Last week, the Texas Rangers beat the Los Angeles Angels 4-3, scoring two runs in the eighth inning on Ian Kinsler's two-out barely-making-contact blooper off Ervin Santana. The hit knocked Santana from the game, and, seemingly, knocked the Angels out of the playoff race. It was the Rangers’ third straight win over their AL West rivals and gave them a seven-game lead. In the first two games of the series, Mike Scioscia had made an odd tactical decision by lining up two rookies to start the series, one of whom was making just his second major league start. Kinsler’s single appeared to be a lethal blow to the Angels’ season.
But there was one game remaining in their series.
It was a perfect summer evening in Southern California and the Angels sent their ace to the mound. Like he has all season, Jered Weaver delivered, taking a shutout into the seventh inning. Trouble is, Colby Lewis had matched his donuts on the scoreboard, and then ex-Angel Mike Napoli homered for a 1-0 lead. Angels fans could only stare in despair at Jeff Mathis' .178 batting average.
Then came the bottom of the ninth with Mike Adams in to close out the sweep for the Rangers. Torii Hunter led off and singled to right-center on a 1-0 pitch. Rookie first baseman Mark Trumbo dug in against a pitcher who had allowed just six home runs over the three seasons. The Angels were looking at a six-game losing streak and according to coolstandings.com, their odds of winning the division were down to four percent and plummeting.
And then Trumbo launched a fly ball to deep left field that wrapped around the foul pole -- a game-winning home run, a two-game swing in the standings and rejuvenation for the Angels.
"I hope we talk about this game in November," Scioscia said. "I hope we talk about this as a swing game."
And since then? The Angels cut the lead to five games, and then four, and then down to 3.5. Wednesday night, the Rangers got bombed again by the Red Sox, Jered Weaver was outstanding again, and the lead is suddenly down to 2.5 games.
Listen closely, Rangers fans: That sound you hear is the Angels breathing down your necks.
Did we mention that the two teams meet this weekend in Texas? And close the season in Anaheim? We have a pennant race -- somehow, despite the Rangers owning a run differential 77 runs better than the Angels, despite Scioscia’s insistence on playing Mathis and his Mendoza-esque stick, despite Vernon Wells' .209 batting average and .242 on-base percentage, despite Bobby Abreu's decaying power and Jordan Walden leading the majors with nine blown saves, we have a pennant race.
It’s hard to believe, but that’s how baseball works sometimes… and you know what? The Angels can win this thing. Don’t laugh. It can happen.
Here are three reasons Rangers fans are sweating. Alexi Ogando has been terrific so far, with a 3.30 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. He’s also a guy who has pitched in relief in his professional career; after throwing 72 innings last year, he’s at 147 total innings this season. Matt Harrison got roughed up on Wednesday. After pitching 85 innings a year ago and 72 in 2008, he just passed the 150-inning mark. Yes, he pitched 167 innings one year in the minors, but 167 innings in the South Atlantic League is not that same as 167 innings in the heat of a Texas pennant race. Derek Holland has pitched 158 2/3 innings, a career high for him, majors or minors. He may have to make another seven starts.
I’m not saying that these guys will fade. Heck, the same questions were raised a year ago with C.J. Wilson after his transition from relief, and he was stellar down the stretch and in the postseason. But I agree with Jim Bowden, who mentioned this on the Baseball Today podcast: Those three Rangers are entering new territory and how their arms and heads respond could very well decide the AL West race.
The Angels, meanwhile, have their big three of Weaver, Santana and Dan Haren. Those three guys have carried the Angels and will have to do so. And my advice to Scioscia: DO IT. BY ALL MEANS DO IT. By that, I mean pitch Weaver on three days’ rest on Sunday against the Rangers. Scioscia has said he’s thinking about it. Yes, Weaver has never started on three days’ rest in his career in the regular season. But the Angels lack rotation depth, Weaver is their ace, and he has to step up. Let’s see him do what CC Sabathia did for the Brewers in 2008.
I wouldn’t stop there. I’d consider starting Weaver several times on three days’ rest the remainder of the season, and Haren and Santana as well. If Scioscia could pull out an extra few starts from those guys at the expense of Tyler Chatwood or Joel Pineiro or Jerome Williams, the better chance the Angels have to surprise the Rangers.
And everybody else.
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