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When the 2020 Rangers season turned

One-third of the way through the 2020 season, the Rangers were playoff contenders. And then a grand slam happened.

San Diego Padres v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It is easy to forget, given how the season turned out, but one-third of the way through the 2020 season, the Texas Rangers were playoff contenders.

Texas stumbled out of the gate, losing 8 of their first 11 games of the season, but followed that up by winning 7 of 8, sweeping the Angels at home, taking two of three against the Mariners at home, and then winning the first two games of a three game series in Colorado, putting them at 10-9 on the year. The Rangers lost the finale against the Rockies, but returned to Arlington to begin a home-and-home series against the San Diego Padres on August 17 with a 10-10 record.

Oakland was running away with the division at that point, at 16-6, but the expanded playoff format guaranteed the second place team in each division a spot in the postseason. The Houston Astros looked vulnerable, and on August 17, the ‘Stros were 11-10, just a half-game ahead of Texas. The Rangers hadn’t played great to start the year — they had a -15 run differential — but with the Astros not looking great and the Mariners and Angels floundering, Texas was in a position where mediocre, .500 ball could keep them in the race, and possibly get them a playoff berth.

Game one of the series against the Padres featured Jordan Lyles against Zach Davies. Lyles had a blowup second inning, allowing five runs on a walk, three singles, and two doubles. It could have been worse — one of the three outs in the inning was on an Austin Hedges sac bunt, and the final out came when Jose Trevino picked Fernando Tatis, Jr., off of first base.

The Padres put a couple more runs on the board off of Lyles to make it 7-0 when the Rangers came to bat in the 4th. Texas scratched back with a pair of runs on a Rougned Odor double in the fourth, and then a third run when Joey Gallo doubled home Danny Santana in the 6th. Jesse Chavez then went walk-single-Tatis home run to start the 7th, making it a 10-3 game, and pretty much burying the Rangers hopes.

The eighth inning saw veteran righthanded reliever Juan Nicasio come into the game. The 33 year old Nicasio had broken into the majors in 2011 with the Colorado Rockies, was an unsuccessful starter for a few years, moved to the bullpen with the Dodgers in 2015, had some success, and then had a breakout 2017 season, which saw him put up a 2.61 ERA in 72.1 IP while leading the National League in appearances, with 76.

Nicasio’s great 2017 landed him a 2 year, $17 million free agent deal with the Seattle Mariners. Brought in to fortify the M’s bullpen, Nicasio was awful for Seattle, putting up a 6.00 ERA in 42 innings over 46 games. It was a strange season for Nicasio — he struck out 53 batters while walking just 5, and while he allowed 6 home runs, he still had a 2.99 FIP. Nicasio’s problem was a .402 BABIP and a 58.1% strand rate. Statcast has Nicasio allowing a .349 wOBA in 2018, which isn’t great, but an xwOBA of .283, which was actually lower than it was in his previous three years (which is as far back as the Statcast data goes).

Nicasio was dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies in December, 2018, along with James Pazos and Jean Segura, in exchange for J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana. Nicasio’s inclusion in the deal was for salary purposes — a way of providing the M’s some salary relief by making the Phillies take their overpriced, bad reliever. Nicasio put up a 4.75 ERA and 3.87 FIP in 2019, after which the best he could do was a minor league deal with the Rangers for 2020.

Included as part of the Rangers’ 60 man player pool for summer camp, Nicasio had been added to the active roster just 3 days earlier, replacing Edinson Volquez. He had pitched the fourth inning in Colorado the previous day, allowing a pair of runs in an inning of work, and was being asked by Chris Woodward to do what the veterans at the end of the bullpen are asked to do — come in and give the team an inning or two in a lost cause game.

Nicasio didn’t have it. He allowed a single to Jurickson Profar to lead off the inning, walked Josh Naylor on a 3-1 pitch, and then fell down 3-1 to Austin Hedges before getting him to pop out. Trent Grisham drew a walk to load the bases, bringing up Fernando Tatis, Jr.

Taking a step back, Fernando Tatis Jr. versus Juan Nicasio represented two players in extremely different situations. Nicasio was a veteran journeyman, a guy who had put together a decent major league career as a role player, never highly regarded, being perceived as a disappointment the one time a team made a major investment in him, and now, in the twilight of his playing days, getting what could be his final opportunity to keep his career afloat. Tatis was a budding superstar, the son of a major leaguer, a guy who was one of the most heralded players in the minor leagues in 2017 and 2018, who debuted as a 20 year old in 2019 and established himself immediately as a star, and who was making a claim to being one of the best players in baseball when he stepped to the plate against Nicasio the night of August 17, 2020.

One was a supernova, a superstar on the rise, bursting on the scene with a chance to make a material imprint on the game. The other was a journeyman, a veteran who had scuffled and fought and hung around, who was clinging to his career by his fingertips.

Pitching in an empty stadium, fighting for his baseball life in the middle of chaos and coronavirus and overall uncertainty, Nicasio fell down in the count, 3-0. Trying to avoid the ignomy, the embarrassment, of walking in a run in the midst of a blowout, Nicasio threw a get-me-over fastball to Tatis. Tatis crushed the tune of a 109.8 mph exit velocity, per Statcast. The 3-0 get-me-over pitch was deposited into the right field seats for a grand slam home run.

If you were to treat the 2020 Rangers season as a function, and were to map it on a graph, this would be the point that the curve started heading down in a steep and dramatic fashion. This was the point where the Rangers season turned.

Nicasio was removed from the game. Ian Gibaut entered the game and threw behind Manny Machado before getting Machado, and then Eric Hosmer, to ground out. Gibaut throwing behind Machado was seen as retaliation for the Tatis home run, and he was condemned on social media for doing so.

Then Chris Woodward, Rangers manager, and Jayce Tingler, Padres manager, both said after the game that Tatis was in the wrong — that you don’t swing on 3-0 in a blowout. Both managers were lampooned, and the Rangers became a laughingstock, a punch line, a team mocked for getting mad because the other team was still trying and they weren’t good enough to get a batter out. The criticism was heightened because Tatis is a budding star, the type of player who should be celebrated, and Woodward and Tingler were painted as emblematic of all that was is wrong with baseball, stodgy white guys who want to take the fun out of the game and criticize the young player of color for not conforming to the culture of the major leagues.

Part of what frustrated me about this was the caricaturing of Woodward and Tingler. Both are former players — Woodward was a 54th round draft pick who managed to make it to the majors and appear in 659 career games, while Tingler played four seasons in the minors before assuming on off-field position at the age of 26. Both are part of the new breed of managers, those who embrace analytics and the changes in how the game is being taught and played, while also being able to communicate with players and respect the clubhouse culture. Woodward spent the three seasons prior to being hired by the Rangers as the third base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most cutting edge teams in baseball, and part of what he has sought to implement in Texas are the things he learned and brought with him from the time with the Dodgers. Tingler was involved in every aspect of the Rangers’ organization during his decade-plus he spent with the team before he joined the Padres.

And what has largely been overlooked in the pillorying of Woodward and Tingler is that each, the next day, spoke on the issue and either backed off their earlier comments or clarified them, depending on your point of view. Tingler said his issue with Tatis was that he had given him the take sign, which Tatis ignored. Woodward talked about thinking about the “gray area in the game when it comes to the unwritten rules,” and how that has changed, acknowledging that he may have been wrong to be upset about Tatis swinging 3-0,* while praising Tatis and talking about how much respect he has for him.

* One of the things I appreciate about Woodward is his willingness to acknowledge to admit that he may be wrong, or is wrong. He seems, from my outside observations, to be a thoughtful, introspective person who cares about what he is doing and is open to listening to other opinions and acknowledging when he may have made a mistake.

This drama played out over a couple of news cycles, and is still brought up from time to time. And I do wonder how much the dynamics of the individuals involved played into how the players and managers handled this. Tingler was a coach on Woodward’s staff in 2019, and would have been on the Rangers’ staff in 2020 if the Padres hadn’t hired him away. He has a relationship with Woodward, with many of the coaches and players on the team. He doesn’t, I suspect, want to show up his former club, or be perceived as showing them up.

Tatis is a young, dynamic star, who has been on our radars for a while, and has lived up to the hype. For those who are disdainful of the unwritten rules, who see them as anachronistic and useless and something to be done away with, he’s the type of player who can sweep away the fusty traditions and establish a new “right” way of playing the game. Someone like Tatis swinging away on 3-0, regardless of the score, is a good thing, and anyone who criticizes a young, exciting player like Tatis hitting a grand slam, for whatever reason, is worthy of condemnation.

And then there’s Nicasio — a veteran trying to keep his career afloat, having made it back to the majors after having to sign a minor league deal, but knowing every game can be his last, drowning in a blowout, seeing a get-me-over 3-0 pitch destroyed by a guy barely old enough to drink. Nicasio, you may recall, was placed on the restricted list after the game, reportedly because he requested the opportunity to return home to the Dominican Republic to spend time with his family, and hasn’t, to my knowledge, returned. I suspect a certain amount of the reaction, at least from the Rangers, stemmed from a sense that Nicasio had been needlessly (in the minds of at least some of the team) embarrassed by someone who wasn’t respecting the unwritten rules.

And let me be clear — this is just me, from the outside, guessing. I could be wrong. I’m not in the clubhouse, I don’t talk to these guys, I could be completely off base here. But I suspect these dynamics were a big part of this.

That home run, though, from the standpoint of the story arc of the 2020 season, was the turning point. It broke the Rangers. They were 10-10 when Tatis came to the plate to face Nicasio, a half-game out of a playoff spot. They were struggling, but were still in a position to say, hey, its a short season, if we get hot, or even if we just keep playing .500 ball, we could make the postseason, and who knows what could happen then?

But if you believe in the Baseball Gods, they hated the way the Rangers reacted to the Tatis grand slam, and made up their mind to punish the Rangers as a result. Wil Myers hit a two out grand slam in the first inning of the next game, providing the winning margin in a 6-4 loss by Texas.

The two teams then traveled to San Diego, where on August 19, the game went to extra innings tied at 2. The Rangers loaded the bases in the top of the 10th, pushing home a single run, giving them a 3-2 lead that Rafael Montero was asked to preserve. With the new rules meaning a runner started the inning on second, the Padres bunted him to third. Montero went to 3-2 on Trent Grisham before walking him, and did the same with Tatis. Machado, the player Ian Gibaut threw at, came to the plate. The count went to 3-2 again. And Machado then went deep, giving the Padres a walk-off grand slam.

At that point, you’d figure that the Baseball Gods had made their point. The Rangers were properly shamed. But no. Eric Hosmer took Kyle Gibson out of the yard in the bottom of the fifth inning the following day, turning a 2-1 Rangers lead into a 5-2 deficit, and giving the Padres grand slams in four consecutive games, all against the Rangers. Texas took a 6-5 lead into the 8th inning, but Jesse Chavez allowed home runs to Ty France and Austin Hedges to make it a 7-6 game. Nick Solak managed to tie it in the 9th with a leadoff home run, leading to extra innings, but a Jake Cronenworth single against Luis Garcia gave the Padres another walkoff win.

Finally done with San Diego, looking to get back on track against the M’s, Texas traveled to Seattle, only to be swept in a three game series, meaning 7 straight losses since the Tatis home run, and an 8 game losing streak in all, counting the finale in Colorado. Texas broke the losing streak with a win at home against Oakland, but continued to tailspin, losing 17 of the 20 games beginning with the Tatis grand slam game.

Apparently at that point, the Baseball Gods decided the point had been made. The final 20 games of the season, the Rangers went 9-11, playing more like a decent major league team and less like an embarrassment.

But the die had been cast. The Astros ended the season with a 29-31 record, but made the playoffs. The Rangers could have been in contention until the final weekend of the season, could have made the final series against the Astros meaningful. Instead, the 3-17 stretch that started with the Fernando Tatis Jr. game wrecked the season, and left them with the second worst record in baseball.