Over the course of a one hundred and sixty-two game baseball season, the manager is oft-reminded that he doesn’t know as much about the game as the media, or the fan base at large, perpetually hashing and rehashing over in-game decisions, and giving the same recycled answers to the same vanilla questions that he’d rather not care to discuss. Such is embedded in the job description. But at no point does the angst and boiling point grow as high than when the microscope is squarely fixated during the last month of the regular season and into the playoffs. The more the games mean, the more important the decisions mean, and the less wiggle room you allow yourself when you happen to be wrong.
Over the last few weeks, the once-secure 5+ game lead the Rangers had been comfortably enjoying collapsed to a mere two over the never-say-die Athletics, a games-up figure that hadn’t been so minuscule since all the way back on August 1st, when the Rangers stunned Anaheim with a peck-away rally down six runs to send the game into extra innings, then scoring 4 runs in the bottom of the 10th to vault the division lead back up to 3.0 games. The Rangers won again the following night, stretching the buffer back up to 4.0 over the Halos, effectively ending any hopes the Angels had of capturing the AL West from Texas.
One Angels slump, and one gaudy hot streak from the A’s later, and the Rangers found themselves a new team to fend off in their quest for a third consecutive division title.
After Scott Feldman laid another egg on Saturday, allowing 6 runs in 2+ innings to the meager Mariners offensive attack, the A’s kept trucking, winning their second in a row in a three-game set at home against the Orioles. That’s when the division lead went down to just two games, hurling conventional sensibility of Rangers fans aside in favor of officially pressing the panic button. Not only pressing, but stomping repeatedly, as if it was their lifeline. I read such fan reactions as “Oakland is a team of destiny and there’s nothing we can do about it,” and “We’ll never win a World Series with this roster,” and various sentiments of the ilk. Whoa. Slow down.
And although it came from an irrational place, perhaps the only rational thought after Saturday’s debacle (which the Rangers ended up tying and almost came back to win), was the question of “Why in the hell is Scott Feldman still starting for the Rangers?” Well, Rangers fans, you get your wish: Feldman is out of the rotation, and rookie Martin Perez is in. Congratulations.
Listen, I get it. I hate to see the Rangers lose, too. I’m as critical as anyone in my bewilderment of why Michael Young sees so much playing time, why Craig Gentry sees so little playing time, and why Scott Feldman can’t turn his impressive peripherals (K:BB rate, ground ball percentage) into more imposing, consistent results. But I also keep the big picture in mind. It’s hard to get irrational when I’m just so damn realistic about everything.
The reason why the Rangers lead has shrunk so much has absolutely nothing to do with them playing bad baseball. Quite the contrary, actually. After Texas’s win on Sunday against the Mariners, they’ve now taken the series win in 8 of their last 9 matchups, and that’s really good. But as the Rangers have been taking 2 out of 3, and in some instances 3 out of 4, the A’s have been sweeping teams (minus the loss they took to Baltimore on Sunday). The old adage in the baseball universe is if you win two out of three at home, and split on the road, you’ll be living well. So far this season the Rangers are 47-27 (.635) at home and 40-32 (.556) on the road. Those are marks of a team that’s going to the playoffs, and a division champion. There’s some thought out there that we should be sweeping teams like Cleveland and Seattle at home, but I just can’t wrap myself around it. Winning the series is what’s important. It’s greedy to expect sweeps; it’s gravy to achieve them.
With the Rangers current 3-game lead over Oakland as we head to Anaheim and Seattle this week, the magic number stands at 14. Oakland now embarks on their most trying portion of their late-season schedule, traveling for 10 games against a desperate Detroit team, a Yankees roster looking to maintain a half-game division lead of their own, and into Arlington for the climax of their regular season. It’s not out of the question that the West will be mathematically secured by the time the Rangers-A’s 4 game set concludes.
But I’ll hold my horses until that time comes. After all, the Rangers have their own business to attend, as they look to derail the Angels playoff hopes while maintaining their mildly uneasy margin over the A’s. This team has come so far, and has accomplished so much, and yet it still seems like there’s way too much baseball left. A 3-game lead with 16 to go is a great position to be in, and now it’s just a matter of carrying this great season across the finish line.