Well, it happened. For the first time since the jarring Baltimore-at-Texas disaster from July 8-11th (and the fifth time this season, though that isn't a point of great concern for me), the Rangers have been swept -- albeit by one of the best teams in baseball, while playing on the road with an injury-ravaged lineup. And in spite of that, the Rangers have lost exactly one-half of one game of ground in the division race over the last three days, which should serve as another clear indication that this division is still clinched tightly within their grasp ... but people's concerns aren't mollified quite so easily. More than anything else, they want to know that Texas won't collapse in the post-season, and to some, this three-game sweep signifies a huge red flag.
And, well, it's impossible to render iron-clad assurances to the contrary, but this simply is not the catastrophe that some will purport it to be, and context is one of the main reasons why. On Wednesday afternoon, the Rangers rolled out four players -- Taylor Teagarden (.259), Andres Blanco (.255), Julio Borbon (.286) and Joaquin Arias (.286) -- with season-to-date wOBAs below .290; furthermore, all four are projected to hit at right around replacement level the rest of the way. The logical expectation should be that neither Arias nor Blanco will log any significant playing time in a playoff series, and that Borbon, given the limited usefulness of his bat, will be restricted to late-inning defensive duties. (There's probably a debate to be waged on this point.)
"But the starting pitching sucked in Tampa Bay!", you grumble. And yes, it would be easy to draw such a conclusion from the average performance (5.0 IP, 5 ER) of Cliff Lee, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland in this series, but Hunter was pitching in an apparently weakened state (residual effects from his short but violent bout of stomach flu), Holland hadn't pitched well since concluding his rehab assignment at Triple-A Oklahoma City, and Lee was victimized by one of the more brain-dead defensive innings in recent memory, hemorrhaging the bulk of his six earned runs during that inning but still managing to compile 10 strikeouts to just a single walk. It's also entirely possible that Hunter -- and certainly not Holland -- doesn't make any post-season starts, depending on series game schedules/durations.
But perhaps most significantly (and I hate to keep drilling this home, but it's important), the Rangers continue to match up well with the best American League teams where the most consistent indicators of post-season success are concerned: team strikeout rate, team defensive runs above average, and closer dominance. While it appears the Rays are the runaway favorites from a defensive standpoint (and that's not a knock on the Rangers so much as it is complimentary of Tampa Bay), one could reasonably argue that there is little separation between Rays closer Rafael Soriano and Neftali Feliz, and the Rangers are extremely potent strikeout-wise, boasting two starters -- Cliff Lee (7.99 K/9) and Colby Lewis (9.10 K/9) with well above-average strikeout rates and no fewer than four late-inning relievers with sparkling strikeout rates.
I sometimes wonder if such apprehension is prevalent in other fan bases, or if the fact that the Rangers have exactly one playoff win in their nearly 40-year franchise history amplifies our uneasiness -- even when the Rangers are on the brink of turning in one of their most special seasons ever. I don't have a good answer to that, but here's what I do know: the offense will get better, the defense will remain steadily good, and the pitching staff will, in all likelihood, remain an enormous October threat. Perhaps the time will come when panic of some sort is warranted (and I sincerely hope that doesn't prove to be the case), but right now is definitely and emphatically not the time for it.