If the Texas Rangers have any hope of hanging in the American League wild-card race, it won't come down to a revamped lineup full of substitutes for injured players. It will come down to pitching.
The Rangers' starters entered Sunday's game against the Seattle Mariners with a 4.47 ERA. Only three AL teams had a higher rotation ERA -- Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota. Perhaps an even more telling stat: Texas was second-to-last in innings pitched from its starters. (Minnesota was last.) That has put pressure on the bullpen and hurt the club's ability to find a steady rhythm.
So what does rhythm from the starting rotation look like? Try the past four games. For the first time all season, the Rangers have had four consecutive quality starts. (They didn't have three straight quality starts all season before this past weekend.) Starting with Yu Darvish's shutout to finish off the homestand against the Marlins on Wednesday, the next three starters -- Nick Tepesch, Joe Saunders and Nick Martinez -- have followed suit.
Combined, those four starters were 1-1 with a 1.32 ERA with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 27 1/3 innings pitched. Opponents batted .253 against them. The bats gave them 3.29 runs of support, but that's been good enough to win three out of the past four.
Darvish's start had a ripple effect. Not only did it save the bullpen to give all relievers an extra day of rest, which gave manager Ron Washington a full pen to work with in close games Friday and Saturday in Seattle, but it also was a signal to the rest of the staff. It was the ace dropping the hammer and telling the rest of the rotation to start banging away, too.
Tepesch, for his part, found his sinker in Seattle, helping him give up just two hits in 6 1/3 innings with five strikeouts and two walks. The Mariners hit just .163 off Tepesch as they beat balls into the ground. On Sunday, Martinez used his changeup to keep hitters off-balance and make his fastball even more effective. He gave up just two runs in six innings despite nine hits, finding a way to keep the Mariners from scoring. (His defense helped, too.) Saunders, as he's done in several starts, flirted with trouble at times but also got out of it. He was impressive late in a close game, too, making key pitches to keep the Rangers in a position to win.
Now it's Colby Lewis' turn. The veteran has yet to pitch more than six innings in a start all season and still doesn't have a quality start in 2014. Can he continue what the rest of the rotation has started?
No matter how you feel about whether six or more innings and three or fewer runs allowed is a quality start, the Rangers need those outings from their starters to keep within shouting distance of a playoff berth. To do it, they have to win eight of 10 or 11 of 14 and spans like that. You don't do that without the starting pitchers going deep into games -- and doing it repeatedly. The past four games are the recipe, but that was against the Marlins and the Mariners. Now the Rangers need to cook up some quality starts against the A's and Angels, the next two stops on this road trip. It won't be easy, but it's necessary.