Friday, October 28, 2011

Game 7: Still a hell of a run

The Texas Rangers fired every bullet in their chamber last night and fell short in Game 6 of the World Series, missing on a pair of opportunities to claim the franchise's first title when St. Louis found itself down to its final strike. Tonight, the Cardinals closed the series out in St. Louis, 6-2 in Game 7 for their 11th World Series championship. The fact that this team came so close -- again, one strike away twice in Game 6 -- makes it so much more painful, but maybe the most healthy thing Rangers fans can do is take a step back, or ten, and look at just how far this organization has come.

The Rangers made it to Game 7 of the World Series.

The Texas Rangers!

Last year's ride that ended against a super San Francisco pitching staff in five games was magical just to experience the Fall Classic for the first time. This season, yes, expectations were raised. Those expectations skyrocketed when Texas took a 3-2 lead going back to St. Louis. Those same high expectations came one strike away from reality -- twice -- before eventually succumbing to the Cardinals.

Part of me wants to go on a witch hunt for scape goats. My brother's graphic regarding Game 7 home plate umpire Jerry Layne's strike zone is a humorous beginning as we light our torches.

But the witch hunt doesn't need to start and stop at the Game 7 crew chief. Texas had its chances. This isn't the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 against the Miami Heat -- although it certainly crossed my mind more than once on Twitter, especially in the fifth inning when Scott Feldman allegedly walked Yadier Molina. When it comes down to it, however, the Rangers were in control of their own destiny and their carriage turned back into a pumpkin three nights before Halloween.

The bullpen that was so strong throughout the entire 2011 season, ALDS, and ALCS. That same bullpen disintegrated against the Cardinals in the Fall Classic. The pitching staff in general fell victim to walks that didn't come back to bite them in the earlier rounds of the postseason. Texas set a new record for walks in a World Series with 41 over this seven-game set, and too many of them came around to score.

In Game 7, the Rangers walked six batters (one intentionally) with three of them coming around to score. Scott Feldman walked in a run, and CJ Wilson hit a batter with the bases loaded to score another. Overall in the postseason, Texas played with too much fire (77 walks in 17 games) to not get burned. Here's a look at the walks, intentional walks, and subsequent runs during this playoff run:

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
ALDS1 vs. TB2 (0)1
ALDS2 vs. TB4 (0)1
ALDS3 at TB5 (0)0
ALDS4 at TB3 (0)2

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
ALCS1 vs. DET6 (1)0
ALCS2 vs. DET6 (1)0
ALCS3 at DET2 (0)0
ALCS4 at DET5 (1)0
ALCS5 at DET3 (0)0
ALCS6 vs. DET0 (0)0

RoundGameWalks (IBB)Scored
WS1 at STL6 (2)0
WS2 at STL4 (0)0
WS3 vs. STL6 (1)5
WS4 vs. STL3 (0)0
WS5 vs. STL9 (4)2
WS6 at STL7 (1)1
WS7 at STL6 (1)3
WSTOTAL41 (9)11

The Rangers walks were certainly part of the problem, but the bullpen's collapse -- a bullpen that looked like it would be the reason Texas would win the series -- became the team's fatal flaw over this seven game series. This team's starting rotation was never heralded as a great rotation like the 2010 Giants staff we ran into that featured Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgardener.

Somehow starters CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison as well as regular season starter Alexi Ogando forged one of the most consistent starting rotations in the big leagues in 2011. In the post season, however, things got a little dicey. After starters earned decisions in all four games against Tampa Bay, the bullpen earned all four wins in the ALCS and two of the three victories in the World Series.

We didn't see the same bullpen against St. Louis. Alexi Ogando was un-hittable against Detroit in the ALCS and somehow looked liked a 2010 version of Derek Holland when he reached the World Series. Neftali Feliz had never blown a postseason save until Game 6 on Thursday night. Scott Feldman worked 8.2 scoreless postseason innings before allowing three earned runs over 4.1 innings in the Fall Classic.

Offensively, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli were amazing. Adrian Beltre's bat -- the same bat that launched three home runs in Game 4 of the ALDS -- was perhaps out-shined by his glove-work at third base. But Josh Hamilton's power faded, save for the two-run home run in the 10th inning of Game 6 which might have gone down as the Kirk Gibson moment of the franchise if not for the Cardinals' amazing comeback. Hamilton and Mike Young seemed out of their element in the World Series. Not that the moment was too big for them, because I don't think it was, but they had opportunities that went unfulfilled.

Manager Ron Washington made some critical errors in Game 1 and Game 6, both costly losses on National League turf. But for anyone who is ready to get rid of the skipper, pull on the reins because Texas wouldn't be where they are if not for "Wash." He was not Boston's Grady Little leaving in Pedro Martinez too long in the 2003 ALCS. Washington was out-managed in a National League park by Tony LaRussa -- and I don't think anyone anticipated something different. Washington twice sent Esteban German to the plate in the World Series. He kept going back to Ogando out of the bullpen. And he opted for Darren Oliver in the 10th inning of Game 6 instead of giving Feliz another shot at a save (a move that I did agree with at the time).

The World Series is over. The season is over. But hopefully for Rangers fans, the fun is simply just starting. For anyone who wants to compare this franchise, now twice losers of the World Series, to either the Atlanta Braves or NFL's Buffalo Bills, go ahead. Considering where the Rangers have been for a majority of the franchise's history, to have a run of success like the Braves (five pennants and a World Championship while winning 14 straight division crowns) would be a much welcomed new era.

The future is bright in Texas, despite how dark it may seem tonight.

Loved the call, hated the moment

When St. Louis Cardinals hero David Freese belted a solo home run to dead center field to lead off the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Rangers fan in me cringed and tried to sink deeper into the couch. But as a broadcaster, I couldn't help but appreciate FOX's Joe Buck tipping his cap to his late father Jack.

"We'll see you tomorrow night!"

The same words that Jack Buck used to punctuate the dramatic finish of Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when Kirby Puckett launched a bomb over the left-center field wall.

Now those words are part of St. Louis Cardinals lore, the same team that featured Jack Buck as lead broadcaster for decades.

And while this tribute to his father is certainly significant -- not just for the World Series Game 6 parallels but also the fact that it was a Cardinals victory -- it's not the first time Joe Buck attempted a tribute to his father. In Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the Boston Red Sox staved off elimination on a David Ortiz walkoff home run after midnight on the East Coast. Joe Buck capitalized on the moment:

"We'll see you later tonight."

Whether you love Joe Buck or hate him, anyone who has an appreciation for broadcasting knows exactly what was going on in that booth. All broadcasters have their vocal heroes they have either worked to emulate, blatantly or subconsciously. Ernie Harwell, Vin Scully, Jack Buck -- these are legendary voices, and in this era of broadcasters, hearing Joe Buck pay tribute to a man he no doubt admired as a broadcaster but also as his father was special.

Broadcasters of the world, I don't believe what I just saw! heard!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Game 6: Full for now-forgotten moments of Rangers greatness

I don't even know where to begin. I'm sick to my stomach. And while the Texas Rangers, my Texas Rangers, were on the receiving end of the ultimate kick to the nuts, the most crushing part of it might be the fact that I don't know how I'll be able to muster hope for tomorrow -- actually, for later tonight.

In a 4 hour, 33 minute, back-and-forth, eyelash-away-from-a-championship game -- TWICE -- the St. Louis Cardinals forced Game 7 of the 2011 World Series by defeating Texas, 10-9 in 11 innings in Game 6 to tie the series, 3-3. But while the number of games each team has won might be tied, the Cardinals have such a big lead at this point, I don't know how Texas is supposed to recover.

The Rangers twice had the Cardinals down to their final strike, not their final out, but their final strike, and couldn't get the job done. Texas led 7-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning before Neftali Feliz blew his first career postseason save in eight chances. One inning later, the Rangers lost a 9-7 lead after Josh Hamilton hit was could have been a legend-cementing home run. Instead, Hamilton's go-ahead home run in the top of the 10th inning, his first of the playoffs and first since September 25, will be forgotten like Jake Delhome's TD pass to Ricky Proehl with just under two minutes left in Super Bowl XXXVIII to put the Panthers ahead of the Patriots. But no one remembers that because of what happened next.

In the case of the 2003 Panthers, Tom Brady drove New England to a Super Bowl title. In the case of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Hamilton's blast was erased by Lance Berkman's game-tying single in the bottom of the 10th and David Freese's walkoff home run in the bottom of the 11th.

Hamilton's home run, for all intents and purposes, never happened.

Neither did the three St. Louis errors that led to a pair of unearned runs for the Rangers.

The back-to-back home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz? Vanished into a footnote.

Those same solo shots to begin the top of the 7th to put Texas ahead immediately after Michael Young's defense went to hell, Alexi Ogando reverted to a 2010-version of Derek Holland, and the Cardinals tied the game 4-4 in the bottom of the 6th... those two home runs are now almost as memorable as Mike Napoli's throw to third base in the bottom of the 6th to pick off Matt Holliday and prevent any more damage.

And speaking of Napoli, his Wolverine-like healing power after snapping his ankle sliding into second base early in the game? Now an afterthought.

So many Texas Rangers chances in this game. So many opportunities.

So many great moments that could have be just a part of the magic of the franchise's first World Championship. Instead, those are merely some of the hurdles that fans in St. Louis can reminisce about for generations to come unless Texas has a shorter memory than a housemate on Jersey Shore.

(Translation: I'm not optimistic.)

(Bluntly: How is this team not entirely F'd right now?)

Skipper Ron Washington was out-managed by Tony LaRussa, which isn't shocking, but Washington was not ready to work lineup card magic in a National League ballpark. He kept Colby Lewis in the game in the top of the 5th to hit with the bases loaded and two outs. He brought in Alexi Ogando who melted down yet again in the Fall Classic before yanking him off the mound in favor of the Dutch Oven. Wash left Holland out there to allow a solo homer to Allen Craig in the 8th to pull St. Louis within two runs instead of immediately going to right-handed set up man in Mike Adams. And in extra innings, Washington and the Rangers seemed out of sorts deciding whether to keep Feldman in the game and on the mound or pinch hit for him with two outs in the top of the 11th.

By the end of the night, Mike Napoli was playing on one ankle, Nelson Cruz strained a groin, and the Texas Rangers' fans hearted suffered the ultimate bruise.

Somehow the Rangers -- a team that hasn't lost consecutive games in more than 40 days -- must continue that streak to claim the franchise's first championship.

Two strikes away. Twice.

And tomorrow, if the Rangers do win, this misery goes away almost as quickly as the legend of the Hamilton's home run in tonight's 10th inning. But if St. Louis completes the comeback, it's a game that will haunt these players, these coaches, these fans, and this Metroplex until Dirk and boys redeem themselves five years later against Wade and Heat, until...


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rangers now one win away

The year was 2007. A North Texas franchise long-starved for a championship had just hired a new man to lead players on a team clearly on the uptick to a title. The team was stocked with talent and people thought the new coach's laid-back personality was exactly what the team needed in order to succeed. He would be replacing a man very highly thought of in the sport -- perhaps bigger shoes than he was ready to fill.

But while Wade Phillips never again came close to that 13-3 record in his first year with the Dallas Cowboys after replacing Bill Parcells, the new manager of the Texas Rangers began working with a rag-tag team in financial stress with no foreseeable trophies in the team's future. Who the heck is Ron Washington, and is this guy really going to manage the Rangers to victory when Buck Showalter couldn't? Clearly the new baby-faced GM who has already traded away every usable part the Rangers appeared to have is trying to see if he can make the fan base miss John Hart.

But Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and eventually Nolan Ryan began building something that not even the most die-hard Rangers fan could think would one day be able to play one game for a chance to be World Series Championship. And here we are in late-October of 2011 (forever to be known as the Year of the Napoli), and the Texas Rangers have that opportunity in front of them.

Texas defeated St. Louis on Monday 4-2 in Game 5 of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, put the Rangers up 3-2 over the Cardinals with the series returning to Missouri.

Leading the charge for Texas was an offseason pickup whose "dirtbag" style of play might personify exactly what the Rangers are about. Mike Napoli came to Texas for Frank Francisco and a couple bucks back in January, almost to a half-hearted shrug of the fan base. This is someone we'd seen for year with the Angels. He was good, but only because the Rangers weren't. Nevertheless, catcher needed addressing in the offseason with both Benji Molina and Matt Treanor going on their ways, so sure, plug in Napoli with Vorvit Torrealba, and that could work. The Rangers made the World Series last year with what could be considered afterthought backstops. Maybe we can do it again.

The fact of the matter is Texas wouldn't have been anywhere near the Fall Classic, perhaps the postseason, without Mike Napoli. He hit .320 with 30 home runs and 75 RBI and an on-base percentage of .414 over 113 games during the 2011 regular season, and as if he hadn't already "careered" during the 162-haul, he's on his way to making sure thie fairy-tale season ends "Napoli ever after."

With the World Series tied, 2-2, Napoli had as impressive a game as any position player in recent postseason memory. He twice threw out Allen Craig attempting to steal second base with the dangerous Albert Pujols at the plate. Throwing out two baserunners would be impressive enough, but in doing so the first time, he gave his manager the strategic ability to take the bat out of the Pujols' hands and intentionally walk him to the now-open first base. The second time Napoli gunned down Craig, it was to complete the most important double-play in Texas Rangers history, a strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out twin killing that not only bailed out Neftali Felix for plunking the leadoff batter but leaving the Cardinals down to their final out.

That alone would have been enough for a great game by the catcher that Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't care for. But there's no doubt Napoli's bat is arguably the most important physical ability he brings to the table. With the game tied 2-2 and one out in the bottom of the 8th inning, lefty Mark Rzepczynski allowed a David Murphy single to deflect off his glove to load the bases for Napoli. Due what we have since learned where telephone problems that seemingly could have been solved by the "Can you hear me now?" guy, the Cardinals didn't have the right-handed arm they wanted ready for Napoli. As a result, Rzepczynski faced Napoli, and the Rangers backstop atoned for his near-homerun-turned-fly-out two innings prior. Napoli hammered a 1-1 pitch the right-centerfield gap to score two runs and provide the Rangers margin of victory, leading St. Louis only three outs to work with for any comeback attempt.

Tampa Bay manger Joe Maddon deemed this the "Year of the Napoli" and the echoing chants of NAP-OH-LEE, NAP-OH-LEE at Rangers Ballpark are a reminder for anyone who hasn't recently taken a look at their Chinese food menu.

Naptober is in full swing, and if Texas can close out the series in St. Louis, he is the frontrunner for World Series MVP.

And I'm still not sure how we're talking about the Texas Rangers having a World Series MVP, because that would mean the Rangers are in the World Series. I grew up rooting for the Rangers, and I never thought they'd win a pennant, let alone two in a row and one day be in position to play one game for baseball's ultimate prize.

Here are a few other thoughts on Game 5 that I have to get down on paper (or on Internet):

+ If this was CJ Wilson's last appearance as a Texas Rangers pitcher, then despite all the manufactured animosity that has grown with each postseason loss, realize that he has been a constant for this team over the last two years. Wilson has had a rough postseason -- he hasn't made himself any additional money for his looming free agency -- but he has won 31 games for Texas over the last two seasons since moving into the starting rotation compared to 15 losses. This season, his 2.94 ERA is the lowest by a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1991. If he ends up commanding the type of deal that Cliff Lee was being offered by Texas and New York last offseason, then he might not be worth it, but Texas has never had a consistent home-grown arm like CJ Wilson.

Wilson now has a 1-5 career postseason record with a 4.94 ERA over nine playoff starts. He didn't have the best start by a Rangers pitcher in the World Series -- and unless Colby Lewis tosses a complete game in Game 6, no one will nop Derek Holland's 8 and 1/3 scoreless innings of Game 4 -- but he gave Texas a chance to win, limiting the Cardinals to two runs over 5 and 2/3 innings.

+ Mitch Moreland took his sweet time to get going in the 2011 postseason, but his solo home run off Chris Carpenter to put Texas on the board looked like something Josh Hamilton hit during the 2008 Home Run Derby. The ball was devastated to right field, landing halfway up the porch, 424 feet away. Ron Washington inserted him into the lineup for Game 4 after Mike Napoli's throwing error at first base aided a 5-run inning by St. Louis in Game 3. If not for his home run and subsequent Rangers win, Moreland made a fielding error that could have left Rangers fans kicking themselves for years. It could have cost Texas the series. And while it was not recorded as an error in the official score, don't let that fool you.

While the FOX broadcast team was busy interviewing Derek Holland during the top of the 2nd inning, CJ Wilson was struggling on the mound, walking two batters to begin the inning. With one out and runners on first and second, Yadier Molina singled in a run to left field, and David Murphy misplayed the ball, leading to an extra base for Lance Berkman. At that time, it was 1-0 St. Louis. Skip Schumaker followed by grounding a 2-2 pitch up the first base line to Moreland, who had time to go home with the ball for a run-saving second out. Instead, Moreland couldn't cleanly field the grounder and had to resign himself to stepping on first base to retire Molina who doubled the Cardinals' lead with his RBI-out. While I doubt the play would have ended up in an inning-ending 3-2-3 double play (keep in mind, there was no force at home plate, so Napoli would have had to wait to tag Berkman before throwing back to first), it could have saved a run.

+ Neftali Feliz must get some sort of bonus for suspense with each save he records. As if it's not enough to walk the first batter he faces in too many different big games this year, the fireballer hit the leadoff batter in the top of the 9th inning after getting ahead of him 1-2 in the count. After the strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double play to retire Albert Pujols, Feliz walked Matt Holiday on nine pitches before finally striking out Berkman to end the game.

This postseason, Feliz has thrown 10 and 1/3 innings, allowing one run on three hits with stress-inducing seven walks and 10 strikeouts. He has saved six games in the 2011 postseason, including all three wins of the ALDS and two games of the World Series. I suppose that end result is what's most important, but the walks (and hit batter) are certainly concerning, if not for the Rangers for my blood pressure.

+ The in-game interview with Derek Holland during the 2nd inning made me cringe at the time. After a win, this concern melts away, but having Joe Buck and Tim McCarver egging on the young lefty while the Rangers fumbled away fielding plays was infuriating at the time. It was as if Holland fiddled while Rome burned to the ground, and if Texas had gone on to lose that game, never overcoming the two runs St. Louis scored in the 2nd inning, that's exactly how it would be perceived this morning. Holland is a goofy, kid, a 25-year-old with undoubtable talent and a need to mature, but I suppose when you darn-near single-handedly win a World Series game like Holland did -- just as Napoli did in Game 5 -- you earn a little leeway. I still think the mustache needs to go.

All right, folks. Texas is one win away. Let's please, please, please get this done. Make this happen, Rangers. There may never be another opportunity like the one in front of this franchise. The team has two games in St. Louis -- albeit under National League rules -- to win one game. And to quote the marketing campaign that worked so well for their Metroplex basketball counterpart, The Time Is Now.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Murray's Flurry: Dal 34, StL 7

It's a line I've used plenty of times regarding the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys over the last five years, but after Sunday's 34-7 win over the hapless St. Louis Rams, let's temper the enthusiasm regarding the new franchise single game rushing record-holder:

Put the anointing oil away.

DeMarco Murray gashed the NFL's worst rushing defense for 253 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown -- including a 91-yard score that is second only the Tony Dorsett's historic 99-yard run -- in the second-greatest game by a rookie running back in NFL history. It was fun to watch, and it was a win that Dallas needed to return its record to 3-3 through seven weeks of the season.

With this performance, Murray has certainly leapfrogged Tashard Choice on the depth chart and must be given strong consideration about his number of touches compared to the injured Felix Jones when he returns. The Oklahoma product busted out several long runs against St. Louis, something the Cowboys running game hadn't shown signs of since Jones' rookie season when he displayed an explosiveness that only the likes of Wade Phillips could deny putting him in the starting lineup. In a franchise that ostensibly found its "Next Troy Aikman" in Tony Romo, DeMarcos Murray showed signs of being the closest thing to the "Next Emmitt Smith."

Again, allow me to put the anointing oil away.

The great thing about Emmitt, about any of the good-to-great running backs in the NFL is consistency. They don't have just one big game. They bring it every single week. And despite the fact that Murray will continue to run behind an offensive line that consists of two rookies and another player who Dallas thought enough of to cut in training camp before an injury to Bill Nagy for them to re-sign him, the threat of the Cowboys passing game should help open some running lanes.

Murray has said all the right things in the aftermath of his great performance -- and don't get me wrong, it was a great performance -- still referring to Felix as the starter and crediting his offensive line.

But the St. Louis defense proved so porous that even fourth string running back Phillip Tanner, who you may remember from a helmet-less TD that was called back during the preseason, was able to keep the pace and finish the drive in the first action of his pro career. In total, Dallas rushed for 294 yards on 34 attempts.

The Rams are junk, and it's not their fault they can't plug a toilet, let alone a running lane. And while it will inevitably detract from his single-game performance on this day -- much in the way that sports fans who remember Baltimore's Jamal Lewis running for nearly 300 yards in a game also remember that he did it against the Browns -- if he does go on to accomplish great things (or even just stabilize the Dallas backfield for more than five years), this will be the genesis of it all.

Just a few other points:
+ Nice touch by the Cowboys having a member of each World Series team on hand to participate in the coin toss. Frankly, after country music star Ronnie Dunn performed the National Anthem at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday (one day after doing so before Game 3 of the World Series), I was wondering if Jerry Jones would have Dirk Nowitzki flip the coin too. St. Louis Cardinals fans and Texas Rangers fans alike enjoyed seeing Lance Berkman and Josh Hamilton join the coin toss ceremony. I don't know how often teams playing in the World Series (or any other championship) have the same cities represented in a different major professional sporting event in the same town on the same date, but it's gotta be a short list.

+ Quarterback Tony Romo didn't need to do much as the ground game rolled over the Rams, but let's not discount what was a solid performance. Romo has lost two games for Dallas this year with untimely mistakes, coughing up a 14-point 4th quarter lead in New York in Week 1 and tossing three second-half interceptions against Detroit in Week 4. Those were two games that Dallas had in control and gave away. Is it sad I'm borderline praising him for not imploding like Texas Stadium?

Two TD passes, no interceptions, no rushed throws that sailed into double coverage that left fans grasping for air. None of that. Good. It wasn't a great game. It didn't have to be. Moving on...,

+ Rob Ryan's defense held St. Louis to seven points. An analysis of this game will show the Rams did not have starting quarterback Sam Bradford -- not that it's made a difference in any of their previous five games this year. This is now an 0-6 team, a team that Dallas (which could easily be 5-1 if not 6-0) should and did dominate for four quarters. While I don't think it's necessary to drop to our knees and bow before our homeless-looking defensive coordinator, there is one noticeable difference between this year's defense and even the good units that Wade Phillips commanded here in Dallas: the creation of turnovers. Specifically: multiple turnovers.

Dallas took the ball away twice on Sunday, the team's fourth game with multiple turnovers in six games this season (although this is the first win of 2011 in which Dallas has won the turnover battle). The Cowboys have now taken the ball away 12 times through six games. Both takeaways on Sunday led to scores with Abe Elam's fumble recovery leading to Romo's TD pass to Jason Witten and Mike Jenkins' interception set up a 30-yard field goal for Dan Bailey.

Last year's Cowboys team was horrible through six games, so let's compare how Rob Ryan's defense compares to the Wade Phillips team that ended up going to the playoffs in 2009 (interpret: 2010 was such a lost season, let's just ignore it). In 2009, the Cowboys forced seven turnovers over the first six weeks but didn't take the ball away once in three of those games. This year, the Dallas defense has taken the ball away at least once in every game.

+ Speaking of turnovers, Dallas is still -1 on the season when it comes to turnover +/-. Here's a look at each game so far in 2011 and how the Cowboys have done when it comes to turnovers.

OpponentTake AwaysGiveaways
New York Jets
San Francisco 49ers
Washington Redskins
Detroit Lions
New England Patriots
St. Louis Rams

Don't let the four take aways in the New England game make your mind melt. Yes, if Dallas capitalizes on those opportunities they could have not only been the first team to beat Tom Brady in Foxboro since 2006, but that along with the mistakes in the Jets and Lions games explains why this is still a .500 team through seven weeks of play. But damn it, it's maddening!

+ Last point. At yesterday's Cowboys game, my dad turned to me before kickoff and noted, "Why is the roof closed? It's a beautiful day outside." I don't think it would have been a big enough deal to mention except for the true "idiocracy" of what was noticed during the World Series game next door later in the evening. FOX returned from a commercial break to show Rangers Ballpark's neighbor on Randoll Mill Road, Cowboys Stadium, and there was the $1.2 billion facility with the roof open for National TV's audience to see. Has Jerry Jones lost his mind? Or with Al Davis now dead, is he just trying to make sure no one leapfrogs him as the new "Craziest NFL Owner" (although Davis' legacy lives on as the team traded a pair of No. 1 picks for Carson Palmer last week).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hello, World Series!

For a franchise that seemed to personify mediocrity at its best, the Texas Rangers are leaving past perceptions far, far behind them. For the second year in a row, the Rangers won the American League Pennant and a berth in the Fall Classic. After 38 years in Texas without winning so much as a playoff series, the Rangers have once again captured the Cowboys-crazy Metroplex well into football season.

Unlike the 2010 run to the World Series that featured a hired gun in ace pitcher Cliff Lee, the Rangers played what can only be described as "classic" Rangers baseball in this year's Pennant-clinching win, slugging a gaggle of runs to topple the Tigers, 15-5, in Game 6 of the ALCS. Overwhelming offense.

And no, the honeymoon period for this team's success is nowhere near over. The NBA's Dallas Mavericks strung together 10 years of unfruitful playoff trips before reaching the mountain top this past season, and prior to Dirk and boys raising the Larry O'Brien trophy, the fan base grew skeptical and tired of each post-season trip that didn't result in a title. So before everyone rushes to say the Rangers now "have to" win the World Series this season, let's temper that just a little. After so many years of futility, it's exciting to see the team playing deep October, regardless of the outcome.

The Rangers aren't the Yankees -- don't confuse them as a "Championship or Bust" franchise. Frankly, it's been a just a "Championship or Bust" franchise for the majority of its existence. But of course, having said that, if you're going to make it this far, then damn it, go win it.

That's the way baseball go
I wonder if fans realize just how good the Rangers have it with Ron Washington and just how close the franchise came to parting ways with him. Think about it. Until last year when he navigated this organization to the World Series, did you ever think of Ron Washington as a great manager, a good manager or even a Major League caliber manager? A career third base coach from Oakland that Texas hired because, well, what options did the club have back in 2007. When he came to Texas, we were told he was a baseball lifer, the "Old School Brother," who was capable of getting the most out of his players. But don't they always talk up the new coach/new manager right after the hire.

After his first two seasons, Texas had gone a combined 154-170 with a last-place finish in 2007 and ending the season in second place in a watered down AL West in 2008. Sure, Texas had some solid pieces in place -- Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy being the main holdovers from that 2008 season (keep in mind Chris Davis was the primary first baseman, Ramon Vasquez manned the hot corner, and Milton Bradley spent 126 games as the DH) -- but it was by no means a Championship squad.

That's when John Daniels got to work. He brought in new pieces to fill spots in the lineup. Young kids who seemed like throw-ins from big trades began to arrive at the big league level. Elvis Andrus was the opening day starting shortstop in 2009, displacing Michael Young to third base, prompting the first of his trade demands. Thank goodness management didn't oblige.

Can you imagine this team making a run to the World Series without Michael Young? If his three-run home run against Tampa Bay in the 2010 ALDS wasn't enough, his play as a super-utility man in 2011 put this team on his back when teammates missed time with injury.

Through two different off-season's featuring Young demanding to be traded, staging the sequel before the 2011 season after Texas signed Adrian Beltre to strengthen the club defensively at third base. The team was coming off a World Series berth and the face of the franchise looked like he was being forced out by management despite all he'd done to help get the team to this level. And yet there was manager Ron Washington to assure Michael Young that as long as it was his lineup card to fill up, Young would be an integral part of the equation.

With Washington at the helm, Young led the Rangers with 159 games played (if you're a subtraction aficionado, you know he only missed three games) making 40 starts at third, 36 at first, 14 at second, and one game at shortstop. The rest of the time, he left the glove in the dugout and worked as the primary DH. He led by example and damn near won a batting title. How was Michael Young going to succeed, let along thrive (a .338 average seems like thriving to me), after all the conflict between a star player and the front office? Ron Washington was a calming buffer between the two sides. Nothing more than his soothing presence to let Young know that he was still an integral part of the lineup, of the organization, quelled the shaky waters before Texas set sail on 2011. And almost poetically, Young got a chance to play a quarter of the season at third base while Adrian Beltre was injured.

Ron Washington supported Michael Young by putting him on the lineup card in 159 of 162 games in 2011. And it was Michael Young who stood up in support of Ron Washington before the 2010 season after news of a cocaine-fueled scandal led Washington to offer his resignation to Nolan Ryan and John Daniels. Once again, thank goodness management didn't oblige.

Texas is going back to the World Series because of strong leadership at the top of the organization, great managerial moves, and tremendous talent between the lines. How else can you describe was Nelson Cruz did in the ALCS?

Cruz Control
Any time you're breaking records that involve Lou Gehrig, you're doing something right. In his first 25 postseason games, Nelson Cruz hit 11 home runs. Gehrig has nine in his first 25 playoff games. Cruz went on to smash six home runs and 13 RBI, both Major League records in a single series. All of this coming after the Boomstick was M.I.A. against Tampa Bay in the ALDS. How scarce was Cruz against the Rays? The 1-for-10 Mitch Moreland thought Cruz was slumping. The Rangers right fielder went 1-for-15 in four games against Tampa Bay with no walks and five strikeouts. *Woof*

He followed that performance by batting .364 (8-for-22) against Detroit in the ALCS. Keep in mind, that's six home runs in eight hits. Those other two hits: doubles.

Side note: In baseball, Slugging Percentage is calculated by adding up the total number of bases divided by at-bats. The formula looks like this:

1(1B) + 2(2B) + 3(3B) + 4(HR)

Apply that to Nelson Cruz's numbers:

1(0) + 2(2) + 3(0) + 4(6) = 1.273

Cruz's slugging percentage of 1.273 may be a small sample size of only six games, but to put it in perspective, it's more than three times greater than the American League average in slugging percentage, a .408 clip in 2011. Nelson Cruz may have been "Boomstick or Bust" in the LCS, but it a much greater dose of the former than the latter. Will he stay that hot in the World Series? I'm not sure, but it's safe to say he's the greatest seven-hole hitter in the 165 years since Henry Chadwick codified the rules of baseball in 1846, or since the James K. Polk administration (our 11th president, if you're keeping score at home). I'd be shocked if he kept that kind of pace in the Fall Classic, but even half of that production would be spectacular.

Something Special
What we're witnessing in Texas this year is again something special. I'm not sure how to compare it to the first time Texas put on its big boy pants and ventured past the first round of the playoffs for the first time ever and pushed past the hated Yankees in the LCS to reach the World Series in 2010. I'm not sure how Texas will match up with either St. Louis or Milwaukee, but neither have the pitching prowess of the 2010 San Francisco Giants that featured not only Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgardener but also an offence that got hot at the best possible time. Perhaps that's the lesson of last year, that even a team like San Francisco can get hot at the plate and propel a team to a World Championship. And the opposite can manifest itself as well.

A player's ability can betray them at the worst possible time. It's a defeating feeling, and I feel the essence of that type of disgust was captured with this shot during the Rangers' 9-run 3rd inning in Game 6 against Detroit when Tigers reliever Daniel Schlereth mouthed "F my ass" when skipper Jim Leyland emerged from the dugout to remove him from the game.

Cards on the table: I really just wanted to find a way to work that video clip into this blog.

The Rangers are sitting pretty right now. They are off until Wednesday with the luxury of sitting back and watching the Brewers and Cardinals decide where in the Midwest the Texas charter will fly. For fans, it's an opportunity to once again drink in the magic of playoff baseball. Even if you were around for three AL West Championships in the late 1990s and despite how fresh 2010's Pennant is engraved in your sports brain, this season is still a special feeling.

The honeymoon feeling may be far from over. As fans, we should enjoy the next fews days of relaxing and waiting. Don't let the anxiety of a looming World Series weigh you down. Last season, this franchise playing so deep into October was a classic case of an organization running on house money. There was nothing to lose. And if you can honestly say that isn't the case this year, then maybe you don't remember watching Rangers baseball during the team's the first 38 years in Arlington.

Without that pressure, and with the experience of having been there before, it's time for the Texas Rangers -- yes, the Texas Rangers -- to win four more games. When you think about the run that the Atlanta Braves had under Bobby Cox that won 14 consecutive Division Championships and five pennants from 1991-2005, they came away with what some would call "only one World Championship." If that's the type of trajectory the Rangers are on right now, and based on the new ownership's ability and willingness to spend, combined with a young and talented core and supported by a great management team and coaching staff, you've got to like how Texas is positioned not only for the next four-to-seven games but the next four-to-seven years too.

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