Earlier this season, I said that this season's Rangers club had a different "feel" to it than the 2004 team did, while also saying that I thought this Ranger team was the best team in the A.L. West.
I still feel the same way, about both those points. I'm underwhelmed by Anaheim, a team that has Vlad, a great pen, and not a whole lot else that's all that impressive. The Angels are vulnerable, and this division is as winnable as it has been since Dean Palmer was a Ranger.
But at the same time, I'm now beginning to think that the Angels are going to end up winning the division, essentially by default. This is a Ranger team that had some obvious holes at the end of 2004, that did nothing to patch those holes, and has seen them simply grow bigger as the 2005 season has progressed.
The 2004 team, you got the feeling, every time someone went down, or someone made an error or blew a lead, that someone else was going to step up, was going to get the big hit, was going to provide a few solid innings to get the team over the hump. That David Dellucci game-winning double last year against Oakland -- when Dellucci was in the midst of an 0 for 27 streak, or something like that, off of Octavio Dotel, with two strikes -- that encapsulated the season. It seemed like the 2004 Rangers were perpetually defying the odds, picking themselves off the floor and bouncing back for more. They were the team expected to lose 100 games, that hung in the pennant race until the last weekend of the season.
And this year's team? It would be greedy to expect lightning to strike twice...but this year, the 2004 magic seems to have dissipated.
This road trip really drove that point home...Tuesday night's game, against Anaheim, the Rangers go down 8 runs early. The bullpen guts up and provides a sterling effort, shutting the Angels down over the final six innings. The offense pecks away, getting a couple of runs here and there, before mounting a rally in the 9th, cutting the lead to two, getting runners on first and second with just one out.
In 2004, a bloop single falls in, someone puts a ball off the wall, and the Rangers pull off a miraculous, 9-8 win. In 2005, K-Rod mows down the last two batters to end the game.
Today's game against the Astros, same thing. In 2004, Ausmus's suicide squeeze bunt gets popped up, and Palmeiro gets doubled off third base. Or Mench's line drive to left in the 10th goes over Chris Burke's head and off the wall, leading to a rally, a run and Francisco Cordero closing out the game. In 2005, Burke makes an incredible running catch with his back to the plate.
And thus, just when it looked like the Rangers were poised to make a push at the Angels, the wheels come off, Anaheim goes on a winning streak, and the Rangers find themselves in danger of falling out of the A.L. West race before July 4th.
The Angels come to town on Monday, of course, with a 6.5 game lead (the Rangers are up just 5.5 games on last place Seattle), and anything less than a four-game sweep of Anaheim leaves the Rangers in a deep hole...even taking three of four means that Texas is 4.5 games back. And the Wild Card race doesn't look a whole lot better...Texas is just three games back of Baltimore, but they also are two games back of Minnesota and a game back of Cleveland, with New York just a game behind.
Realistically, in about 10 days time, the Rangers have gone from being serious contenders to being on the fringe of the playoff hunt. And if they don't kick it in gear and sweep the Angels, they are going to be sellers after the All-Star Break.
Which leads to the other ongoing issue that management is going to have to address...are they willing to be buyers, if they hang on at the fringes of the race? Or if not, if they determine they aren't a legitimate playoff team, are they willing to be sellers, to the extent that they have pieces that they can sell off?
Coming into the season, I pegged this as a .500 team. In the offseason, I felt two realistic free agent targets -- Carlos Delgado and Brad Radke -- would make the Rangers the favorites in the A.L. West, and I still think a solid top-of-the-rotation starter and a significant DH would make this team a contender. But unfortunately, those holes weren't filled in the offseason, the price to pick up such a player now is extremely high, and later in the summer, when the price starts to come down, the Rangers may very well be out of the race altogether. Plus, given Hicks' and Hart's public statements that they aren't going to trade minor leaguers, one has to doubt whether the team would even be serious about adding a veteran via trade come the end of July, even if they are still in the race.
So here we are, late June, a half-dozen games out of first place, watching a very winnable division slip away, having to come to grips with the fact that the most exciting thing over the next month may very well be the Alfonso Soriano trade rumors. Soriano to the Yanks, for Sean Henn, Robinson Cano and Eric Duncan? Soriano to the Cubs, for Jerome Williams and Sergio Mitre? Soriano to the Mets, for Lastings Milledge and, I don't know, a pitching prospect or two? And what about Gary Matthews, Jr.? Will there be a contender in need of a fourth outfielder, willing to part with a grade B prospect?
It is a frustrating time to be a Rangers fan. And, I have to imagine, a frustrating time to be a Rangers player. There have been indications in the press that the players are growing displeased with management...Mike Young and Mark Teixeira have, over the past several months, voiced displeasure over the lack of movement this offseason and the departure of Ryan Drese, and the shipping off of Laynce Nix this spring supposedly ruffled a few feathers, as well.
And then we have this tidbit from Jon Heyman of New York Newsday:
Bucking the boss
Some Texas players are starting to dislike Buck Showalter. One Rangers observer said, "He treats them like they're idiots."
That might explain how Showalter, who's superior strategically, garnered 12 percent of the vote in SI's spring player poll for "worst manager," which tied for most with Frank Robinson.
Heyman, it should be noted, isn't a Showalter fan. He's the writer who last year wrote that you can tell if Showalter is lying if his lips are moving.
But it is a situation worth watching.
And as the Angels come to town on Monday, it is also worth remembering what I kept saying last year...winning creates chemistry, not the other way around. If the Rangers start winning again, all will be forgiven. But if the Rangers don't start winning...well, this would be a sub-plot worth watching.