Texas outfield, for the second straight off-season, will undergo a significant transition. Probably the catching tandem, too.
In Anaheim, they transition by throwing massive money at aging icons.
In Texas, they spend money, too (Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish, extensions for core veterans), but they make the whole thing work by reloading through player development, which delivers assets both to the manager and to the GM, routinely so in the current era of Rangers baseball.
Well, crud. I said I wasn’t going to hound the Angels too much today, and I blew it.
But rubber-necking on rock bottom is hard to avoid, and somewhere between Holland-Lohse in Milwaukee tonight and Colby Lewis, Neil Ramirez, Luke Jackson, and C.J. Edwards getting minor league starts tomorrow, I’ll be keeping an eye on Blanton-Norris and Vargas-Harrell in Houston, as the Angels and Astros, each losers of 8 of 10, keep the Minute Maid field warm until the Texas Rangers, playing better than anyone envisioned and only getting better, come in to pay a weekend visit.