Don’t Forget About the Team

Over the weekend, the Texas Rangers won three out of four games against the Angels to increase their division lead to an equal-season high of seven games. After the All-Star Break, Texas has won each of its three series, all against quality competition (Boston, Detroit, L.A.) to rack-up a second-half record thus far of 8-3.

Amazingly, if the season were to end today, the Rangers would have home-field advantage in a Division Series against Tampa Bay. The Rangers have never had home-field in each of their previous three playoff appearances.

Yet the focus with the team seems to be more on the ongoing ownership battle that has been played out in Texas courtrooms over the last several months. Googling "Texas Rangers sale" returns 916,000 results. Doing the same for "Texas Rangers division leaders" comes back with 311,000. The sports broadcasts on local news stations also seem more concerned with the sale than what the team is doing on the field, and some of them have also gone into Cowboys training camp mode.

On this site, there have been two articles written about the sale. I fully recommend reading both to get informed on the gory details about the sale.

On the front page of the Dallas Morning News' Sunday sports section, there was a big feature on the Cowboys starting training camp, a smaller feature on a preview of Big 12 Media Days, and then an even smaller story about the previous night's Rangers game (the solitary loss of the Angels series). Yes, football is king in Texas, but it is still July with the local baseball team possibly having their greatest season ever.

Living in North Texas, I have been to eight Rangers games already this season and I can say without a doubt that this is the best team that the Rangers have had in the 10 years since I've lived here. In most years that the Rangers are in contention or even near contention, such as last year or 2004, their bats carry them to whatever position they end up.

This season, the bats are doing their fair share. The Rangers rank second in the AL in batting average, fourth in OPS, and fourth in total bases. The Rangers stalwart hitters from last year in Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Hamilton are all having very solid, if not spectacular seasons (in Hamilton's case). The great difference in the lineup has been a piece that the Angels would love to have back right now, Vladimir Guerrero.

During his six years with the Angels, Guerrero was regarded as, more than any other player, the ultimate Rangers Killer. Even after Vlad looked to be on the downside of his career after a poor 2009, it cynically made some sense for the Rangers to pick up Guerrero on a one-year deal just to keep him away from beating the Rangers in a year in which Texas would have its sights set on a division title from day one. Now the $5.5 million the Rangers used to get Guerrero might be the bargain of the season.

As of Sunday, Guerrero is leading the team in RBI, an astonishing feat considering the potential Triple Crown and MVP-winning season Hamilton is putting together.

However, the real catalyst of the Rangers' success this season has been the pitching. Signs of improving pitching could be seen last year after the team hired Mike Maddux as pitching coach and Nolan Ryan as team president. Yet the results didn't look eye-popping. Only one regular starter (the departed Kevin Millwood) had an ERA under 4, and the bullpen was one that gave up too many hits.

This year, the progression of the teachings of Maddux and Ryan have come into brighter view with four regular starters possessing ERAs under 4, and a young closer in Neftali Feliz who has been mostly brilliant. Starters Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson are each having career-best years, Wilson's coming in his first year as a starter. The great surprise has been Tommy Hunter, who since being called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City in early June, has started 10 games and gone 8-0 with a 2.31 ERA. The Rangers have won nine of his 10 starts.

The pitching coup came on July 10 when the Rangers traded Justin Smoak and three minor leaguers to Seattle for Cliff Lee. In Lee, the Rangers have the best pitcher to have thrown for the club since Ryan. The day after the trade, I was able to see Lee's debut with the Rangers— a contest Lee would surely like to forget, giving up 6 earned runs against the hopeless Orioles. His first earned run came after just two pitches following a double on the first pitch and a single on the second.

In that game, there were positive takeaways, the foremost of which was the fact that Lee pitched a complete game on 95 pitches. Even in giving up 6 earned, Lee was extraordinarily efficient and had tremendous control. In fact, most of his pitching style reminded me of something I had seen only one other time in person, only I couldn't place it at the time. Eventually, it hit me that it was a lot like a Tom Glavine outing I saw in the late-'90s. Mind you, Lee is more of a fly ball guy and Glavine gave up more walks, but each was in control and not necessarily overpowering.

My perceptions have been confirmed in Lee's more successful last two outings: a complete game with 2 ER against Boston and then eight and a third innings with 2 earned against the Angels last Thursday.

The historical futility of the Rangers is hard to understate. In 48 full seasons since starting as the second incarnation of the Washington Senators, Texas has won one solitary playoff game. That total is dead last out of every single team in the major leagues. The Rangers are one of only three teams to have never made a World Series.

Only six teams exceed the Rangers' playoff drought of 10 seasons. It's no wonder that the marketing campaign before the season for the team was "It's Time." It wasn't made clear what exactly it's time for, but most Rangers fans would love for it to just be time to get back into the playoffs. With the way that the team is playing, "It's Time" has every chance of happening soon.

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