Said recently extended Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington after an ill-timed recurrence of offensive malaise resulted in a second consecutive defeat at the hands of the fourth-place Padres on Sunday evening: "I don't think we ever envisioned that anyone could shut this offense down to one hit. It happened tonight."
Which is superficially a fine and worthy sentiment, except that (a) Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis heavily contributed to precisely what Washington describes above back on May 19th, limiting Texas to a first-inning double from third baseman Michael Young through 6.1 scoreless frames before the bullpen notched eight consecutive outs to end it, and (b) the recent assortment of three- and four-hit efforts that have been so exasperating to watch unfold in real-time have largely produced outcomes not unlike the second-place Rangers' revolting interleague-ending 2-0 loss to the right-handed tandem of Chad Gaudin and Heath Bell. Inexcusable.
[Incidentally, Willis struggled through five more putrid starts after his utter domination of Texas on May 19th, posting a 9.53 ERA in just 22.2 innings before being placed back onto the 15-day disabled list on June 18th. Willis continues to insist that his problems are strictly of a mechanical nature, and the unusual circumstances surrounding his purported anxiety disorder have reportedly prompted inquiries from other baseball executives into the veracity of his diagnosis, but Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski remains adamant that his medical condition is legitimate and not an illusory platform designed to keep him out of the majors while he attempts to hammer out the mechanical kinks in his delivery.]
The lone positive worth accentuating was stout 22-year-old right-hander Tommy Hunter, who pitched sufficiently against an all-around horrendous Padres offense -- one which wields the second-worst team wOBA in the National League, a meager .308 mark -- and just as importantly pitched smart, yielding two earned runs on seven hits in 6.1 innings while incorporating a solid array of cutters, sliders and curveballs into his game plan, inducing weak contact in abundance and perhaps aligning himself for a second start in place of disabled left-hander Matt Harrison.
Technically sidelined by inflammation of the left biceps muscle, Harrison experienced numbness in his pitching hand after his most recent start last Tuesday and has scheduled an appointment to meet with a neurologist recommended by team physician Dr. Keith Meister, who hopes to eliminate the possibility of nerve damage (including the prospect of ulnar nerve entrapment, an apparent common cause of hand numbness).
While the Rangers could conceivably leverage their upcoming Thursday off-day by delaying the need for a fifth starter until July 7th by virtue of keeping the still-intact Millwood-Padilla-Feldman-Holland quartet on four days of rest and optioning Hunter to Triple-A Oklahoma City in exchange for a superfluous bench player, doing so would preclude Hunter from being able to make that July 7th start, since major league teams are prohibited from recalling an optioned player until 10 days have passed since said optioned player reported to the minor league affiliate.
Whom, then, would you turn to? Sinkerballer Doug Mathis has evidently settled into his long relief niche and Ron Washington hasn't even remotely contemplated the notion of stretching out right-hander Jason Jennings for a return to the starting rotation, which greatly restricts the Rangers' flexibility if neither is a possibility. The end result might well be Hunter sticking around, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if he continues to pitch with confidence and fortitude, but is a bad thing if he reverts to bad habits.
As part of an exceedingly foreboding but prescient article written a little more than a fortnight ago, I submitted that "the reality is that it really wouldn't take much more than a pulled groin muscle here or a bit of elbow tendinitis there to turn [Josh] Hamilton's presumed second-half return from a welcome playoff odds-boosting addition into something more closely resembling a desperately needed addition, with the distinction between the two being the level of urgency in play." Included in that short list of injury-based misfortunes should have been the possibility of the lineup's offensive ineptitude persisting to the doorstep of Independence Day, which has played a tremendous role in the Rangers' fast-paced descent.
The worst-kept secret in Rangers-centric baseball circles right now might be just how desperately Texas needs Hamilton back, and in that respect Sunday was a very good day, with Hamilton being slated to serve as Double-A Frisco's designated hitter on Monday evening, undergo a re-evaluation by the Rangers' medical staff on Tuesday, and hopefully return within the next 10 days from abdominal surgery that was previously expected to keep him sidelined through the All-Star break; barring a medical setback, my previous apprehension over a potential All-Star cameo has dissipated, although his exclusion from Home Run Derby festivities should remain a given.
Texas will have an opportunity to build off the vestiges of positive energy emitted from the latest developments on the Hunter and Hamilton fronts during a pivotal three-game series that could springboard the Rangers back into a 1.5-game lead or send them tumbling into third place, with the ballclub being challenged to conceal its multiple weaknesses and re-establish divisional superiority over the surging Angels -- or die trying.
I'll leave it to you to determine which is more likely at this stage.
Quick Hits: General manager Jon Daniels has indicated that the Rangers' efforts to find capable starting pitching in the trade marketplace have been stymied by the dearth of available pitchers ... Ron Washington on his decision to bench starting right fielder Nelson Cruz, who has hit .157/.224/.300 since June 4th: "I just think a couple of days off will do him some good. When we came back late from that long road trip, he looked a little fatigued. I was playing him every day for weeks at a time. He's trying hard out there and I don't want him to try too hard." ... Venerated Rangers radio broadcaster Eric Nadel will undergo a full-scale retinal procedure at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas on Monday morning and will miss the ballclub's upcoming pre-All-Star break road trip at Los Angeles and Seattle; best wishes are to be extended to Eric for a speedy return to the radio booth.