On the one hand, my confidence remains on a steady rise. On the other hand, my confidence is being rattled to its very core. Four weeks from today, the 2011 regular season will be laid to rest, and the Rangers will likely be engaged in the process of hammering out their desired post-season roster. I can echo that refrain now with considerable confidence, as the Rangers have weathered two of those "three weeks from hell" that baseball's scheduling gods piled onto them, and are in basically the same position now that they were two weeks ago -- 3½ games up instead of an even four games, of course, but still better off for having ceded little ground and retained their lead despite some massive scheduling inequities.
Now, with that said, the next seven days pose perhaps the greatest threat to the Rangers' lead of all, and it's not difficult to discern why. While the Rangers hit up the road for three weekend games in Boston and then three more games early next week in Tampa Bay, the Angels get to play host to two of the worst teams in baseball -- the Twins and Mariners -- for six home games. That's problematic enough on paper that I would feel pretty comfortable projecting Texas to lose two games in the standings during that six-day span, and some of the pessimistic types out there might argue that Texas could be in line to drop a full three games during that stretch.
But if you look at each club's remaining schedules in their totality, you quickly find that those formerly massive scheduling inequities are rapidly smoothing out, and inch a little closer towards swinging back over into the Rangers' favor with each passing game:
Rangers' weighted road opponents' winning perc. (15 games): .514 (83-win pace)
Rangers' weighted home opponents' winning perc. (10 games): .469 (76-win pace)
Rangers' weighted opponents' winning perc. (25 games): .496 (80-win pace)
Angels' weighted road opponents' winning perc. (11 games): .451 (73-win pace)
Angels' weighted home opponents' winning perc. (15 games): .491 (80-win pace)
Angels' weighted opponents' winning perc. (26 games): .474 (77-win pace)
So, on the whole, the Rangers have to play a heavier proportion of road games than the Angels down the stretch, and have to play a batch of slightly more difficult teams while doing it -- but, on a more optimistic note, Texas picks up an extra off day in the process, and will be subjected to less of the energy-sapping heat that appears to have had some effect on the team's effectiveness and general well-being over the longer haul. If the Rangers can clear these final East Coast hurdles while yielding little of their present lead, their post-season odds will almost certainly rocket back up into 95-plus percent territory ... and given that they're still sitting right around 90 percent, I do feel as though I can safely look ahead and speculate on what might transpire next month with little fear of karmic retribution. I never thought very much of the whole idea of jinxes, anyway.
Conveniently for us, however, the biggest concern of the moment is inextricably linked to both the remainder of the regular season and the post-season. As of this morning, the Rangers have Matt Harrison on extended rest out of concern for his career-high workload and slumping performance of late, have Colby Lewis getting utterly demolished in his home starts (seriously, the difference is likeday and night), and now have Alexi Ogando bamboozled as to why he can't fix the mechanical problems that are beginning to render him downright unusable. That's 2½ substantial question marks flaring up within the starting rotation with only a month to go in the regular season. Bad timing. Very bad.
And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure how many of those problems actually can be fixed to completion within that month. Lewis has conducted his own one-man Jekkyl-and-Hyde act all season with no apparent end in sight and no outward signs of injury, and probably is who he is at this point, regardless of how much political capital he earned last October. Harrison's decline seems almost too linear for it not to be mostly a product of fatigue, but the real problem isn't in the diagnosis -- it's in the question of what you do next if his arm is simply burned out, and his extended layoff doesn't effectuate meaningful change for the better. I'm hopeful, but I'm also acutely aware of the worst-case scenario.
Ogando, though ... that's the real riddle. We knew all along that something like this could happen, and yet we tried to put out of our minds the best we could -- at first because of his flat-out dominance, and then because of the growing realization that even if we were terrified at the prospect of Ogando running out of gas down the line, there was nothing that could be done about it, because Ogando was simply pitching too well to justify being transplanted or rested. And yet, the velocity data doesn't indicate that he's running out of gas; rather, it's more like the entire steering column has simply given out.
At this point, I'll be absolutely stunned if the Rangers permit Ogando to make his next start at Tampa Bay on Monday; the performance last night was just that alarming, and piling more innings onto an already worn-down arm may result in an even greater risk of Texas not being able to extract quality results from his arm come October. Yeah, I did just tempt fate and talk some more about October.
Because if the Rangers want to maximize their chances of going the distance and winning the World Series, they have to plot a course with both their immediate goal (winning the AL West) and their end goal in mind, and work outward from that point, which they obviously know to be the case. My point? Don't become solely fixated on winning the division title; yes, that's the first critical step that enables all of the steps thereafter, but it's late enough in that game that the Rangers have to manage their current spate of rotation problems with their post-season hopes fully in mind, and devise a plan with one eye firmly locked onto October ... because this team wasn't designed to be one and done.