September 2013

Thirteen things.

So here we go.  Thirteen things:

1. We all read it and heard it and thought it ourselves, waterlogged with serious doubt, that Texas, losers of a staggering 15 of 20, would need to win six of seven at the very least, and it turned out they needed all seven.

No sweat.

We can all rattle off a dozen games that felt like should have been Rangers wins in 2013 but weren’t, and a handful of wins they should have lost.  The point: Every single one of 162 counts, and this year, they all brought us exactly to this week, and then when they counted the most, in the or-else sense, Texas battled and won.

Imagine if this team, the way it played the last week, had managed to win just one more game, maybe two, during that brutal 5-15 start to the month.  It still would have been a bad 20-game stretch, but Texas in that case might have been the team waiting to find out today who its opponent for Wednesday’s Wild Card game would be.

Or if the ninth-inning home run Adam Rosales hit on May 8th for Oakland had been correctly judged a home run, rather than a double.  If the umpires had gotten it right, which they failed to do even after reviewing replay, the A’s would have tied the Indians on the play, but instead they fell to Cleveland, 4-3, knocking them back to 3.5 games behind Texas in the West, and we rejoiced.  If Oakland had won, today we’d be looking at a first-ever three-way tie between Wild Card contestants Cleveland, Texas, and Tampa Bay, in which case the Indians would have hosted the Rays today, with the winner advancing to Wednesday’s Wild Card Game, and the loser heading to Arlington for a win-or-go-home game tomorrow to determine the second Wild Card team.

Imagine, on the other hand, if the Rangers had only won six of seven (five of which they trailed in) this week.  Only six of seven.

Their next game would be next year.

2. The seven straight wins to end the schedule is a franchise best.  Thing is, it’s schedule-ending, but not season-ending.  Today’s play-in contest counts as a regular season game.  Gotta make it eight (which would match the Rangers’ longest win streak of the season), or the record goes away, not to mention the worse thing.

Gotta make it nine, of course, or 2013 ends the same way 2012 did, even if it will feel different because of the brand of baseball it took at the end to get there.

There will be (and have been) whines in other markets that the Rangers were able to cakewalk through this final homestand because they got Houston and Los Angeles on the schedule, two teams they went 32-6 against this season (meaning they went 59-65 against everyone else).  That ignores the fact that the Angels had gone 23-9 (all without Albert Pujols) coming into the season-ending series against Texas, boasting baseball’s best record over those five weeks.

That included a series win against the Rangers on September 6-8, despite which Texas beat the Angels 15 times in 19 tries in 2013, the second-highest victory total the franchise has ever had against one opponent in a single season.  The Rangers defeated Seattle 15 times in 2011 (the year before Kyle Seager’s first full big league season), and beat the Astros 17 times this year.

Over the season’s final seven days on the schedule, as Texas went undefeated against the Astros and Angels, Cleveland went undefeated against the White Sox and Twins (in fact, won 10 straight going back to its series against Houston), and Tampa Bay — thankfully — went only 5-2 against the Orioles, Yankees, and Blue Jays (8-2 if you include the whole Baltimore series).

So over the final seven scheduled days, the three teams who will now fight for the American League’s Wild Card slot against Boston in the ALDS went 19-2.  That’s pretty extraordinary, no matter who the opposition was.

The Rangers’ run — which culminated with the club’s 50th come-from-behind victory of the season, most in baseball and most in franchise history (previous best: 45) — gave Texas 91 wins through 162 games (and considering the 5-15 start to September, there was certainly a chance coming into the month that they would have eclipsed the franchise record of 96 wins, set two years ago).  No other team in baseball has won at least 87 games in each of the last five seasons.  Only Texas and tonight’s opponent, Tampa Bay, have won 90 the last four years.

And only one of those two teams will officially be a playoff team 15 hours from now.

3. I didn’t see a single pitch of yesterday’s game (this is where I was instead), but I’m not one of those guys who can try quarantining myself all day so I can watch it cold later.  I kept up with every pitch result via the MLB At Bat app.  The Aces swept their doubleheader as the Rangers were taking care of the Angels, a great day of baseball that had me fired up to watch the recording of the big league game late last night.

Naturally, when I saw on my phone that Ron Washington had lifted Yu Darvish with two outs in the sixth, having thrown just 84 pitches with no tomorrow, so lefty Neal Cotts could face left Josh Hamilton, my first thought was last year’s Wild Card Game, when Wash pulled Darvish with two outs in the seventh, and just 91 pitches of tread, so lefty Derek Holland could face left Nate McLouth.

Since I wasn’t watching the game, I didn’t know if there was a physical issue — there’s been one hinted at in the press lately, and there was a mound visit from Jamie Reed in the second inning — but if there wasn’t one, I couldn’t figure out why you’d take the ball from Darvish in that game.  He’d held the Angels to four hits — a first-inning single promptly erased by a double play and followed by a Mike Trout home run, and a sixth-inning single erased by a double play and followed by another single — and just two walks.  He punched out eight in 5.2 frames.  He’s Yu Darvish.

You can argue he’s not Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander or David Price or Felix Hernandez or Cliff Lee.  But Jered Weaver or Zack Greinke (fair equivalents in stature, I’d argue) wouldn’t have been pulled from yesterday’s win-or-go-home game, not with two outs in the sixth in what had been an effective performance.

I watched the entire game late last night, figuring Darvish’s short day would make more sense when I did.

The righthander, if a bit characteristically erratic on the day, was really good.  The Reed visit in the second inning didn’t seem like a big deal.  The 27-year-old looked strong the entire time he was on the mound.  He was clearly not happy to be removed from the game.

But the pen was set up, Cotts against Hamilton seemed like a great matchup (more so because of Hamilton’s futility against lefties than Cotts’s splits, which are fairly even), and the sixth inning, I suppose, was a fairly stressful one.  (The double play that preceded the Erick Aybar single and Trout walk was brilliant, from Ian Kinsler’s decision to Mitch Moreland’s athletic completion of the play, but if Andrew Romine had thought to make baseline contact with Kinsler after his throw to first, which would have been an easy maneuver, that inning could have blown up.)

It was easy for me to watch the inning unfold at 11 p.m., knowing how it would turn out.  I knew that even though Cotts would allow Hamilton to tie the game, he would stop the scoring there, and the Angels wouldn’t score again all day.  And that the Rangers, after the requisite 1-0 Darvish deficit into the bottom of the fifth, not only scored in that inning but would also go on to score in the sixth and the seventh and the eighth.

I knew I wouldn’t have to write about October 5, 2012 again this morning (this bullet point notwithstanding) and wouldn’t have to think about September 29, 2013 in the same way until long after Yu Darvish retired from baseball.

I’ll just say that, on top of 100 other reasons, I sure hope the top of the sixth wasn’t Darvish’s final work of the season, and that he’s trotting from the dugout to the Fenway Park mound in the bottom of the first on Friday.

4. Wash told reporters that Martin Perez and Matt Garza were available if needed yesterday, and theoretically that makes Garza and Alexi Ogando available tonight.  With the possible exception of Robbie Ross, who threw 20 pitches yesterday, the entire bullpen should be at the club’s disposal in relief of Perez tonight, even if taking Darvish out yesterday after just 5.2 innings seemed to threaten that possibility.

Cotts, facing two batters, threw just nine pitches.  I was surprised he didn’t come back out for the seventh, but again, that all turned out well, as Ross did a solid job.

Tanner Scheppers threw just nine pitches himself.  All strikes.  (The 1-6-3 double play that the former shortstop started was as money as Kenny Rogers used to be on that play.)

And Joe Nathan threw just nine pitches.

Jason Frasor got loose but didn’t enter the game.

The pen — which allowed one run (0.44 ERA) on 10 hits and seven walks in 20.2 innings of work in this seven-game win streak, fanning 31 — sets up well tonight.

Scheppers, by the way, is tied with current Rays reliever Jamey Wright (2008) for the most appearances in a season (75) by a right-handed reliever in Rangers history.  He’s also tied with Mike Adams (2012) for the most holds in a season (27) by a Rangers reliever.

If Scheppers breaks those two marks tonight, that’s probably good news.

5. I still crave a long-term solution at catcher for this team, but A.J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto have driven in 92 runs and hit 33 doubles and 26 home runs (.438 slug) this year.  They’ve thrown better than I expected they would.

I still don’t like some of the things Pierzynksi does defensively and his pitch selection as a hitter is brutal, and Soto’s double pump and dirt-smoothing after nearly every pitch drives me crazy, but those two have done their job this year, and I’d like to see at least one more of those Soto blasts this season where he puts his head down emphatically and sprints to first the instant he launches a no-doubter.

6. I got a text from a national writer during the game, asking: “Am I crazy, or is Craig Gentry suddenly becoming a factor?”

I wrote back: “Absolutely.  He’s what LAA thought Bourjos would be.”

Last night, reader John Short reminded me that when I wrote the “Steppin’ up” report on September 13, I went through 15 candidates to step up for Texas over the final 18 games and get the team to 162+ . . . but didn’t mention Gentry.

Over Gentry’s last 10 games, which Texas won nine of, he’s hit .472/.513/.583 in 40 plate appearances, and stole 10 bases in 10 tries.

Dude has stepped up.  He’s a factor.

7. When I finally saw the replay of Kinsler driving Gentry in with a single through a drawn-in infield in the seventh yesterday, extending the Texas lead to 4-2, it struck me how easy the swing path was, how different it looked from a typical Kinsler cut.

It hasn’t been a typical Kinsler season, but the lightning-quickness in the hands is still there, and I would love to see a few more squared-up balls hit on the ground.

8. So, yeah, that Josh Hamilton helmet-doffing gesture to a booing (and “Baseball Town”-chanting) crowd yesterday, his final act of the 2013 baseball season.  That was weird.  And I guess we all have enough history with that guy to know that weird is the norm.

Los Angeles Times writer Mike DiGiovanna described the moment this way: “The 2013 season ended for Josh Hamilton on Sunday much the way it started, with the Angels outfielder being booed off his old home field, only this time the former Texas Rangers star had a curious reaction, one that seemed to mock the Ballpark in Arlington crowd.”

Hamilton said after the game there was no sarcasm involved, that his intent was to let Rangers fans know he still loves them, no matter what.

OK.

9. So it’s Texas and Tampa Bay again, just like it was on the Rangers’ path to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.  I’m not sure the Rangers are the unmovable object to the Rays or their fans that the Yankees were to Texas in the late ’90s, but there has to be a little bit of a “not again” feeling in Tampa, at least among the fan base.

Again, these are the only two teams in baseball that have won 90 games four straight seasons, despite major turnover on each roster.  The clubs are deep and are run well.  One of them, tonight, will be the first 91-win team to miss the playoffs since the Indians in 2005.

The home team has won five of the last six one-game tiebreakers in Major League Baseball.

On the other hand, Tampa Bay is sending its ace to the hill, while Texas is giving the ball to a back-of-the-rotation rookie.

But about that . . . .

10. The thing about Price and Perez is that, if any of the many Price-to-Texas trade rumors had come to fruition the last few years, Perez probably would have been sent the other way.  I’m not sure the Rangers would be willing to include Perez any longer, though if they would entertain the idea of trading the 22-year-old at this point at all, it would only be in a deal for Price or a similarly positioned number one starter.

Since July 31, Perez is 7-2, 3.05 in 11 starts, holding opponents to a .251/.309/.387 slash in 73.2 innings.

Over the same period, Price is 3-3, 3.15 in 11 starts, holding opponents to a .257/.286/.352 slash in 74.1 innings.

That’s not at all to suggest Perez is a better pitcher or a more reliable big-game commodity than Price.  Far from it.  But given the economics and controllability, Perez is extremely valuable.

More importantly, for the moment, he’s pitching very well and has demonstrated a fairly unflappable mound presence.  The Rays (nine total plate appearances) have basically never seen him.  It doesn’t feel like he’s going to be overwhelmed by tonight’s assignment.

As for Price, he obviously won’t be either, but he’s 1-4, 5.98 against the Rangers in eight career regular season starts, plus 0-3, 4.66 in three playoff starts (each of which was in Florida).  He’s 1-2, 10.26 in four Rangers Ballpark starts, yielding 25 hits and eight walks in 16.2 innings pitched.  The rosters have changed, of course, but Alex Rios (.435/.500/.870 in 26 plate appearances) has as healthy a history against the Rays lefthander as Adrian Beltre (.346/.346/.577 in 26 plate appearances) or Elvis Andrus (.407/.515/.407 in 33 plate appearances) or Gentry (.364/.417/.455 in 13 plate appearances).

11. Or Nelson Cruz (.429/.478/.905 against Price in 23 plate appearances, including three home runs).

Cruz is back.

And you can bet he’ll be in tonight’s lineup.  Likely at DH.  Probably hitting sixth.

It’s not quite October, and it’s not quite the playoffs, and David Price isn’t quite Advanced Fall Instructional League pitching (against which Cruz went 9 for 27 the last week or so, with six of his nine hits going for extra bases, and more importantly earning good marks from Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Cole in terms of the state of his bat speed and condition), but this is where Cruz has historically most made his presence felt.

It’s very good to have Nelson Cruz back.

12. From last October 4:

The battle cry a year ago, after the franchise’s first World Series run had fallen short, was the questionably catchy “11 in ’11.”

The amount of time this year that I dreamed we could be talking about “12 in ’12” for the Rangers lasted only half a day longer than Oakland’s perch atop the AL West.

But hey, that’s where we are.

Kinda weird.  Following 162, there were “11 things” in ’11.

Last year, because of the Wild Card Game, it was “12 things” in ’12.

Now, because of the Tiebreaker Game and the Wild Card Game, we are looking at “13 things” in ’13.

13. And really, to be fair, this year it’s been “20 things.”  Because while Texas now needs 13 wins to hoist the big trophy, the club needed all of the last seven to get to this point.

The Rangers have won seven straight Game Seven’s.  With another Game Seven scheduled tonight and, if it ends well, another Game Seven on Wednesday in Cleveland.

It’s another year of 162+.

Let’s roll.

#Want.

I want people around the world to say that Darvish is the world’s best pitcher.

 

darvish_sapporo_dome

 

So said Yu Darvish on January 24, 2012, in front of more fans in the Sapporo Dome, where he’d pitched his home games for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for seven seasons, than showed up nightly in St. Petersburg for Rays-Rangers two weeks ago.

Darvish beat Matt Moore and the Rays in the third of those three games, 8-2, a game in which he battled through command issues but got an unusually healthy dose of run support from the Texas offense.

The next time Darvish faces the Rays and Moore faces the Rangers will be the first weekend in April.  Both go today with the task of extending their clubs’ season beyond 162, and even if that happens for both, the next time Darvish and Moore’s turns come around one of their teams will have been eliminated.

But they may be in their respective dugouts in Arlington tomorrow night, or Tuesday afternoon, or Wednesday night.

Darvish started the 2012 season (and his Major League career) dramatically, going four-pitch walk/strikeout/single/single/single/wild pitch/walk/single/bases-loaded walk to the first eight Mariners he faced, allowing Seattle to take a 4-0 lead before he recorded the second out of the ballgame . . . and battling through it to earn a win.

Darvish ended the 2012 season dramatically, getting lifted inexplicably from what was then a 2-1 deficit to Baltimore in the seventh inning of the Wild Card Game, having thrown only 91 pitches without so much as one walk (6.2-5-3-2-0-7).

Darvish started the 2013 season dramatically, coming one Marwin short of a perfect game, as he went 8.2-1-0-0-0-14 against Houston in what was the first of the Rangers’ 17 wins in 19 games against the Astros, every one of which they have needed to get to this point.

Dramatics will be fine, but I’m not interested in Darvish’s season ending today.

Or Elvis Andrus’s.  Or Leonys Martin’s or Martin Perez’s.  Or Adrian Beltre’s or Neal Cotts’s or Craig Gentry’s or Tanner Scheppers’s or Jurickson Profar’s.

Or Nelson Cruz’s.

Today’s the first day in Rangers history that the club’s playoff chances come down to the final game of the season.  It’s fitting that Yu Darvish is getting the ball, with an opportunity to give people around the baseball world something to say.

Tomorrow morning, I want to write a report titled “12 things.”  Or “13 things,” if need be.

I want Yu Darvish — and his offense — to give us all something awesome to say.

This is why.

Siege.

T.R. Sullivan wrote this yesterday, before Texas won its fifth straight, and 8th out of 11:

There has never been a week like this in the history of the Rangers.  Never has a pennant race gone down to the wire in the final week at Arlington Stadium or the Ballpark in Arlington.  The biggest games in 1996 and 1998 were on the road.  The Rangers walked away with the 1999 division title and again in 2010 and 2011.  The 2012 division title was decided on the road.

This week is unprecedented in the history of the Rangers.  Time to sit back and enjoy the finish.

I was with T.R. until that last part.  I haven’t been able to sit back all week.  This is edge-of-the-seat stuff, when I’m not actually on my feet.

This is why we’re in like we are.  This.

I want to see Matt Garza pitch again this season and Martin Perez pitch again this season and Alexi Ogando reclaim his role as bullpen weapon, and I want Yu Darvish’s start tomorrow to mean everything (Tampa at noon, Cleveland at 1:00, Texas at 2:00), and I want to see Alex Rios play in a Major League playoff game, finally.

Seriously, on that last thing.

This morning’s lineups are up, and among those not starting for Los Angeles are the last Angels hitter to reach base last night (with his game-tying single in the fifth) and the last Angels pitcher to throw three wild pitches and drill two batters in one inning and then blame it on the baseballs not being properly rubbed up, days after diagnosing the Rangers’ season from afar as a pitching breakdown.

CJ Josh

Flip side, as the Rangers sit a game back of both the Indians and Rays in the Wild Card race with two games left in the regular season — both with daytime starts: Texas has lost four straight day games, and six straight of those at home.  The club’s last day game win in Arlington was in a game started by Justin Grimm and won in relief by Cory Burns.

That was on July 7.  That’s a long time ago.

Right now, though, that 2-12 start to this month feels like a long time ago, too.

Present: tense.

Be great today, Derek.

Today’s 11 a.m. home start is unprecedented in Rangers history, just as Sullivan points out this weekend of riveting baseball is.

This is why.

Run.

For most of that game, that crucial, gotta-have, backs-against-the-wall baseball game, I knew what this morning’s report would say, and it would have amounted to one sentence, made up of four words, but then Jurickson Profar changed all that in an extraordinary, crazy-great instant and #pro and #far and Angels righty Michael Kohn doesn’t like this place too much but Matt Garza does and Profar signed with Texas on June 2, 2009 which was the same day Mike Trout signed with the Angels and that will always be cool to me and Profar was 16 then which is less rare than a player signing at nearly 23 years old which is what Craig Gentry did and Leonys Martin was even older than Gentry when he signed and sure we all expected those three to star in the biggest win of the season (so far) and I’m not sure whether Gentry’s biggest contribution was the three hits and stolen base or the former Tommy John patient’s laser to the plate to cut Howie Kendrick down in the fifth or maybe it was his clever strikeout to end the eighth to ensure that Lance Berkman wouldn’t bat at that point because it would have meant Profar wouldn’t have hit and maybe I’d be writing that four-word report this morning as a result even though I would have been tempted to write about Josh Hamilton who stood 90 feet from basically ending the Rangers’ season while Profar sat in the dugout thinking about the opportunity he’d have minutes later but Joe Nathan punched out Kole Calhoun and then Joe Nathan punched out Mark Trumbo and Josh Hamilton headed back to the dugout instead of down the baseline and when Calhoun fouled the 2-2 pitch that sent Trumbo scurrying from somewhere near the on-deck circle into the dugout and out of view I thought it might have been because Trumbo soiled himself because I couldn’t tell whether the foul ball actually hit Trumbo anywhere and if Hamilton of all people had been the one to score a go-ahead run there I don’t think I would have soiled myself but I might have said something descriptive along those lines but he didn’t and this one was more about overcoming a historically brutal four-infield-error inning with a historically awesome fourth straight home win against the Angels by walkoff homer and Profar going four or wait should that have been “an” historically and wow Eric Nadel’s extraordinary, crazy-great call of that moment and, man, baseball, and Gatorade baths are for sharks and stuff and so are clubhouse beer showers and sure Profar’s only 20 but “clothes aren’t under-age” and I could watch the Phantom Cam replay of Profar’s swing a thousand times and I doubt they had Phantom Cam when Miguel Cabrera hit his walkoff homer in 2003 which was the last time someone younger than Profar did that and do you start Gentry and Profar tonight against Ceej and if so does Jeff Baker play first base and why isn’t it game time yet and Adam Rosales running into the dugout after scoring a run is the 2013 equivalent of Koji running into the dugout after a third out in 2011 but they both bow down to any instance of runner’s-rounding-third Wash-trionics from the dugout and Texas may still be one game back in the playoff chase but at this time last year the Rangers had a two-game lead and we all remember how that ended and how Josh Hamilton didn’t do much to force a different result in that brutal game against the Orioles and Jurickson Profar had a ninth-inning pinch-hit in that game too but with slightly less impact and hey maybe Profar has just been baiting MLB all year and Hamilton told reporters yesterday he’d like to help knock the Rangers out of the playoffs and irony much? and I’m not done watching Martin Perez and Matt Garza pitch this year if it’s all the same to you and yeah I think I’ll remember Garza’s final two regular-season starts as a Ranger for a very long time and for all its frustrations I’m gonna miss the 2013 Texas Rangers season when it’s over but I’m not nearly ready to miss it yet and being at the Ballpark for an extraordinary, crazy-great, crucial win by walkoff homer is, well, you can have your other sports, and Jurickson Profar is 20 seriously he’s 20 and mismatched socks and let’s go Alexi and the swim is still alive and so I ended up writing just one sentence after all.

 

profar092613                                                                                                                               The great @kevinjairaj/USA Today

Pacing.

I remember exactly where I was when I found out on the morning of Friday, September 23, 2011, in an email from reader Ryan Morton, that I’d been recognized by a local weekly with a very cool honor that I absolutely didn’t deserve.  I was waiting on a jury.

There was nothing I could do, while pacing in the hallway outside the 95th in Dallas County, to influence what was going on in the jury room.

By the same token, the fact that yesterday my socks didn’t match didn’t matter.

Texas 7, Houston 3 found its level without a nod to my deliberate choice of footwear.

I wasn’t sweating a jury yesterday when I accidentally learned I’d received the same, equally unjustified recognition from the Dallas Observer.  I was clicking a Twitter link from Grubes about his own honor: being named the best nicknamer of Texas Rangers in the land (a completely justified distinction).  And I happened to find the other thing.

After I got Ryan’s email two years ago, the Rangers rattled off six straight wins to finish that season, including the final three against the Angels, and followed that with the greatest month of baseball in franchise history.

One had nothing to do with the other, of course, just as socks are silly and the fact that I was at the Ballpark for Monday and Tuesday night’s wins didn’t mean Texas was bound to lose last night with me on my couch at home.

But I’m taking no chances tonight.  I’ll be back in my seat at the Temple.  With clashing socks.

Watching the only remaining team in baseball with a chance to disrupt the roster of teams set to play in October.

Another six-game Rangers run, culminating with these first three against the Angels, would make Sunday’s Yu Darvish-Jason Vargas clash, in Game 162, one of those days when, no matter what happens, we’ll remember exactly where we were when it starts and when it ends, hopefully with Texas recording an out in the top of the ninth — or crossing the plate in the bottom of the frame — to send the team back out on the road for 162+.

Go.

Couple quick thoughts over lunch . . . .

There are five games left.  That’s the equivalent of the final 90 seconds of an NBA game, or a play or two into action in the NFL after the two-minute warning.

One final round tonight with Houston, against whom the Rangers’ win percentage this year (.889) looks like an elite free-throw clip.
The only two times Texas has lost to the Astros this season, in 18 games, the winning pitchers for Houston were Bud Norris – who is now with Baltimore – and Travis Blackley – whom the Astros traded to the Rangers a month later.

In that second game, Yu Darvish (6-6-5-5-4-6) lost, and Blackley won in relief after three other Astros relievers couldn’t hold onto the lead that starter Dallas Keuchel (5-6-2-2-1-4) had entrusted them with.

Keuchel, who has a reasonably good history against the Rangers (.240/.305/.323 slash, 3.65 ERA in four starts, including a 2.70 in two Rangers Ballpark starts), gets the ball tonight, against Martin Perez, whose one career start against Houston (9-4-1-1-2-8) was his best against anyone.

The Perez gem was on August 11, and Keuchel was his mound opponent.  It was the Rangers’ 12th win in 13 games, and Texas would win another 11 out of 17 to finish the month.

But after that came September, during which the Rangers are 7-15, even with wins over Houston the last two nights, and as a result Perez-Keuchel II has exponentially more riding on it tonight than anyone could have imagined a month ago.

Even last night, this could have felt a lot different, had Jason Giambi – who is having a worse season than Lance Berkman – not rescued the Indians from a loss that would have dropped Cleveland into a tie with the Rangers for the second Wild Card spot, hitting a walkoff blast that I envision Nelson Cruz having watched, perhaps in The Brookside II in Surprise, a million miles away from actual contribution to an official baseball game, which seems wrong in the context of Giambi hitting a huge difference-making home run in a game that counts.

But maybe Cruz is a week away from contributing himself.

And now that I think about it, if the Rangers manage to force a Game 163 against the Indians for that second Wild Card spot, I suppose Cruz will be eligible to play in it.  (Right?)

Holding ground isn’t nearly as cool as gaining it, but it sure beats losing ground, which Texas can’t afford to do tonight, or tomorrow, or Friday or Saturday or Sunday.

One more against Houston, then four against the Angels.  Five games.  One time through the rotation for Texas and for Cleveland and for Tampa Bay.  #CastleDoctrine doesn’t begin to tag what’s left this week, hopefully in front of full, raucous houses.

It’s Go Time.

One.

Best thing about last night?

The 14-hit, 12-run barrage from a beleaguered offense, with seven different hitters driving in runs?

Alex Rios skillfully sailing his way to a six-inning cycle?

The complete-game shutout from Derek Holland, who threw 29 balls all night — to 33 Houston batters?

The fact that, under the urgent circumstances facing his team, Holland gave the bullpen the night off?

Or that Texas snapped its franchise-record seven-game home losing streak, logging its first Rangers Ballpark win in September, on a night when it basically had to win to keep the swim alive?

Texas 12, Houston 0.  Slam dunk: Still just two points.  One of 162.

But a real big one.

The most important stat wasn’t the 14 or the 12 or the seven, or the 2B-1B-HR-3B, or the 9-6-0-0-1-9 or the 29/33.  It was the 1 that was added to the win column, giving that loss column the night off.

Your turn, Yu.  Be great.

Deep water.

I opened the door for the dog this morning and walked outside with her before the sun came up.  It was 59 degrees.  That was awesome.

I stood next to the swimming pool, and its completely still waters, calm and calming and peaceful . . . and lifeless.  It hit me that the end of pool season may have passed before I was ready.  Not awesome.

It managed to prime the pit in my stomach that was already there, courtesy of baseball.

Yesterday’s gut punch, courtesy of baseball, was tough.  Real tough.

I walked in from that gaping hole in the backyard ground, deep and dark and lethargic and uncool, and sat down to a stack of online reading that I’d started last night.  First up, this article by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, which includes this starkly imaged sentence:

[Nelson] Cruz, who says he last saw his teammates Aug. 30, can be found at the Rangers instructional league camp these days.  He’s the occupant of locker No. 120 in the minor league clubhouse, right across from the table tennis table.

And this gut punch, more staggering:

“My first thought was to appeal, and right up to the last day I told (the Rangers) my decision was to appeal,” Cruz says. “That was my plan.  It’s hard to explain it, but at the end it wasn’t my decision.  It wasn’t what I wanted to do.  It came out of my hands.”  

And this Nightengale note, maybe less staggering than striking:

The Rangers, trying to solve that power void [left by Cruz’s suspension], tried to pull off a blockbuster deal for Atlanta Braves outfielder Justin Upton before the July 31 trade deadline.  The Rangers offered starter Matt Garza, All-Star closer Joe Nathan and outfielder David Murphy, but they were rejected, two high-ranking club officials told USA TODAY Sports.  They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to publicly talk about personnel decisions.

With the wound of Kansas City 4, Texas 0 still fresh, the timing of the Nightengale article and all that it implied basically ensured that this pit in my stomach isn’t quite ready to go away.

Then again, if you’re prone to imagining where things would be this morning had Upton arrived to replace Murphy (setting aside for the moment what would have happened in the absence of Garza’s innings and with everyone in the bullpen asked to pitch in a higher-leverage role), take a look at what Upton has done since then.

In August — when Texas was just fine, winning 20 of 27 — he hit a robust .298/.362/.631.

In September — a 5-15 month for the Rangers to date — he’s been a .236/.329/.375 hitter.  Which is basically what the Texas offense has been as a whole this month (.246/.297/.377).

Upton would have cost Craig Gentry (.333/.366/.410 in September) some amount of playing time, and rhythm.

He would have also essentially cost C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, two months of Murphy, and a pennant race void left by Nathan’s departure, if the story is accurate.

Of course, the Upton trade would have been more about 2014 and 2015 — trading Garza days after acquiring him and moving your closer is essentially a sell move — just as the Alex Rios trade was made in part because Texas knew it would have him next year, when free agents Cruz and Murphy could be elsewhere.

For now, Rios has been a reasonably bright light as the rest of the offense flags, hitting .275/.318/.463 in September, far from a blistering slash but one that stands out in a lineup that’s been so lifeless of late.

Last night, Rios tweeted this: “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

I’m not sure how to square that with the image of that stupid, inanimate pool in my backyard this morning, but I get what Rios is saying.  He’s never played a big league playoff game in his 10 years, and he’s in a mood to try and gut that trend as long as the math allows.

Tonight’s game matters, tomorrow’s will too, and Texas can do its part to make sure they keep mattering all week.  This is an exceptional organization that’s had more adversity to overcome this year than its fair share, and I’m not willing to give up on anything yet.

Seven left at home, the first three against Houston.  Taking care of business against the Astros would not only keep hope alive; it would create some much-needed momentum heading into the final four against the Angels, who are playing well.

As far as these last few days are concerned, a continuation of the trend not only of treading water with a loss every other game after a brutal losing streak, but also of dropping them by the narrowest of margins, which naturally trains the lens on things like late-inning bullpen management, my pockets are empty.  The best I can do is dredge up a series of tweets I posted after the especially tough 12-inning loss to Tampa Bay on Wednesday:

Disagreeing with certain of a manager’s tactics and wishing they were different is not the same as wanting that manager fired.

Unless NYY pulls off a miracle, the only team with legit chance to be playoff team last four years is Texas.  Given health issues this year . . . 

. . . if it doesn’t quite happen for Texas, it doesn’t mean that a top-level head needs to roll.  Baseball is hard.

All that said, getting better & stronger in every single aspect of an org’s attack is always a priority — even for a World Series winner.

And getting better & stronger doesn’t necessarily mean that has to come from different personnel.  People (not just ballplayers) can improve.

This month of baseball has been extraordinarily difficult, but at this point in the season in 1972 and 1973 and 1975 and 1976 and 1977 and 1980 and 1982 and 1983 and 1984 and 1985 and 1986 and 1987 and 1988 and 1989 and 1990 and 1991 and 1992 and 1997 and 2000 and 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and 2005 and 2006 and 2007 and 2008, the math said the Texas Rangers baseball season was over.

I’ll be out at the Ballpark three times this week, at least.  I plan on each of those games mattering.  There’s still life in the math, and I’m not done.

Because it’s baseball, and my team still has a shot.

It looks like temps are going to get back up into the 90s for much of this baseball week.

Maybe there’s another swim left.

Matt Garza shoves.

Every announcer said it, and every tweet tweeted it:

That was the Matt Garza the Rangers thought they were getting when they traded for him.

Nope.

That was better.

Against a hot team (winners of 17 of its last 25), in front of its third-biggest home crowd of the season, chasing its first playoff berth in 28 years, and on his own club’s heels with just two games of separation (8.5 games closer than four weeks earlier), Garza — who’d managed to contribute only 15.1 innings in his last three starts (0-3, 8.22), getting tuned up at a .349/.400/.508 rate — was exceptional.

When Ron Washington sent Garza out to the mound for the ninth inning of what was then a 3-0 ballgame, among the things the righthander had done was retire the leadoff hitter in every single inning.  Huge.

He’d thrown a remarkable 73 percent of his pitches for strikes, and started off 20 of 29 hitters with strike one.

His control (one walk) was nothing compared to his command.

And on a night when the bullpen, a source of frustration (if not a little confusion) the few days leading up to it, with an afternoon game on deck — and a not-fully-stretched-out Alexi Ogando getting the start — was in need of some amount of a break, Garza gave his teammates a massive helping of I-got-this, needing no relief until Eric Hosmer broke the shutout and ended Garza’s night with a solo homer to start the ninth.

And get this.

If you’re wondering whether Texas just rode Garza hard last night, desperate to save the bullpen and indifferent to any residual long-term effect on Garza’s arm since he’s likely to be in a different uniform this winter, he made the decision a pretty easy one: The 12.1 pitches per inning that the 29-year-old logged last night were fewer than in any other of his 23 starts all season.

And fewer than in any of his 18 starts in 2012.

Or his 31 starts in 2011.

Or his 32 starts in 2010.

Or his 32 starts in 2009.

In fact, Garza, who has started 190 big league games — 195 if you count playoffs — has made only two starts in which he was more economical with his pitches: a 9-1-1-1-1-10 gem on June 26, 2008 against Florida (on the road, meaning he got to face the pitcher a couple times) and a complete-game shutout against Toronto on July 29, 2008, in which he allowed five hits and one walk, fanning five — the same number of hits and walks and strikeouts on his ledger last night.

In those two 2008 games, Garza averaged 12.0 and 11.8 pitches per inning.

As for last night’s 97 pitches in eight-plus innings, if Hosmer’s opposite-field shot happened to find Craig Gentry’s glove instead of the Kansas City bullpen, then we’re looking at 97 in 8.1 frames, and the most economical effort (11.6 pitches per inning) of Matt Garza’s entire big league career.  In what was, to date, the most important game of the 2013 Texas Rangers season.

That’s more than what the Rangers thought they were getting.

Texas has had only three starts of at least seven innings this season more economical than last night’s Garza gem: Derek Holland’s 92 pitches in nine innings (10.2 per) when he shut out the Yankees on two hits on June 27, Yu Darvish’s 81 pitches in seven frames (11.6 per) in his 1-0 loss to Pittsburgh on September 9, and Martin Perez’s 82 in seven (11.7 per) against the Cardinals on June 22.

The thing about Ryan Dempster’s Ranger rental from the Cubs last summer was that, even though he followed a clunky debut start with a reasonably good stretch (7-2, 3.56 in nine starts), all I will ever remember about his time in Texas is those final two starts, a brutal 5.2-inning effort against the Angels in a loss that would start the Rangers’ 1-6 slide to finish the regular season and spit up a healthy division lead, and an even worse showing in Oakland in Game 162, failing to hold a 5-1 lead after three, allowing four straight A’s to reach to start the fourth and end his day and any real chance the Rangers had to avoid the Wild Card game that would kill their season.

Those two starts are all I’ll remember about Dempster as a Ranger.

Matt Garza has one more start to make.  It will be Thursday in the series opener against the Angels, in Arlington, in Game 159.

If it turns out that he shoves again that night, helping his team avoid falling short of this year’s Wild Card game, then I guarantee you that, like Dempster the year before, all I will remember about Garza’s time in Texas — his regular season time in Texas — will be his final two starts.

Hours from now, Texas will play its final road game of the season.

Four days from now, Garza will make his final start as a Ranger.

Unless there’s more of each that fits in the 162+ category, which is something back when Texas traded for Garza we all thought we’d get, but which, due to a September tailspin, is in serious doubt right now.

Last night Garza relieved a little bit of that doubt, nearly all by himself.

Control.

How long ago was September 29, 2009?

The Rangers sent Scott Feldman to the mound, in search of his 18th win.

He was relieved by Guillermo Moscoso and Pedro Strop and Willie Eyre.

Rookie Julio Borbon led off, taking a .318/.384/.432 slash into the game.

Hank Blalock was on the team.

Mike Napoli pinch-hit for Vladimir Guerrero.

On the other team.

The final score in the game that the Rangers played on September 29, 2009 was Los Angeles 5, Texas 2.

The Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention that day.

At all times in the nearly four years since the five games that remained in that 2009 season, Texas has been in control of its own destiny.

If Texas loses ground tonight to Cleveland (who hosts the Astros again, assuming the umpires aren’t worried that they might get wet), it will be the first time since the end of 2009 that the Rangers’ ultimate fate is dependent on more than just their own wins and losses.

Let’s go, Matt Garza.

This is why.

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