11 Things.

 11-numeral

 

Here we go.  

Eleven things:

 

1.      Seven and a half months ago, most of the players and coaches on this club gathered in Surprise, with the taste of Game Five, Inning Seven still bitter.

And now this.

Intense, and tense.

Still, while a date with Baltimore might have felt a little more inviting from a matchup standpoint, you can’t sneak your way to a World Championship.  Bring it on. 

In the Major Leagues, a third of the teams make the post-season (and just over a fourth get to play more than one game).  In the NBA and NHL, the playoffs include just about twice as many teams — to state it another way, if baseball were the same then the eight teams playing in the ALDS and NLDS would all be home teams, hosting another eight.  (The NFL is about halfway between baseball and basketball/hockey.)

The point: Enjoy this.  Baseball is the most demanding of the major sports in terms of reaching the post-season, and arguably the least likely to have a renegade club slide in, with as many games as there are in the regular season to identify the best.  

And despite baseball’s uniquely demanding gantlet, Texas is now playing 162+ for the sixth time in seven years.  That’s insane consistency and contention, especially in a sport in which good teams regularly get left out.  

To be fair, the Cowboys and the Mavs and the Stars have each won titles, and the Rangers have not.  

But there are 22 teams that already know they won’t get that done in 2016.  Texas is one of eight with a shot to make history, and today that gets underway.

Don’t take this for granted.  Savor the ice cream headache.  

Enjoy this.  

 

2.      The Blue Jays.  A relatively harmless franchise that, until a year ago, was sort of just there

Not anymore.

As Toronto and Baltimore went into the late innings on Tuesday night, there was a camera shot that caught a Jays fan holding a sign that read, with the Jays and O’s knotted up: “WE WANT ODOR.”  

There were reports that, shortly after Edwin Encarnacion crossed the plate with the walkoff winner, a chant broke out in the stands shouting the same three words.  

USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale noted: “Just in case you need a reminder, these two teams hate each other.”  Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar, asked postgame to comment on the bad blood between the Jays and the Rangers, the baseball animosity that boiled over in last year’s ALDS finale and raged in mid-May, said: “It’s not fabricated.  They don’t like us, and we don’t like them.”   

The Rangers?  That team that worked in powder blue for years, that plays country music over the P.A. system, that was largely baseball-irrelevant for its first two decades — hated?

Love it.

And, MLB’s scheduling notwithstanding, there’s a sense, confirmed if you’ve watched and listened to national coverage the last couple days, that this is a rematch the baseball world wants to see. 

Whose score is it to settle?

The Rangers, who went up two games in the best-of-five a year ago, on the road, only to lose three straight and have their season end in a hostile and crushing and shocking manner?

Or the Blue Jays, whose humiliation in Arlington seven months later was perpetrated less by the four Texas runs in the seventh that turned that game completely around than by what happened in the eighth, when a Matt Bush fastball to Jose Bautista’s elbow (on Bush’s second day in the big leagues) led to a late-and-hard Bautista slide at Rougned Odor’s knees and then to an Odor chest-shove and an Odor haymaker to Bautista’s jaw and a bench-clearing melee that got ugly?

Chances are good that both clubs are going to behave over the next week (“Play with emotion,” says Jeff Banister, “but not emotionally”), but you can bet they both feel that they have something to avenge, that the other guys have some payback coming — as added fuel not to send the opponent a message, but to send the opponent home. 

Toronto won four of seven against Texas this year (the three Rangers victories were each by one run, and each credited to the bullpen, because of course) — which is no more meaningful than the three of five the Jays won last October.  Since these two teams last played nearly five months ago, Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran and Carlos Gomez and Tanner Scheppers and Jurickson Profar have arrived in Texas.  Bush had played just two games, Shin-Soo Choo five.  Since the last time the Jays faced Texas, Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli and Devon Travis and Melvin Upton Jr. and Scott Feldman and the now-injured Joaquin Benoit joined Toronto.

The thing that worries me most about the Blue Jays is not the firepower in the middle of the lineup, but the depth in the rotation.  I’ll take Cole Hamels and Darvish over Toronto’s top two (and put them up against anyone’s in the playoffs), but I like Toronto’s one-through-four depth, no matter how you sort them.  Because they weren’t able to arrange their ALDS rotation strategically, having to play to the wire to secure a Wild Card berth and then win or go home against the Orioles, the Jays will send Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ out today and tomorrow in Texas, followed by Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman in Toronto.       

Happ and Sanchez are probably considered their two best, while Stroman is a proven big game pitcher.  Estrada, if fourth best by most assessments, has always given Texas fits, including in ALDS Game Three last year, with his team facing elimination and playing on the road.

Thought: Could Lucroy — who caught 110 of Estrada’s 139 games in Milwaukee from 2010 through 2014 — give the Rangers enough of an added read on the righthander’s tendencies that things could swing differently today?  Even just a marginal difference could be huge.

There are all kinds of ways this series could play out — including a couple scenarios in which there’s never a Game Four to be played — but if Texas and Toronto do play a fourth time, which by definition would be an elimination game for one team or the other, there’s a real chance that Hamels will be asked to start it on short rest, leaving Darvish to pitch Game Five (if needed) on regular rest, and effectively allowing Texas to throw their two aces four times in five games.    

Hamels has pitched 354 big league games, including in the playoffs.  Of those, 353 were starts.  

The one relief appearance was the only time he’s ever pitched on short rest in the big leagues.

On the final day of the 2011 season, Hamels (who was behind Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in Philadelphia’s rotation) pitched on three days’ rest in a game that had zero bearing on the standings for the 102-win Phillies club.  He’d thrown 93 pitches in a start four days earlier, and then came in to throw 40 Game 162 pitches over three frames to tune up for what would be a Game Three NLDS start six days after that.

But it seems like at least an even bet that Hamels would start a Game Four in Toronto, on three days’ rest, whether it’s to try and lock down a series win that day — or stave off elimination.

So while I fear the Blue Jays’ third and fourth starters a bit — I’m not so sure that Hamels won’t be the Rangers’ number one and number four in this series, with Colby Lewis getting the Game Three assignment. 

In their 10 post-season series as a franchise, the Rangers have had home field just three times: against New York in the 2010 ALCS, against Tampa Bay in the 2011 ALDS, and against Detroit in the 2011 ALCS.

They won all three.

Still, interestingly, Texas is only a 9-14 team overall as a home playoff team, and 12-14 on the road. 

That said, they’ve never had a one-two punch like Hamels — who is 4-1 lifetime in Game One’s (with four straight wins, one short of John Smoltz’s record) — and Darvish.

A couple weeks ago, Nightengale tweeted: “Nobody wants to play the Rangers in October, who are awfully scary these days.”  

Maybe the truth is Toronto doesn’t want any part of Texas.  And maybe Texas would have preferred Baltimore.  But this is the baseball playoffs and there are no cakewalks.  

This series is going to be electric.

 

3.      And it’s probably a good time for this reminder: The Rangers have been significantly better in 2016 against good teams.

Texas had an insane record of 60-31 against clubs who were .500 or better.  And, oddly, a 35-36 mark against losing clubs.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out that, since 1913, no team has had a more disparate winning percentage against good opponents than the Rangers have had in 2016.  Their .659 winning clip against .500+ teams was 166 percentage points better than their .493 mark against teams with a losing record.  The next biggest differences on the plus side: the 2010 Cardinals (137-percentage-point difference) and 1932 Reds (132-percentage-point difference).

That’s as crazy as the +8 run differential in a 95-win season.

And probably meaningless as far as this Best-of-Five goes.  

But crazy.

 

4.      Joe West’s crew will umpire this series.

I have nothing else to say about that, and I hope to say nothing else about it over the next week.

 

5.      I suspect I’ll be writing a lot about Elvis Andrus, whose career hit a low point in the brutal Game Five seventh inning last year, against these Jays.  Things could have gone in either one of two directions at that point, and I know a lot of people feared what kind of toll that sort of nightmare might have had on the 27-year-old.

Instead, Andrus has had his best year, setting eight-year career highs in batting average, reaching base, and slugging, playing more consistent defense, and making fewer baserunning mistakes in what has always been a weapon aspect of his game.

We all want to see Adrian Beltre and Beltran get a ring, and there are any number of players and coaches and front office folks who fit that category as well.  But man, I’m not sure anything would make me happier from an individual player standpoint than to see Elvis Andrus carry this team through October and into November.

Starting with a statement series against the opponent he had to think about for four long months this past winter.

 

6.      I said this about Odor when I wrote “11 Things” at the outset of last year’s ALDS:

I’m a little worried about Rougned Odor, not so much because he hit .172/.209/.359 over his final 17 games and had a handful of errors and other mistakes that didn’t register in the box score.

I’m a little worried because he’s shown a tendency to try and be really big in situations that don’t necessarily call for it, and while Texas has always believed heavily in adding players who have never won and bring that extra hunger to the team (veterans Beltre, Choo, Napoli, Joe Nathan), Odor has never tasted the playoffs and I fear he’s going to try and hit six-run home runs with the bases empty.    

Vince Gennaro, a SABR guy who shows up on MLB Network on occasion, talked this week about players with big swings who often struggle in the post-season because the number five starters and middle relievers against whom they often do lots of their in-season damage tend to gather dust in the playoffs.  He mentioned Josh Hamilton as an example, and it prompted me to look up Prince Fielder’s post-season numbers, which it turns out are not pretty (.194/.287/.333 in 164 plate appearances).  I think Odor probably fits the profile, too, as much as I hope I’m wrong about that.

Slow the game down, man, just a little.  Just be Rougie.  

Much different circumstances a year later, but the basic sentiment remains, at least for me.  

Odor’s finish was actually not all that different from his 2015, as he hit .178/.231/.356 over his final 20 games this year.  His game took a step forward in 2016, but his strikeout rate increased while his walk rate, already ugly, dipped further.  

For everything I love about Odor, I still worry about the 22-year-old’s tendency to chase and his urge to be big — and that’s without even taking into consideration the story line that the national media will be all over.  

Two things calm my fears as far as Odor goes: the fact that he lifted his game out of a slump last year once the ALDS got rolling (.278/.381/.500 in 21 plate appearances), and the at-bat he had against Seattle closer Edwin Diaz on August 30, when he was so locked in during the high-intensity confrontation that ended in the walkoff home run that it was almost chilling.

Still, I’m in the same place I was last October:  Slow the game down, Rougie.  Just a little.

 

7.      I have a similar concern about Carlos Gomez, who has been so tremendous since the 1-for-19 he opened his Rangers career with — .330/.414/.608 in his succeeding 111 plate appearances (and .284/.362/.543 overall with Texas, after I’d hoped for something close to the .250/.267/.500 run Josh Hamilton gave the Rangers late last year) — but whose history suggests he sometimes gets out of his game, gets too big, and can be his own worst enemy.  In eight career playoff starts, he’s a .250 hitter (28 at-bats) with eight strikeouts and one walk.

If he can be the patient hitter that he’s been with Texas — with a few well-placed ambush hacks mixed in — he can help set a tone that he’s done such a good job of for the last six weeks.  With the state of the Toronto bullpen (Tuesday night notwithstanding) — and we don’t really know how healthy Roberto Osuna is — it’s going to be important for Rangers hitters to work counts and drive Jays starters out of the game.  

Gomez has demonstrated that ability here, and given the importance of getting into Toronto’s pen early, it might turn out to be as important for him to deliver as the more dynamic parts of his game.  

 

8.      On the subject of relief pitching, Texas finished the season on a tear, with the bullpen putting together a franchise-record 35.1 scoreless innings going into the final game.  Clinching the division early helped Banister, Doug Brocail, and Brad Holman ease up some on the staff’s key relievers down the stretch, and Jeffress and Tony Barnette in particular are relatively fresh, having not pitched for a long stretch going into the season’s final week.

And Keone Kela — probably the Rangers pitcher I’d most closely compare to Odor in terms of getting too amped up at times — was better down the stretch (7.0-6-2-2-2-8 over his final six appearances, five of which were scoreless) than he was most of the season.  If he is pitching at his peak level this next week, that’s a big arm that can be relied on to get big outs in the sixth or seventh inning — something Toronto is not as flush in right now.    

I’m not going to write about Bush here, but I’m confident I will before long. 

 

9.      This was my Top 72 Rangers Prospect ranking going into the 2015 season:

1. Joey Gallo, 3B-1B

2. Jorge Alfaro, C

3. Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez, RHP

4. Nomar Mazara, OF

5. Jake Thompson, RHP

6. Ryan Rua, OF-1B-3B-2B

7. Luke Jackson, RHP

8. Luis Ortiz, RHP

9. Lewis Brinson, OF

10. Nick Williams, OF

11. Andrew Faulkner, LHP

12. Ronald Guzman, 1B

13. Marcos Diplan, RHP

14. Keone Kela, RHP

15. Jake Smolinski, OF

16. Alec Asher, RHP

17. Ryan Cordell, OF-1B

18. Jerad Eickhoff, RHP

19. Corey Knebel, RHP

20. Brett Martin, LHP

21. Travis Demeritte, 2B-3B

22. Yohander Mendez, LHP

23. Spencer Patton, RHP

24. Tomas Telis, C

25. Jairo Beras, OF

26. Phil Klein, RHP

27. Hanser Alberto, SS

28. Jose Leclerc, RHP

29. Michael De Leon, SS

30. Alex Claudio, LHP

31. Abel De Los Santos, RHP

32. Odubel Herrera, 2B-OF

33. Lisalverto Bonilla, RHP

34. Pat Cantwell, C

35. Jon Edwards, RHP

36. Josh Morgan, 2B-SS

37. Yeyson Yrizarri, SS-2B

38. Sam Wolff, RHP

39. Chris Bostick, 2B

40. Will Lamb, LHP

41. Jared Hoying, OF

42. Ti’Quan Forbes, 3B-SS

43. Samuel Zazueta, LHP

44. Chris Garia, OF

45. Kelvin Vasquez, RHP

46. Cole Wiper, RHP

47. Jose Valdespina, RHP

48. Victor Payano, LHP

49. Connor Sadzeck, RHP

50. Jose Trevino, C-3B

51. Akeem Bostick, RHP

52. Josh McElwee, RHP

53. Frank Lopez, LHP

54. Evan Van Hoosier, OF-2B

55. Matt West, RHP

56. Trever Adams, 1B-OF

57. Martire Garcia, LHP

58. Preston Beck, 1B-OF

59. Luke Tendler, OF

60. Cody Kendall, RHP

61. Drew Robinson, OF

62. Eduard Pinto, OF

63. Cody Ege, LHP

64. Seth Spivey, 2B-3B

65. Brett Nicholas, C-1B

66. Ben Rowen, RHP

67. Jose Almonte, OF

68. Luke Lanphere, RHP

69. Kellin Deglan, C

70. David Ledbetter, RHP

71. Sherman Lacrus, C

72. David Perez, RHP

  

The names in red — 25 of them — are gone just a year and a half later, having moved on to other organizations, either by trade or waivers.  Another five (in purple) are no longer around.

Texas has divested itself of a lot of minor league talent from a very deep system that’s now giving clubs like the Phillies, Brewers, and Yankees added hope for windows that just now may be starting to open wider.

But where would the Rangers be without Hamels and Lucroy and Beltran and Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman and Jeffress?

Probably not hosting the Wild Card today.

The system will build back up.  (And let me take this opportunity to thank Scott Lucas for another spectacular season covering the Rangers’ farm clubs.  Just awesome work.) 

It might take some time and a good bit of our patience to see the system reload at levels we’ve become accustomed to the last decade or so.  But the insane depth Texas developed on the farm the last few years allowed the club to go out and execute on an approach articulated by Michael Young for a Dallas Morning News article: “We have targeted guys that fit a certain mold, a mold [that] I think has become identifiable with this organization.  We’ve identified guys who are extremely accountable and competitive.  We’ve identified guys who embrace the struggle and grind of the full season.”

And guys who produce at the highest level.

Best of luck, Jorge and Lewis, Marcos and Tomas, Jake and Luis, Dillon and Nick, Jerad and Ryan.  You’ve got lots of fans around here who will pull for you for a long time, even though your uniform doesn’t say Texas.

But you’ve already paid dividends.

 

10.  A little over a year ago, Jose Fernandez tweeted something that’s resurfaced over the last couple weeks since his tragic passing: “If you were given a book with the story of your life, would you read the end?” 

That stuck with me as the playoffs neared and, now, as they’ve arrived.

We all want a championship here, and along the way a knockout of the Blue Jays in a strictly figurative sense.

But there’s no way any of us would want to skip ahead to the last page, just to find out the result — right?

The journey — as 2016 has exemplified — is such a huge part of the payoff.  I can’t wait to see how this all plays out, whether it’s crushing or the best thing ever, but I have zero interest in finding out how it ends without embracing the experience of getting there.

 

11.  Win the Damn Series.

 

 
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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