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)
AB


Apply that to Nelson Cruz's numbers:

1(0) + 2(2) + 3(0) + 4(6) = 1.273
22

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.

video
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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