Fearing the worst.

Worst loss of the season, if you asked me. And not because of how it ended.

Not because of the play unmade (PLUM), steal, PLUM, steal, intentional walk, unintentional walk, fielder’s choice, and infield single (not quite a PLUM), a walkoff comeback and win for the other guys in an inning in which the outfield was no more involved than the opponent’s ejected manager.

And not because Sam Dyson was on the mound for the entirety of it.

It was the year’s worst loss, to me, because of a bigger picture that it cast a searing interrogation light on.

I’m not concerned about Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez hitting under .160 and I’m not concerned about Rougned Odor with a lower on-base (.240) than either of them (and with one run-scoring plate appearance this season that didn’t end with him trotting around the bases) and I’m not concerned that the team is getting .179/.273/.256 from its left fielders and .213/.275/.298 from its DH’s (way up, actually, after Shin-Soo Choo’s homer-double-walk effort Sunday).

I’m more concerned about Cole Hamels’s command. He’s pitched 18 innings in 2017, and the leadoff batter has reached safely in nine of them. (As a club, Texas is allowing the inning’s first batter to reach base at a .374 clip, which Jared Sandler of the Rangers radio broadcast points out compares with a .304 league average.)

Hamels is really good. He still is. It fires me up that he gets the ball here every fifth day. He’s holding opponents to a .234 batting average and has thrown 12 scoreless innings out of those 18. A lot of those leadoff baserunners are getting stranded, because he’s Cole Hamels.

But all those leadoff baserunners also lengthen innings and extend pitch counts, and that has factored into him averaging six innings a start when the surface numbers and the track record might suggest he’d be giving you maybe 7.1 frames each time out. Instead, he’s leaving nine outs on average for the bullpen to record, and it’s a bullpen missing a couple major pieces right now and getting very shaky work out of another major piece, and though Hamels has entrusted his relief crew with the lead three times out of three, it’s not all on the bullpen that he has yet to log a win.

Maybe if Hamels had managed to throw fewer than 96 pitches Sunday and, accordingly, just five frames, Tony Barnette and Alex Claudio and Jeremy Jeffress and Matt Bush pitch, in some sequence, and get to the finish line without engaging the very important Dyson project at all, especially in a ninth-inning situation, ahead by one.

Could Bush have come back for the ninth after his dominating 11-pitch eighth? Sure. Probably. But he’d been down an entire week, had a cortisone injection in his shoulder in that time, and it’s mid-April. Making sure Bush is right and not pushing things with him is far more important than one ninth-inning lead.

Yes, Bush or Barnette is probably on the verge of replacing Dyson in the closer’s role, but this team is going to need Dyson to get key outs the last time through the lineup, whether that’s in the seventh or eighth or ninth, if this season is going anywhere. There’s more about Sunday’s loss that I’m worried about than Dyson, who had a terrible inning, giving the bullpen (.288/.337/.503) its fifth loss out of the team’s eight and its fifth blown save in six chances, even though no ball left the infield.

Aside from Hamels’s command (he’s at 57.5 percent strikes this season, down from last year’s 63.2 percent, which was a career worst) and the staff’s work against the first batter of the inning in general, there’s the Rangers’ awful line against opponents’ nine-hole hitters that took another kick in the gut yesterday. With Hamels’s two-strike plunking of Leonys Martin (hitting .103/.125/.128 at the time) to lead off the third, which led to him scoring on Mitch Haniger’s three-run homer, and Martin’s bunt single in the ninth, which led to the tremendously ugly manner of loss alluded to above, the last spot in the order is now hitting .286/.391/.368 against Texas. That’s not good.

I’m concerned too about the plays-unmade slump. Yes, there are limitations defensively in left field, and Joey Gallo is not Adrian Beltre (though he’s been just fine at third base for the most part), but there have been balls to the middle infielders that have gone for hits when they could have been and in some cases should have been outs, pitchers making bad pickoff throws and bad decisions on balls in play, and a young right fielder whose arm strength is more than adequate but whose accuracy throwing to bases clearly has other teams taking liberties.

Good teams limit mistakes defensively and tend to play crisp, smart baseball. The Texas defense, for whatever reason, seems to be struggling to take care of the baseball and to find a team rhythm right now. And it’s meant extra runners and extra runs, if not extra losses.

I’m far more concerned about the extra bases this team is giving up — that is, the walks and the hit batsmen and the plays unmade, not so much the extra-base hits, because the latter are going to happen and are acceptable when they’re not consistently preceded by free bases — than about Haniger or Mike Trout pulling home runs back into the park. Haniger’s exceptional play in the eighth (which probably doesn’t happen if Gallo’s shot had less hang time) won’t affect the next 10 games or the next three months like the things that made that a 6–6 game at the time, and eventually a loss.

It’s easier for me to accept being beaten by a great play than by giving bases away.

And while it doesn’t qualify as giving bases away, as much as I love Odor, I really look forward to the time when his approach at the plate matures situationally. Do what the games asks you to do, Wash used to say, and Clint Hurdle used to preach, but when the game situation calls for a baserunner of any type, or a productive out, the 23-year-old’s eyes seemingly get bigger, and the violent swing longer, as if to say I’ll show you a productive “out” — by putting the next pitch out of the park.

I’m not going to take the time to go back and look at the number of instances over these 12 games that Odor has had a runner on third with fewer than two outs — that is, a sacrifice fly opportunity — but I do know that in his 10 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he has two hits (a home run on Opening Day and a huge triple in Anaheim), and in the other eight trips he’s failed to drive a run in.

In the third inning yesterday, with Texas up, 3–1, Odor stepped up with runners on first and third and one out. He popped out to shortstop. That failure to get the run in ended up was obscured, happily, when Jonathan Lucroy and Choo followed with a single and double.

Odor came up with the bases loaded in the seventh, after Seattle put Napoli on base intentionally with two outs and Texas ahead, 6–5. A base hit would have been huge, obviously, as Elvis Andrus would have been breaking from second on contact and scoring behind Jurickson Profar on any ball hit safely to the outfield. (I was thinking back to Kyle Seager’s approach on his tie-breaking single Saturday night.)

But Odor, charged undoubtedly by the affront of the point of Napoli to first, swung big and missed, took two pitches outside the zone, swung big and missed again, and then flew out to right to end the inning. Grand slam intent on each swing, when a base hit would have changed the game meaningfully.

(It wasn’t the story of this game, but what happened in back-to-back at-bats in the seventh inning was notable: Odor flies out with the bases loaded to end the top of the inning, right after which Guillermo Heredia homers off Barnette to lead off the bottom of the frame, his first of the year and second of his career, to tie the game, 6–6, erasing what had once been a 6–1 Texas lead.)

Ninth inning. Nomar Mazara had homered off Edwin Diaz to start the inning and reclaim the lead. Napoli fouled out, and Odor was up.

Ball one.

Ball two.

Ball three.

There’s not a better hitter’s count, obviously (assuming there aren’t runners in scoring position with first base open). Green lights on 3–0 aren’t handed out liberally, but in certain situations they’re granted, giving a certain type of hitter the opportunity to ambush a get-me-over strike and do a lot more damage than a base on balls. The hitter has the luxury of sitting on an exact pitch location he knows he can punish, and otherwise letting the pitch go by, knowing he’ll still be in a hitter’s count if it’s not ball four.

Diaz delivered what would have been ball four, 97 up and in, a location that clearly could not have been in the zone Odor was sitting on. But he swung anyway, rather than taking his base (or, at worst, falling to 3–1 if the pitch was somehow called a strike), and he popped out to the catcher.

I love Rougie. A lot. He’s going to forge the identity of this team once the third baseman is finished playing. But there are areas of his game that he can improve, and needs to.

We should be talking this morning about Mazara’s ninth-inning heroics against one of the league’s nastiest closers, in a tie game, on the road, toward the end of a peaceful day spent with family, whether you were celebrating Easter or your parents’ 50th anniversary.

Instead, I’ve spent far more words than I would have liked on pitching command and on sloppy defense and on hitting approach. Those things concern me a lot more than a 4–8 record that feels like it should be 5–7, because if they don’t change there will be more games that end up in the wrong column than there would have been otherwise.

The last time the Rangers were swept in Seattle was 2007, which was also the last time this team was strategically dismantled in an effort to shift windows.

I like this team a lot. Texas has as much ability to turn this around, less than one-twelfth into the six-month season, as the 2–10 Jays or the 5–7 Indians or the 3–9 Cardinals do.

But at the moment the Rangers have as many wins as Neftali Feliz has saves, and the latest loss was a bad one, marked by a handful of issues on the mound and in the field and at the plate that are going have to change for this team to play 162+ for the seventh time in eight years.

There are things that have to change, regardless of which pitcher gets the ball to protect a ninth-inning lead.

 
title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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