I recall this one occasion many years ago -- yes, stand by for the banal personal anecdote -- when one of those annual carnivals set up shop on the south end of the local (and increasingly shabby) shopping mall, complete with the obligatory funhouse full of bits. I don't remember very much about the experience, honestly, beyond the fact that it was hot, crowded, and there was one of those rocking platform bits inside of the funhouse rattling erraticly from side to side that was intended to throw off your equilbrium and, I guess, give your body the sensation that you had actually been on a fun ride even though you hadn't actually done so.
Colby Lewis is the rocking platform of the Rangers' 2011 funhouse.
Trying to figure out exactly what Lewis is going to be on any given night, or even in a given inning, has become nothing less than a pure exercise in futility. The fastball command is as essential to his success -- and the lack thereof to his failure -- as it is with any other pitcher in professional baseball, except his command has worked much more on a binary, on-or-off scale than it ever did at any point during his 2010 campaign. There doesn't seem to be much of a gray area between the two extremes, and that's fine and all in theory, except the bad flare-ups have been more frequent and more debilitating in nature, and that's cause for great alarm when you're talking about a core rotation piece.
His effort in Atlanta last night (6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 10 K, 2 HR) completes a four-start June sandwich that began with eight pristine shutout frames at Tampa Bay, followed by back-to-back disasters versus Detroit and at Minnesota during which it seemed he had reverted back to his early-season pumpkin form. Before that, he rattled off -- in reverse order -- one poor start against the lowly Royals, one solid start against the first-place Phillies, and then four consecutive strong starts that signaled the end of his early-season difficulties. I have absolutely no idea what to make of that sequence, or what we should be expecting out of the starter that has seen his strikeout rate plummet (even including last night's numbers) by a full 1.5 per nine innings, his walk rate dip marginally, and his homer rate double to truly unacceptable levels.
What this does, though, is measurably ratchet up the pressure on the front office to pull some strings and look very, very closely at the trade market for a pitcher that could be a can't-miss No. 4 starter at worst in a post-season rotation, and at best somebody that could be a Game 3 starter behind C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando if things remain so unnervingly unstable with Lewis, Derek Holland, and friends. When I wrote yesterday morning that there was something that would continue to bother me about this team even after it resumed winning and everything looked fine and dandy on the surface again, I think this may have been what it was.
The rotation is good enough and, with the approaching returns of Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter, hopefully deep enough to win a division title, but we're getting into the part of the season where contending teams have to evaluate whether the assets they have on hand are good enough to win more than just the division, and this, from where I sit at least (and even after a good start from Lewis, which should in theory suppress some of these less than sanguine thoughts), looks like a rather dicey proposition.
Again, it's early. We have 5-6 more weeks of evaluation time to decide definitively where the true strengths and weaknesses of this team lie, and what can actually be done about them. The entire pitching staff may have stabilized by then, for all that we know, and even if it hasn't, the front office may have pulled the trigger on a very beneficial trade by the time we reach that juncture. It's all very fluid, and subject to swinging in one direction or another ... but until Colby Lewis stops rocking us back and forth, I suspect that it's going to remain difficult to feel real good about this team's chances of doing more with the opportunity they've been afforded this season than merely hanging another division flag.