"Today, we all came face to face with our worst fears. And, sometimes, there's no such thing as a happy ending."
I've had a complex relationship with the game of baseball over the last, oh, 5-6 years. A relationship that's brought me back around full circle, in a way. I started writing about this team because I loved it so much that I wanted to disseminate my thoughts about it to a wider audience, and then I kept writing because I found I enjoyed it, and then I kept writing because it seemed like the smart thing to do (particularly during the 2009-10 window when traffic growth really took off), and then I kept writing because it had become an ingrained habit more than anything else. I've talked before about how my passion has been eroded after a time investment running into thousands of hours over these years, and how that's not something you can consciously will away. You can't make yourself care more. It has to be organic.
And last night, as the innings ticked away and the desperation mounted and it became increasingly apparent that the Rangers were in deep trouble, it all came flowing back. The sickness over their impending doom, and the growing awareness that, no, they actually weren't going to rally and make everything okay after all. The fleeting hope that their final ninth-inning gasp might yield something of value. The immediate post-game hurt. The caring. The caring was back. That may not be of much use now that they've been unceremoniously eliminated after just 163 games, but it's good when you're able to validate that you're still into it, that the flame is still burning down there somewhere, that you're not simply going through the motions to fulfill a misplaced sense of obligation.
I do, however, regret that it took something like this for me to confirm that.
Eight days ago, after a narrow Thursday evening win over the Athletics, Ian Kinsler bragged about the Rangers' demonstrated ability to win critical games/series even when things looked bleak: "That's why we're the best team in the AL right now, up to this point. I hope y'all don't forget that. ... We want to respond. We want to be a team that's tough to put away. Other teams know we're very good, but they also know that our chemistry is very good also. They have to fight through that, too. We're going to fight to the end. ... I've known we're the best team since April."
From that point forward, the Rangers won exactly one of their last seven games, including an 0-4 showing in a final four-game stretch where a single win would have stamped their guaranteed ticket to the ALDS.
We've heard so much about this ballclub's immense talent, its resiliency, its will to fight, its ability to simply hit the switch and rev up into the next gear when it really matters, and there came a point where you just naturally assumed that they would, at the very least, do whatever was necessary to make it into the ALDS, and then hopefully catch some lightning in a bottle and battle as deep into the post-season tournament as they possibly could. Those had, after all, been the characteristics that defined this ballclub through 2010-11 and through better times in 2012, and you just figured that they'd kick in when push came to shove down the stretch in September/October.
Down the stretch? Down the stretch, Texas lost 10 of its last 14 games, eight of its last 10 games, and six of its last seven games. The Rangers may have been too tired to hit the switch *, or the switch may have never been available to hit in the first place, but, whatever the case, the switch was never activated. We can talk about how they played below their expected mean down the stretch, how they were partially undone by matters of poor fortune (thinking along the lines of BABIP, strand rates, and the like), and how they would have eventually regressed back towards their expected offensive baseline with runners in scoring position. Those are all contributing factors.
But, hell, there comes a point where you cast aside what you're supposed to do, and it all boils down to either getting it done or not getting it done. That reality is now painfully clear.
[Earlier this week on the Ben & Skin Show, Ron Washington stated the following (h/t Jamey): "It's mind over matter at this point. Fatigue isn't a factor. If you’re concerned about getting tired because of two years in the World Series, you don’t belong here." After last night's game, David Murphy remarked to the media: "I don't know the right way to describe it. At some point we just ran out of gas. We stopped playing like the Rangers." I'll leave you all to contemplate whether Murphy's comments directly contradict that which Washington furiously attempted to downplay.]
Last night was a waste of brilliant work on Yu Darvish's part, another game replete with nightmare fuel, and I guess the thing that irks me the most about it all is that it wasn't hard to see it coming. Josh Hamilton was an unmitigated disaster for a second consecutive game, going 0-for-4 on eight pitches while failing to get the ball out of the infield. The bottom of the order was an even greater black hole than usual. Scoring opportunities came and went without being capitalized upon. There was a Michael Young error that led to Baltimore grabbing the lead before Darvish had even gone five pitches deep. It felt like the same old miserable story that has flared up so often this year.
And there was the mind-boggling decision to turn to Derek Holland in a high-leverage spot with Texas still only trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning, which somewhat predictably blew up in Ron Washington's face just a few moments later. I wasn't philosophically opposed to Ron Washington lifting Darvish against Nate McLouth, given that (a) Darvish seemed to be battling neck stiffness at that point and (b)McLouth had already seen Darvish three other times. Turning to Holland over a more capable lefty-killing option in the vein of Robbie Ross or Koji Uehara, though ... it's easy to second-guess bullpen moves, but that move looked terrible on paper, and it ultimately did play out as a terrible move. The process and outcome both sucked. I don't understand that one at all.
Nor, for that matter, am I sure of where we go from here. After last year's crushing finish, it was easy to look ahead and think that, yeah, the core is still going to be there in 2012, the front office/ownership are going to augment that core over the winter, and they're going to still be a very good, very dangerous, and probably World Series-caliber team. Now, though, we're looking at Mike Napoli, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Koji Uehara, Mike Adams, and more all possibly/likely being gone, and a potentially significant retooling process that could very well turn 2013 into something closer to a transitional season than a season where the Rangers easily figure to emerge as one of the 2-3 best teams in baseball. That's a tough expectation to meet.
There are going to be changes, impactful changes, and, frankly, they're changes that need to happen. The identity and culture of this team is going to shift one way or another in 2013, and we're going to be a bit further removed from this golden era of Rangers baseball that has spanned the last four years. The organization's window isn't shutting, per se, but the window is shutting fast on this current roster, and there's nothing you can do about that except to make good, firm, supportable baseball decisions on who to let go and who to keep and who to acquire, because you can't live in the past and keep the same roster around forever in professional baseball. I get that.
I'm just sorry that this current crop of guys couldn't manage to get it done, and that yet another year has come and gone without that most ambituous of baseball dreams being satisfied.