Williams must prove poor play an exception

CLEVELAND -- Mentally preparing for Friday night’s start against the waffling Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers starting pitcher Jerome Williams approached the Golden Tee machine that stood in the middle of the visiting team’s locker room.

As teammates stood nearby playing Mario Cart on a Nintendo 64, the right-hander blindly shuffled through the simulated golf game’s prompts and quickly found an avatar of himself on the front nine of Black Hills.

On the ninth and final hole, Williams selected a four iron from a little under 180 yards out, reared back and fired a strike toward the green, hitting the pin and trickling a few yards away.

He would go on to three-putt, pulling back too hard on his back swing, sending the diminutive ball to all corners of the green, ultimately bogeying the hole and completely erasing the perfectly executed pitch.

Little did Williams know, this would provide perfect foreshadowing for what would follow in front of some 27,000 people at Progressive Field, the Rangers ultimately falling 12-2 in a game that could have been a big momentum builder.

In just his second appearance with Texas this season, Williams allowed 10 runs on 13 hits and three walks in 4⅓ innings.

Having won five straight decisions as a starter dating back to September 2013, including a masterful outing against the Oakland Athletics less than a week ago, Williams could not effectively locate his pitches. When he did, the Indians -- led by a four-hit night from former Rangers outfielder David Murphy -- would find holes in all parts of the field.

If this contest was a novel and only one pitch could be on the cover, it would be a bases-loaded, 0-2 off-speed pitch to Murphy that was inches from hitting the plate. Murphy, in full protect mode, threw the barrel of his bat toward the outside corner of the plate, only to club the baseball down the right-field line for a double and a quick 8-1 deficit for the Rangers, promptly ending the night for Williams after already having thrown 87 pitches.

“I think that kind of said what was going on the whole night,” Williams said of his pitch to Murphy. “Execute some good pitches, and they just found holes. You really can’t dwell on it. You just have to tip your hat and come back next time and do better.”

Coming off a 3-3 homestand against the A’s and New York Yankees, the Rangers were seeking back-to-back wins for the first time since June 27-28 against the Minnesota Twins.

Instead, they find themselves having dropped four of their past six games, sitting 23 games under .500, which matches a season low. Prior to this past Sunday, the Rangers had not seen a midseason deficit of this size since October 1985, during a season that saw them finish 62-99 with a 44-year-old Bobby Valentine finishing up the year as the team’s manager.

Entering Friday’s contest, no Rangers pitcher had ever allowed 10 or more earned runs in a start opposite the Indians. The 32-year-old Williams, now 2-5 on the season, is the first starter among all teams to allow 10 earned runs in a start against the Tribe since Jon Garland did so for the Chicago White Sox in September 2006.

Heading into the contest, Williams had averaged fewer than three walks per nine innings of work. On Friday, that rate hovered just shy of seven (6.75).

“He just didn’t command the baseball tonight like he did against Oakland,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said after Williams’ loss. “A lot of pitches out over the plate, a lot of deep counts.

“He didn’t have his changeup, he didn’t really have his breaking ball and he didn’t command his fastball. He had a lot of ground balls, but they were hit hard and found holes.”

Making matters interesting for Williams is the impending return of Rangers right-handed pitcher Nick Tepesch (3-7, 4.84 ERA), who is looking to return from left knee soreness that caused him to miss Friday night’s start.

When he returns, Tepesch could see time in the bullpen, with his name on the list of long-relief pitchers on the Rangers’ 25-man roster. Or he might be reinserted immediately into the starting rotation. It all depends on how his rehabilitation shakes out and the status of the team.

“We just have to wait and see,” Washington said. “Tepesch threw bullpen today and will throw another one Sunday. I know he can be a long [relief] guy, but he can be a spot starter. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Regarding next steps for Williams, there isn’t much one can do after a historically bad outing that could serve as an instant fix.

The veteran hurler plans on watching film of Friday’s shortened outing and meeting with Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux in hopes of regaining the effective attack that saw him throw six innings of one-run ball against the AL West-leading Athletics.

“I made some decent pitches and they found holes. I also walked three guys, and that’s not me. I don’t walk people; I try and attack. I walked three guys. I think I walked [Indians designated hitter Carlos] Santana twice. It’s not acceptable.”

Assuming Williams starts another game for the Rangers, he’ll have to prove Friday night was the exception to the norm. He’ll have to put these last four-plus innings behind him, focusing on harnessing his fastball and locating his off-speed pitches.

He also would be wise to avoid any sort of ominous foreshadowing that could only serve to derail what appeared to be a promising final two months -- perhaps by avoiding classic video games all together.