Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hope short lived as Rangers batter Angels

The Angels went to Texas last weekend with a chance to at least tell the Rangers that they're still around after a slow start. But the Rangers don't necessarily want the Angels around, so they beat them back with 25 runs in three games.

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

During their trip to Arlington, TX, just now, the Angels showed us something that we hadn't seen from them in six weeks. A glimmer of hope. That lasted for about a day.

It was funny that it happened on the day when the Rangers decided to "turn back the clock" to 1972, the Texas franchise's first year in Arlington, for the Angels wearing those 1972 uniforms in 2012 are very much like the Angels who wore them in 1972. Both teams show lineups that are way too right-handed, eschew walks and lack the punch to score runs without them. Both teams have four good starting pitchers and no bullpen. The 1972 Angels finished 75-80. The 2012 Angels left Texas Sunday night no longer glimmering with the hope of a day earlier. Their record was 15-20.

The Angels didn't enter the series steaming hot, but they seemed, maybe, to have righted themselves a little by going 7-3 against Toronto and Minnesota during the previous ten days. The Rangers, though, are on a higher pitch, playing for more as they play against better teams. As they fight through the tougher parts of the American League, it seems as though every series the Rangers play is some kind of referendum on the two-time defending pennant winners who should have won a World Series and haven't.

But the Rangers are too hard-headed to see it that way. They just like to beat teams up. Seems like they score 10 runs every other game. Only 35 games into their season, the Rangers already scored 207 runs, at least 40 more runs than any other AL team except Boston, which had 188. The Rangers hold an incredible .842 team OPS. It's as if everyone who goes to the plate for them is slightly ahead of Mark Teixeira, whose 2011 OPS was .835.

So, the Rangers beat the Angels two out of three, scoring 25 runs in the three games. The Rangers are doing that to a lot of teams this year. They seem to be concerned not so much with demoralizing other contenders as with swatting them around for their own pleasure and letting moral outcomes take care of themselves. Some clubs, like Detroit, come out of the exercise badly. Others, like Baltimore, just take the beating and move on. How the Angels will respond is yet to be seen in total, but when they returned Monday night to the Big A, Oakland righthander Tyson Ross and three relievers beat them in a 5-0 shutout.

We've seen plenty from the Rangers to argue that the Angels would be doomed even if they had their act together. The Rangers have finished ten games ahead of the Angels each of the last two years in the AL West. The Angels might be lucky to finish that close this year. The Rangers have put forth multiple moments of dominance this year, and there are more to come.

The Rangers were the state of the art as of April 26, when they had won consecutive series against Boston, Detroit and the Yankees. The Rangers began that run by beating the Red Sox bloody, 18-3, on April 17 at Fenway Park. Next, they went to Detroit, which was returning home at 9-3 after a three-game sweep at Kansas City. The Rangers immediately demolished the Tigers, 10-3 and 10-4. They split the next two games, but the Tigers lost traction and have fallen to 17-18. Next, the Rangers beat the Yankees two of three in Arlington.

The fire dimmed a little bit when Tampa Bay came in and took two of three, then the Rangers embarked on a ten-game road trip through three cities. First, Toronto outslugged them and won two out of three. Then, Cleveland outpitched them and won two out of three. Somehow, Toronto and Cleveland didn't qualify to get the Rangers' dander up. But the next series, in Baltimore, brought back the assassin in this team.

The Orioles returned home living on top of the American League East, winning five straight at the end of a six-game trip through New York and Boston. That made them legit. They faced the Rangers toting a 1.64 bullpen ERA, best in the major leagues. You knew the Rangers were licking their chops.

The Rangers third baseman in the series opener was Brandon Snyder, the Orioles No. 1 draft pick in 2005. He was supposed to be some kind of hitter who played first base. He reached Triple-A at 22 in 2009, and just never solved that level of pitching. The Orioles gave up and sold him to the Rangers this January for a few bucks. Somehow, the Rangers have found him useful.

Snyder had the game of his life, three-for-five with six RBI and a homer. The Rangers hit two other homers and pounded the Orioles, 14-3. The next day, the Rangers hit five home runs, including four by Josh Hamilton, for a 10-3 win. The Orioles might have been praying for rain at that point. They got it, and the next day's game was postponed.

So, the Rangers' last day at the end of a long road turned into a double header, which they split. During the four-game series, the Rangers bludgeoned Baltimore's league-leading bullpen for 23 hits and 17 runs (11 earned) in 11 innings. Following the double-header, they arrived in the Metroplex a little after 2 a.m. the next morning off a 5-5 road trip.

That night, the Rangers returned to Rangers Ballpark for their seventh straight home sellout on an electrically charged Friday occasion. The Angels were in town for the first of many games these teams will play this year. The starting pitcher for the Angels was the same C.J. Wilson who somehow wasn't loved by Texas, even though he was a Rangers guy who they drafted and developed, then he served them very well for the last three years, both as a relief closer and as a starter. It might have something to do with the fact that he's 1-5 in the postseason. The Rangers were fine with letting Wilson go free agent during the winter. The man they really wanted was the Japanese right hander, Yu Darvish. And that was Darvish on the mound facing Wilson in the series opener.

The Texas crowd wasn't behind Wilson, and neither was his infield. The Rangers nicked out three deep infield singles in the first inning, all instances of Angels infielders reaching the ball but without time to throw. Second baseman Howie Kendrick tried a throw on the third one, and his throw sailed past first baseman Albert Pujols to let in a run. Next, Wilson walked Adrian Beltre to load the bases with one out, and another Rangers opponent might have prayed for rain, because it started coming.

After an hour and 56 minutes of rain delay, Wilson did not come back out, but Darvish did. Jerome Williams picked up the game for the Angels, but it wasn't his day to pitch and the Rangers beat on him until they totaled six runs in the first inning. Darvish pitched gamely for the Rangers, exiting in the sixth inning with a 9-3 lead. The Rangers won, 10-3.

Wilson took the loss, but he also took the ball the next day and pitched well enough to win. He didn't win, but the Angels did, 4-2. The Angels went up 2-0 in the fourth on a homer by Mark Trumbo, but Texas responded with runs in the fifth and sixth, at which point Wilson exited a 2-2 tie, leaving runners at first and second with two out. Perhaps more adversely, David Carpenter came in to pitch. Wilson was on the ropes for being the losing pitcher in two consecutive games. Carpenter walked Mike Napoli to load the bases. Next, on an 0-2 pitch, Snyder made a bid to pop one over the corner at the left field foul pole, but it fell short and into the reach of Mike Trout, the left fielder.

Then, in an odd way, the Angels were repaid for their disastrous first inning from a night earlier -- just in time for Wilson to not be the beneficiary. Now, the Angels weren't killing the ball, but they didn't have to. After Trumbo walked against a tiring Matt Harrison to begin the seventh inning, Kendrick and Peter Bourjos reached on infield singles to load the bases. Kendrys Morales followed with a sacrifice fly, then John Hester reached on an infield single to re-load the bases. Trout followed with a sacrifice fly to bring in Kendrick. The throw home from right fielder Nelson Cruz gave the Rangers a chance, but the catcher, Napoli, could not catch it.

The Angels bullpen shut down the Rangers for more than three innings. It wasn't going to be the Rangers' day, anyway -- the second day back from a long road trip is supposed to be the killer -- but the Angels also retrieved some infield hits they were owed from a night earlier. And now, in a flash, they were looking at an exciting possibility. With ace Jered Weaver, one of the best in baseball, scheduled for the Sunday night rubber game, the Angels had a chance to win this series.

If you were to ask the managers if the rubber game were going to be a "big" game, they could reasonably reply that every game is big, but, yes, you're trying to win series and the game would decide the series. But the game isn't so big that there's no tomorrow if it doesn't work out.

All of that would be absolutely true. But tomorrow, though it will come either way, is going to look a lot different from each outcome. Which was why the Angels now had a glimmer of hope. A rubber-game win would bring them within six games of the Rangers, and taking a road series from the league's best team would be a building block for a team with few achievements this year. Maybe it gives the Rangers a little something to worry about.

But, you know, the Rangers don't advocate scenarios like that. And here was the problem for Weaver: the Rangers batting order is a whole different order of batters than the Minnesota Twins batting order, against which Weaver took his most recent two starts. One of them was a no-hitter in Anaheim on May 2. In 15 innings during the two starts, Weaver gave up three hits. It was as if he were training for the triathlon by taking a couple walks through the park.

Throw a mistake to the Twins hitters, and they might watch it go by or swing and miss. Throw a good pitch to the Rangers, and it might be a gap double. If you get Joe Mauer out, there's no one else in the Twins lineup to cause much worry, except, maybe, Josh Willingham. But if you get Ian Kinsler out, then you have to deal with Elvis Andrus, then Josh Hamilton, then Adrian Beltre, then Michael Young, then Cruz, then, as a special horror to the Angels, Na-po-li.

Get ahead of the Twins hitters 0-2, and they're out already. Get ahead of the Rangers hitters 0-2, and you're going to be there all day. Weaver got ahead of Kinsler, his first hitter of the night, 0-2. Five pitches later, Kinsler doubled on a 3-2 count. Weaver got ahead of his second hitter, Andrus, 0-2. Six pitches later, Andrus hit a full-count infield single moving Kinsler to third. After going 0-2 on the first two hitters, all Weaver had to show for it was runners on first and third with no outs and 15 pitches expended.

After Weaver struck out Hamilton on three pitches, Beltre plated Kinsler with a sacrifice fly and Angels escaped that inning without further damage. Trumbo hit a long homer for the Angels in the top of the second, putting the Angels ahead, 2-1. The Angels responded. They were into this moment. Where would they be without Mark Trumbo?

Then came the third inning, and we saw the old drill. Kinsler led off, fell down 0-2, then finally flied out four pitches later. Andrus followed with a double on a 1-0 slider. Next, Weaver struck out Hamilton on four pitches. Always, it seemed from that point, Weaver was a pitch away from getting out of this inning. But Beltre doubled on an 0-1 pitch to drive in Andrus. Then, Weaver worked ahead of Young 0-2, but Young doubled to right field two pitches later and sent Beltre to third.

Next, Weaver went ahead of David Murphy, 0-2. But Weaver proceeded to miss with a range of pitches -- a cutter, a curve, a change and a two-seam fastball. Murphy worked him for a walk to load the bases. And up stepped Cruz, who was slumping, but doesn't very often miss when a pitcher trying to get him out low and away leaves it belt high. Weaver threw a slider that missed, then a changeup that missed, and Cruz had a free swing at a curve that hung over the plate. Cruz hit it over the left field fence. Grand Slam. Rangers up, 6-2. They would keep pouncing for a 13-6 win.

The Rangers weren't going to be stopped. The Angels had one of the game's best pitchers consistently getting ahead of the hitters, and those hitters just would not let him put them away. We could come out of this saying the Angels must be terrible, but the more correct response would be to acknowledge what they're up against.

They're up against the best team in the game. They're up against a team that has unfinished business, that has no doubt about how good it is, but lives today without a World Championship to show for it. The Rangers have quite a bit for which to answer, and they are answering.

And Nellie Cruz -- there's a guy with a little something for which to answer. Bottom of the ninth inning, Game 6 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis, the Rangers held a 7-5 lead, but the Cardinals had two runners on with two out. The Cardinals were down to their last strike as Neftali Feliz reached a 1-2 count against David Freese. Then Freese launched a long fly ball to right. Tough play for Cruz in right field. Not a routine play in the least.

Some 21 years earlier, during the 1990 World Series in Cincinnati, Oakland manager Tony LaRussa had just seen his right fielder, Jose Canseco, fail to make a similar play. LaRussa didn't so much blame Canseco but he did say this: That's a play that you have to make to win the championship. Championships are won by making that play, the tough play that isn’t impossible. The next day, Canseco's wife at the time, Esther, called LaRussa a "punk." The Reds swept out the powerful A's in four games, a huge upset.

Now, Cruz fails to make that championship play in right field for the Rangers. LaRussa, managing from the St. Louis dugout, watches two runs score, tying the game on the triple by Freese. The Cardinals ended up winning a classic, 10-9 in 11 innings. And you knew the Rangers, Game 6 losers playing Game 7 on the road, just couldn't respond to that emotional low. The Cardinals won Game 7 easily, 6-2.

In the aftermath, LaRussa had to believe two things. First, he won a championship after his opponent failed to make a championship play, which is no less deserved because of that. But it's a good time to go. Especially considering the second thing LaRussa must have believed, which was that negotiations for a long-term contract between the Cardinals and their star player, Albert Pujols, probably would not end successfully. Better go now.

LaRussa, 67, decided to end a 33-year career that included six pennants and three world titles. Pujols left St. Louis for his best offer.

He signed with the Angels. 

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