Thursday, August 18, 2011
Rangers still in enviable position
By Richard Durrett
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Once the smoke from the fireworks clears and the image of the Rally Monkey dancing on the videoboard disappears, the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels can take stock of what happened in this series.
The reality: The Rangers shoved their lead to six games in the AL West, taking control of the division. They had an opportunity to make it an even more commanding lead, but couldn't quite get it done. Still, the series win forces the Angels to make a memorable six-week run just to catch them. And that seems unlikely.
Divisions, of course, aren't clinched in the third week of August. The Rangers didn't need Mark Trumbo's dramatic two-run walk-off homer in Thursday's 2-1 Angels win to tell them that. One swing of Trumbo's bat doesn't change the fact that the Rangers are the better team. The goal coming into the series was to leave with a bigger lead than when they arrived. Mission accomplished.
"We would have loved to have gotten this one," Josh Hamilton said. "But we put ourselves in position to win. It just didn't turn out that way."
The Rangers led 1-0 on a crushing home run by Mike Napoli in the seventh, the ball likely leaving some marks on the rock formation in left-center field. Texas held the lead into the ninth, when Mike Adams was called in to get the save.
Neftali Feliz had pitched four of the past five days and warmed up on the day he wasn't used. So the Rangers decided before the game not to use him. That meant Mark Lowe pitched the eighth (and it was one impressive inning with nasty stuff on 11 pitches) and Adams the ninth. But after Adams gave up a single to Torii Hunter, the up-and-coming power hitter Trumbo didn't miss a cutter that didn't cut enough. The two-run homer caused a roar from the crowd of 41,123. It also gave the Angels a boost and maybe a little hope that they can still catch the Rangers, though that's a daunting task.
"You're going to get a lift from a walk-off like that," Hamilton said. "It depends on how we come back the next day -- if it's fresh in your mind or if it's come and gone. We definitely got a lift from coming in and playing as well as we did, taking three out of four from them."
Despite the dramatics, the Rangers' playoff odds increased heavily in this series. Though they didn't sweep away all of the Angels' hopes, they did put themselves in an enviable position. Just ask AccuScore. The company has run more than 10,000 simulations and before Thursday's game had the Rangers' chances of winning the West at 98 percent. The loss won't alter that percentage much.
Texas has a tough stretch coming, with a trip to the hard-charging White Sox this weekend followed by home-and-home series the next few weeks against Boston and Tampa Bay, not to mention a trio of games next weekend in Arlington against these same Angels.
But that tough stretch of schedule might be the Angels' last hope. They need to go on a big run and have the Rangers really falter in the final six weeks to claim the title. That doesn't look likely.
What this four-game series in sunny and cool California -- the Rangers played with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s out here -- proved is that the Rangers are the better team. The better team may not always win, but it wins most of the time.
The Angels may have the well-known names at the top of the rotation, but the Rangers are deeper in all five spots. That was evident as the Rangers beat up on the two rookies in the Angels' rotation to start the series. One left with an injury in the first and the other couldn't get an out in the third inning. That forced the Angels to call up some extra arms and tax their bullpen. Meanwhile, two of the Rangers' young arms -- Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland -- held steady and earned wins. C.J. Wilson then out-dueled the red-hot Ervin Santana on Wednesday.
Solid pitching was a big reason some picked the Angels to win the AL West and why they were expected to give the Rangers a run in this second half. But Texas is outpitching their division counterparts. Since the All-Star break, the Rangers have a 3.07 ERA and a .231 opponent batting average (before Thursday's game), both tops in the AL. The Angels' team ERA since the break is more than a run higher at 4.21 (8th in the league).
The Rangers added Koji Uehara and Adams at the trade deadline, turning the bullpen from a weak spot into a position of strength. One bad outing from Adams doesn't change that, of course. Texas has watched as its starters have pitched deep into games, allowing manager Ron Washington to maneuver his new-and-improved bullpen to preserve leads that were getting away earlier in the season.
The largest gap, however, between the two clubs is at the plate. The Angels' offense just isn't scoring enough runs. They scored 12 runs in this series, eight fewer than the Rangers. Since the All-Star break, the Angels have 123 runs scored. Only the Mariners are worse. Texas, meanwhile, has put up 185 runs, second-most in the league in the second half. They are hitting .299 since the break, tops in the league. The Angels are batting just .221 in that span, last in the league. Texas has put up a lot of those second-half numbers without cleanup hitter Adrian Beltre, who should help their production when he returns from a strained left hamstring.
Even the defense, normally a strong suit of the Angels, deserted them for parts of this series with two multi-error games.
The Angels came into the series hoping to close the gap with Texas, or at the very least keep the status quo. Instead, it's the Rangers that take a six-game lead out of California and into Chicago.
"It was a success," Adams said about the series, moments after his blown save. "That was our goal, to come in here and win the series. That's our goal for every series. If we keep winning series, we'll be in good shape."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
Alvin Anol of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report