Last night as a whole was one great, big, extended moment of redemption for Ryan Dempster, who was thwacked for eight runs in two of his first three starts in Texas, dinged for another run in last night's first inning, and then took complete charge of the game from that point onward. He probably didn't have to go eight innings (tied for his longest start of the year) or 111 pitches deep (his second-highest pitch total of the year) after Matt Harrison breezed through eight innings himself the day before, but it greatly simplified matters to just turn him loose, and he'll roll into his next start looking to preserve his streak of 11 consecutive batters retired for as long as he possibly can.
For whatever last night's game boasted in efficiency, though, it lacked in controversy or really perceptible tension or come-unglued-from-your-seat moments -- the Rangers fell behind early, retook the lead for good by comboing some singles and walks during the fourth inning, and were never subjected to another legitimate threat to that lead on the night. It was a fun affair and a relative cakewalk in the end, but if you can call a win 'boring' (and I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way), that was a good one to tag with that label.
I say that, though, knowing full well that there was a signature moment during the three-hour proceeding, a moment where Elvis Andrus yet again challenged the boundaries of expectation from the shortstop position -- and, no, I don't believe this replay from the telecast (awesome as it might be) or the racuous crowd reaction conveyed over the air truly captured the magic of this play, because I think it truly was something that you had to be in the stadium to fully appreciate:
It was the quintessential Elvis play, one where he converted what at first seemed to be a next-to-impossible defensive chance into an out with a certain grace and effortlessness, and I suppose the really flooring takeaway from this particular play was that this wasn't a three-sigma event, or something so improbable and so far removed from our mean expectations that we shouldn't expect to see it again anytime soon. No, this sort of play is the norm with Elvis. He's not infallible in the field, but he has firmly entrenched himself within baseball's elite defensive echelon, and at the age of 23, he boasts what is easily the best triple-slash line (.299/.368/.395) of his career to date.
Which is why I continue to have so much trouble wrapping my head around the notion of moving Elvis in the off-season. I've previously stated -- both here and on Twitter -- that, from a long-term value-maximizing standpoint, the smartest strategic play may very well be to move Elvis during the off-season for a corner-outfield power bat (thereby allowing you to turn Josh Hamilton loose in free agency without being crippled by the fear that the Rangers won't be able to even approximate his lost production) or a similarly valuable asset, leave Ian Kinsler where he is now, and bestow the full-time shortstop position upon Jurickson Profar beginning next spring. It's not a perfect plan by any means, but, again, just from a value-maximizing standpoint, it may be a plan that makes more sense for the Rangers than throwing gobs of money at Elvis and arranging the rest of the pieces around him.
And, in general, we're going to end up being on board both logically and emotionally with the plan that offers the best on-paper risk/reward combination down the line. I think there's a pretty decent case to be made that the trade-Elvis, summon-Profar plan is the one that offers that ideal combination ... but, emotionally, I cannot force myself to get on board with that idea, nor do I even want anything to do with that plan. You should hate the living daylights out of this idea as a baseball fan. You can buy Profar as a transcendent baseball talent and future All-Star all day long, but you simply cannot take any modicum of pleasure from the idea of watching Elvis play baseball elsewhere.
That, I think, may be what ends up stressing the fan base over the next 4-5 months nearly as much as the post-season which looms about six weeks out -- the inevitable procession of Elvis trade rumors, the daily back-and-forths over how the Rangers should play this, and, perhaps above all else, the impatient waiting for the outcome on this "problem." No, it certainly isn't a problem in the sense that the Rangers have too many good shortstops ... but I strongly suspect that the manner in which this ends up playing out will emotionally drain us and burden us as fans to such a degree that, sooner or later, this actually will end up feeling like a huge problem.
For the unabashedly #gauche scoreboard-watching crew out there, I think it should be pointed out that the Angels are now 5-13 in the month of August, are nine games back of the division-leading Rangers, and now face the most difficult of uphill battles if they're to claim even a wild-card spot, as they're running 4.5 games behind the second wild-card squad (the Orioles, at 66-55) and concurrently staring up at the Tigers, Athletics, Rays, and White Sox.
If you want to continue to keep close tabs on them for the schadenfreude-bred delight of it all, well, that's fine, but they've all but faded as a point of legitimate concern for the Rangers, and hopefully we can now begin to move on from Angels vs. Rangers talk:
● Twelve days ago at Fenway Park, Matt Harrison succumbed to the effectiveness-sapping combo of a stomach virus -- which decimated his stamina and required intravenous fluids after the game -- and a mechanical flaw in his delivery, and ended up being knocked out as early the fourth inning for the first time since May 2nd. Six days after that fiasco in Boston, Harrison squeezed out 6.1 decent innings in New York, and yesterday, Harrison pitched as well as we've seen him pitch at any given point this season, spinning eight lightning-quick frames of two-run baseball on just 90 pitches in Toronto and magnificently atoning for that May 2nd disaster ... a disaster that also took place in Toronto.
Barring a low-probability sequence of unfortunate events, Harrison is going to be the Rangers' Game 1 starter come early October, and while I have been (and probably always will be) uneasy over the low strikeout rates, there isn't another starter in this rotation right now who exudes or evokes more confidence than Harrison does on the bump, nor is there a more reliable quantity. No, he's not infallible by any stretch of the imagination, but he adjusts, he executes, and he usually gives you sufficient run prevention over enough innings to put the lineup and the bullpen in a position to carry home the win. He's not the ace we dreamily envisioned coming to Texas via trade last month, but he's going to get his shot to helm a championship contender in October.
● And since we can always do with a nice black-and-white pitching contrast, we saw Matt Harrison go eight innings with two hits allowed while his counterpart, Henderson Alvarez, went 4.1 innings with eight runs allowed (all earned) on 12 hits and three walks. Yesterday, Alvarez yielded 13 "well-hit balls" -- a proprietary metric which relies upon ESPN's video scouts and emphasizes liners and deep fly balls -- over his 84 pitches, which is an utterly insane ratio in and of itself ... but back on May 26th, Alvarez went up against the Rangers in Arlington and allowed an astounding 15 well-hit balls during another 84-pitch outing, with Texas ultimately scoring five runs off of Alvarez in 5.2 innings.
The point I'm trying to get at here is that I can't recall the last time that the Rangers so thoroughly destroyed a single pitcher during multiple looks in the same season. Alvarez also serves as the perfect cautionary tale of how big-time velocity, regardless of how awesome it might be, isn't enough to buy you success in isolation -- the 22-year-old right-hander can deal steady 93-94 mph gas and has the capability to kick his arm into the 97-98 mph gear, but the secondary stuff and command are sorely lacking, and even though he significantly altered his game plan between the first start and the second by throwing a much higher ratio of fastballs (from 45 percent in his first start to 70 percent in his second), the Rangers' offense simply lit him up like a Christmas tree from start to finish.
● And yes, in one of the more pleasantly surprising moments of the last month or two, Michael Young actually homered yesterday on a 92 mph up-and-in heater from Alvarez, giving him his first long ball since May 7th and, combined with his double to straightaway center field, his first game with multiple extra-base hits since May 4th. That single 3-for-5 effort spiked his season OPS by 14 points and added a much-needed +0.2 fWAR to his season total, all of which has, in turn, incited a new round of hopeful "did Young just turn the corner?" questioning from the local beats.
It's an encouraging sign, and it's nice to hear that the underlying process seems to finally be back on the uptick, but I believe we all know the drill here -- one great game, or even a few sequential nice games, just don't provide enough evidence for us to definitively state that Young is back. The fact that Young actually showcased some legitimate power in this particular 3-for-5 effort means a little more, though, since it wasn't your standard-fare empty-average showing at the plate, and for all of our carping about how his season has unfolded and how he has been utilized, we should hope that he keeps this up. If he's going to play everyday, he might as well give us something along the way.
● On a tangentially related note, Young's showing at the plate apparently opened a cross-dimensional wormhole that allowed David Murphy to manipulate the space-time continuum and hit his 11th home run of the season twice in the same game ... as different people:
Or, you know, FOX Sports Southwest's production crew panicked when they couldn't find the appropriate graphic to accompany Young's homer. Whatever works for you.
For the Angels schadenfreude brigade, well, here you go:
● If you had asked me a couple months ago about what I thought the worst-case scenario vis-a-vis the Roy Oswalt signing would be, I would have told you that it would involve Oswalt suffering another major setback with his chronically iffy back, and the Rangers, as a result, recouping little to nothing in exchange for their $5 million investment. That, in hindsight, was a grave bit of misjudgment on my part, because I never seriously considered that we'd be deep into the month of August and Oswalt would have lost his rotation spot because of his continued difficulty in maintaining a sub-6.00 ERA. Let that serve as another cautionary tale about the fallibility of expectations -- just because you take a step back and look at a guy and mentally peg him as a No. 3-4 caliber starter doesn't mean that you're going to get run prevention on par with a No. 3-4 starter.
Anyway, the Rangers rolled Oswalt out there on the bump in a spot-starting capacity yesterday afternoon, extracted some good innings in light of the circumstances (4.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 5 K, 2 BB, 0 HR), and then, after a single/sac bunt/bunt pop out sequence to begin the bottom of the fifth inning, Ron Washington made the call to yank Oswalt after just 62 pitches in favor of a lefty-lefty Robbie Ross vs. Colby Rasmus matchup. That decision deprived Oswalt of his chance to procure an oh-so-coveted win (which pitchers actually do still care about), and produced this half-amusing, half-cringeworthy camera shot of the Rangers dugout on the other side of the pitching change, where Elvis Andrus offered Oswalt a supportive pat on the shoulder and received an icy, speechless stare for his troubles:
Yeah, that probably won't win Oswalt any brownie points with the fan base, and won't assuage the perception that he's a me-first jerkwad who's disinterested in being a team player, but that all runs secondary to the fact that he gave the Rangers some good innings on short notice, and played a material role in bringing a win home yesterday. For what it's worth, Oswalt remarked that he was feeling a "little gassed" near the end of his outing after having not started for several weeks, but he also said he was still feeling pretty good at that point, and I think it would be a little disingenuous to condemn a well-known competitor like Oswalt for being pissed that he couldn't get that last out.
● Ross did, of course, retire Rasmus to extinguish that fifth-inning rally, then worked around three singles in the sixth inning without allowing a run, and Michael Kirkman ended up saving the Rangers' hide in the seventh inning by escaping a bases-loaded, one-out jam of Tanner Scheppers' making, thereby giving him his single best appearance from a win probability standpoint (+0.30 WPA) of his major league career and preserving a still-narrow 2-1 lead for Mike Adams and Joe Nathan to carry the win home.
I'm still a bit skittish about Kirkman (he was bad last year in the majors, and not all that great at Round Rock earlier this season), but he's been on a serious roll over the last couple of weeks, and in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of bullpen construction, it's not hard to envision the Rangers throwing up their hands, exclaiming "oh, hell, why not," and tentatively slotting Kirkman as their second lefty out of the bullpen going into the post-season. You figured that they'd be more keen on acquiring a veteran lefty arm ala Darren Oliver on the cheap via waiver-period trade, but that deadline is coming up quick as well, and it may be that the Rangers believe that Kirkman is ready to take that plunge ... or that the price tags on lefty relievers even now just aren't worth paying.
● On Friday night, two runs wasn't enough. On Saturday afternoon. two runs was enough, as Nelson Cruz's two-run blast in the fifth inning accounted for the entirety of their offense, and so Texas, despite having scored just four runs on nine hits over the first two games of this series, will enter this afternoon's rubber match with a chance to claim the series behind Matt Harrison. If you're into the blame-apportioning game, though, there are plenty of guys towards whom you can direct your ire, including Ian Kinsler, who's currently mired in a 4-for-39 slump over his last 10 games and has watched his triple-slash batting line for the season crater to .264/.333/.424 (103 wRC+) as a result.
So, yeah, Kinsler's in a pretty bad way at the plate right now, and you want to see him get it going again and re-establish some offensive momentum and get himself back into a good place as we approach that mid-to-late September window ... but he made a play during that frightening sixth inning that served as yet another reminder of how you can contribute even when the bat isn't functioning properly, and why you want to try and keep your defensive range on the field maxed out as often as possible:
I believe the Rangers' telecast noted that this infield single would have scored the runner from second base if it had scooted past Kinsler's outstretched glove, and, frankly, I don't think that's a lock -- the lead runner was first baseman David Cooper, who I don't presume has exceptional wheels, and the ball figured to make it out into center field pretty quickly on the hard turf. So, perhaps Kinsler's snag doesn't change the outcome of this inning or the game one way or another.
This, though, is what we're talking about when we long for the best defensive alignment possible, and cringe at the notion of Michael Young playing an up-the-middle position (or, for that matter, anyone else playing a position where they're range-handicapped). Sure, we might gripe about it, and then we might look kind of silly when a couple of games might go by without a single tough defensive chance coming to pass, but that chance is going to arrive eventually ... and when it does, the game's outcome might very well hinge on that play.
Just a few quick things this morning, in lieu of a full-fledged game recap:
● We've been on an extended little run of kvetching about Yu Darvish, during which we've wondered frequently and overtly about when he would get things back on track, and last night's effort was a tremendous step back in the right direction for the now age-26 right-hander (7.0 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 10 K, 1 HR), as it marked just the second time this season where he allowed three or fewer hits that deep into a game, and signified the first time all season where he allowed one or fewer walks.
Darvish wasn't immaculate, and he was severely burned by some really unfortunate sequencing (the walk-homer combo in the first inning to vault the Blue Jays into an early 2-0 lead, and then the triple-single combo with two outs in the fifth inning to re-extend their lead to 3-1), but he was as good as we've seen him all season long, spinning both fastballs and breaking balls in and out of the zone as legit swing-and-miss offerings and killing Blue Jays hitters from either side of the plate with an abundance of glove-side pitches buried within the bottom of the strike zone. Yeah, he committed a few mistakes (chief among them being the hanging slider that Edwin Encarnacion absolutely destroyed), but this was as good as we've seen him, and you hope that this is an outing he can ultimately feel good about and build upon.
● It was intimated on Friday afternoon that Ryan Dempster would be missing this series and remaining stateside because he had misplaced his passport, but the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Drew Davisonreports this morning that Dempster actually left the team to attend to a custody-related issue with his children, which is apparently part of the fallout from his ongoing divorce. As a result, Roy Oswalt grabs the spot start today, and while I don't think the starting rotation status quo is at serious risk of being disrupted with anything that's going on here, you do imagine that Oswalt can help his starting rotation cause if he can turn in 5-6 good innings today. He may not get that opportunity again this year, but with the kind of rotation turnover we've witnessed this year and the ever-fluctuating rotation performance, I don't think you can completely rule Oswalt out of this mix.
Skin linked to this newly released Erykah Badu/Flying Lotus collaboration last night on Twitter, and if you like the scene that either of those artists is throwing down these days, you'll probably like this morning's track:
● Despite the crummy 1-3 showing in New York, the Rangers survived their 10-game BOS/DET/NYY gauntlet with an overall 5-5 record, and neither the Angels nor the Athletics are making any divisional headway, so the big question at this point is less 'will Texas win the division?' and more 'will Texas claim the No. 1 seed?' T.R. Sullivan writes about yesterday's game, where the Rangers cranked out an early lead, watched it slip away, and then battled back to reclaim the late-game lead, with the bullpen locking things down past the seventh inning.
● Derek Holland feels confident about his outing (5.2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 3 K, 0 BB, 1 HR), even though the game began spinning out of control in the sixth inning with three singles, a homer, and a two-base error committed by Mike Olt in his first career outfield start. Both Craig Gentry and Mike Olt netted starts yesterday with Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler out of the lineup, and they acquitted themselves reasonably well at the plate. Michael Kirkman showed poise on the bump yesterday.
● Barry Horn demonstrates himself as being the only DFW writer with enough courage to bring up the notion of trading Michael Young for Alfonso Soriano, and he gets some reinforcement from the echo chamber. That doesn't sound like a very good or a very plausible idea, given that you'd be increasing the Rangers' net contractual obligations through 2014 by $20-plus million -- assuming a one-for-one swap with no cash changing hands -- and taking on an old player who isn't necessarily any better than your internal options. But, you know, it's not going to happen anyway.
● Ron Washington says he doesn't have a problem with Ian Kinsler's occasional umpire-directed tantrums, and accuses Vic Carapazza of having a short fuse when he ejected Kinsler late in Wednesday night's game. Kinsler sat yesterday because Washington felt that Kinsler looked a little sluggish and his bat "looked a little heavy."
● Drew Davison writes that the Rangers are bracing for three games on the hard Rogers Centre turf, with a possible game at DH for Elvis Andrus being up in the air. Yu Darvish says he feels strong mentally and physically, although the question of how well that will translate into good process/results will be further answered tonight.
It's August 15th, the Rangers boast as large a divisional lead as any team in baseball, and a third consecutive division title (which is one hell of an accomplishment in its own right) is appearing more and more like a foregone conclusion ... but you'd never know it judging solely from the tenor of the fan base, which seems to be completing the full-circle progression from miserable (during the hopeless early-aughts) to overjoyed (during that 2009-11 window, up until Game 6 of last year's World Series) back towards kinda-sorta miserable. The 2012 regular season will not go down in our collective memory as an altogether enjoyable or pleasurable ride, and that sucks.
Because, as of this point in time, we're still tortured by the haunting and painful refrain of "one more strike," we're fearful of the possibility that the Rangers' current championship-contending window will come and go without a title to show for it, we're troubled by the seeming deficiencies in the makeup/usage of the roster that threaten to undermine its post-season aspirations, and we're increasingly consumed with scorn and disdain for the worst everyday player of baseball and his managerial enabler.
I'm definitely generalizing here to some degree, and I know that there are lots of people out there who are still very optimistic about this ballclub, who like where things are headed ... but even if you're still feeling pretty good on the whole, you know exactly what I'm talking about with that last paragraph. The highs are still great, but the lows feel a hell of a lot lower than they used to, and it's difficult to fully embrace the ride itself when you're so fed up with how certain controllable elements of the ride are being handled. Put another way, it's tough(er) to let your worries go for three hours every night and sink that recurring time/emotional investment into Rangers baseball when, deep down, you know that the best possible lineup isn't being put out there on the field every night.
And since I've grown rather sick of writing one post after the next about this situation, let's just go ahead and get it all out there in the open this morning and be done with it, even if that respite lasts for only for a couple of days.
Yesterday afternoon, Evan Grant pinned Ron Washington down on the subject of Michael Young and his ceaseless playing time, and Washington basically doubled down on his comments from the Norm Hitzges show last week, saying, among other things: "[Young's] done it for 12 years and the bottom line is before the year is over, he’s going to do something grand for this club. I’m willing to wait for it as the manager. ... He does way more than what happens whenever he gets in the box. He busts his butt every day working early. He works with other players to try and help them get better. I’m a big believer in Michael Young. And if the ship sinks, I’ll still be on it.”
Young, meanwhile, acknowledged his offensive issues earlier on in the season and identified his troubles as a learning process, but also reaffirmed his confidence in his skill set, and remarked that he felt that he had made significant strides within the last month: "I feel like I’ve made a good adjustment. My biggest attribute is my hands and my bat speed and I wasn’t letting my hands fly through the zone. I was really fighting it. Right now, I feel like myself going up there. I don’t think I’ve completely turned the corner, but I expect that I have a long hot stretch in me before this season is over."
We also got a taste of the clubhouse sentiment on Young from David Murphy, who offered nothing less than his most enthusiastic and unequivocal support for his teammate on ESPN 103.3 FM yesterday afternoon. He sounded pretty genuine in his remarks and I don't see much reason to believe that he was blowing hot air, but even if he did actually feel otherwise and felt that Young was a drag on the team, there's no reason to believe that he would publicly advocate any course of action that might rock the boat.
And, as I said last week, maybe we should be interpreting Washington's comments in a similar light. An aggressive, wholehearted show of confidence in Young right now doesn't absolutely preclude Washington seeing the light at a later date, or him mercifully realizing before the post-season that it just might be a really terrible idea to allocate significant October playing time to somebody who has so little in his bag right now. It's not too late to rock the status quo. This could still change.
The problem, though, is that I've never been less confident in it changing than I am right now. And that's where this becomes a really sticky issue to work through, because it wasn't all that long ago that Washington was largely adored by the fan base (even by some saber-educated types who could set aside their occasional misgivings), and heralded for his ability to maximize the talents of his players while suppressing the clubhouse strife that has doomed so many other skippers before him. It's very easy to speak in black-and-white absolutes and wholly condemn Washington on the basis of his handling of the Young fiasco, but the overall evaluation is far more nuanced than all of that.
Three weeks ago, I passed my breaking point with Michael Young, and was very explicit in detailing why I felt that particular way. There's a dirty little secret about Young that I didn't disclose in that post, however -- Young has not been terrible against everyone this year. Young has, in fact, been mildly serviceable against lefties (137 PA, .323/.365/.402, 104 wRC+), with an average-heavy triple-slash line versus southpaws that may not be the greatest thing in the world out of the DH spot, but at the very least won't kill you. From that standpoint, Young is not as completely useless as his overall numbers (476 PA, .269/.300/.343, 66 wRC+, -1.6 fWAR) would lead you to believe.
Yes, the scope of Young's effectiveness is extremely limited (horrendous against right-handers, below-average at every defensive position), but my frustration with his performance has actually begun to subside -- it's clear he's putting in the requisite work in an effort to improve, and trying to maintain an upbeat attitude, and, from that standpoint, I don't fault him, because he's doing what he should be doing to try and save his career. Getting old sucks, and sooner or later, he's going to have to come to terms with his own baseball mortality. I still don't want to see him play baseball for the Rangers anymore, but that has nothing to do with his level of effort or caring.
So, Young isn't completely useless. He's completely useless when deployed in the manner that he's currently being deployed in, though, and that falls entirely at the feet of Washington, who seems to be under the completely ludicrous impression that benching Young even every now and then -- keeping in mind that he's about to turn 36, hasn't had a game off in more than two months, and would probably benefit as much from a little extra rest as anyone on the roster -- would be equivalent to him turning his back on Young, and who has even gone so far as to chastise those fans who haven't stuck by Young for being "unloyal" and choosing to "run in the other direction."
There's a certain irony in his finger-wagging attitude towards the fans, because if you stop down and think about all of this and think about the evidence laid out here, it's not just Young playing poorly that has turned the fans against Young -- it's also Washington's radically loyal mindset. Washington thinks it's wrong for any Rangers fan to turn on Young, but Washington's usage of Young is a big part of the reason why the fans are turning on Young. After these many months of futility and mounting evidence, Washington is still utilizing Young in such a way where he's destined to fail with astounding regularity and consequently hurt the team. In that sense, Washington is a huge part of the problem.
And, of course, I can't imagine that the front office is particularly thrilled with how this is all playing out. But Washington has the back-to-back World Series trips to hang his hat on, and, by all accounts, has the respect of the room, as well as the final word on the lineups. If it comes down to Jon Daniels or Nolan Ryan handing down an ultimatum to the manager's office about making out the lineup a certain way, then that's probably the beginning of the end for Washington in Texas, and I would imagine that there is some trepidation about crossing that conceivable point of no return.
So, what do I expect to change? Nothing, really. It could change, but I don't think it will. And for the next six-plus weeks, we'll likely continue to fret about whether the first "12 years" of Young's career in Texas -- the apparent basis for Washington's ever-lasting support --- will materially detract from the Rangers' chances of winning it all in his 13th year.
I was going to work on a Jurickson Profar post, but that probably won't go up until the morning, so here, enjoy this nice mail-in of a post instead:
Rangers Tuesday: Kinsler, 2b; Andrus, ss; Hamilton, cf; Beltre, 3b; Cruz, rf; Young, 1b; Murphy, lf; Martinez, c; Moreland, dh; Harrison, p— John Blake (@RangerBlake) August 14, 2012
Olt has started ONCE since 8/5. Gentry has started ONCE since 7/30. Neither starts tonight, and the 1B defense is downgraded too. Sigh.— Joey Matches (@BBTiA) August 14, 2012
I get the calls about us being too negative given this team's record, and I want to remain conscious of that, but, gah.
I'd like to pretend that last night's game didn't actually happen and was actually a real-life projection straight out of our darkest nighitmares, but, alas ... hey, has anyone ever seen an alligator gar?
● Ryan Dempster was terrible last night, yielding eight earned runs on nine hits and two-plus walks for the second time in his three starts since green-lighting his trade to Texas a fortnight ago, and one of the things that jumps out at me about his Junior Circuit issues is that he hasn't been victimized by just one particular type of hitter. Dempster was dinged for seven hits and 13 total bases in 17 plate appearances vs. right-handed Angels hitters on August 2nd, but was clobbered a bit less thoroughly by left-handed hitters that night; against the Yankees' lefty-hitting contingent last night, though, Dempster allowed seven more hits and a ridiculous 15 total bases in 21 plate appearances. Everyone's getting to him.
In Dempster's (equivocal and kind of half-hearted) defense, this wasn't an open-and-shut case of him being obliterated all night long. Hre faced the minimum three batters in four different innings, with the bulk of the Yankees' damage being wrought during a five-run fourth inning, and Dempster afterwards refuted the notion that the N.L.-to-A.L. jump was the primary culprit behind his issues, remarking that it simply boiled down to him not executing his pitches in a satisfactory manner. I'm certainly not going to kneejerk like crazy here and label Dempster a bust on the basis of two bad starts, but, unfortunately, this is what you'll sometimes get with a pitcher who lives or dies by an 89-90 mph fastball.
● Remember when the Rangers triumphed in that come-from-behind thriller over the Angels 13 days ago, and Elvis Andrus said afterwards that they always knew they were going to come back and win that game, because they got "mad?" I guess that switch was barricaded away behind plexiglass and maybe a protective layer of barbed wire last night, because after the Rangers' early 2-0 lead slipped away and deteriorated into a 5-2 deficit, they really had nothing out there at the plate. Three hits and no walks over the final six innings of the game -- including a 2-for-14 showing while the game was still within reach, while Texas trailed by just 3-4 runs -- is almost never going to cut it.
Meanwhile, for all of the manager's and the media's crowing about how Michael Young is hitting like he's about to turn the corner, we find him all the way back down at .269/.300/.343 for the season after his 0-for-10 skid over the last three games. In that span, Young has seen a grand total of 34 pitches across 12 plate appearances, including an inexplicable intentional walk on Sunday and an unintentional four-pitch walk during the ninth inning on Saturday when Brayan Villarreal's control totally abandoned him. He's actually drawn two walks over the last 72 hours, but there's still hardly a whit of a power threat in his offensive game, and given his excessively swing-happy approach and lack of power, I don't hold out too much hope as far as this recent little spate of walks continuing much longer.
Young hasn't had an off day since June 10th. Mike Olt has started one game in the last eight days. Craig Gentry has started one game in the last two weeks. There's something terribly, terribly wrong with this picture ... and, yes, I realize the status quo almost certainly is what it is at this point, and that nothing is likely to materially change about this arrangement from this point forward. That doesn't mean we just stop talking about it, though.
● With their respective pick-offs at first and second base last night, Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus became the Rangers' 19th and 20th pick-off victims of the season, vaulting Texas into an undesirable outright league lead for pick-offs on the basepaths. I suppose I'm really not sure what to say about those particular follies; we can call them "sloppy" as Kevin Sherrington did and be done with it, but pick-offs are a reality of life for aggressive baserunners, with even elite basestealers usually being popped 3-4 times per season at the low end, and a half-dozen times or more at the higher end.
Yeah, those pick-offs sucked (as did the game as a whole), and they may have ultimately cost the Rangers a bit on the offensive end, but considering that Kinsler and Andrus have yet again served as two of the better baserunners in baseball this year, you'll have to forgive me for not being able to remain too incredibly torqued off at either one of them for very long.
Going into Sunday afternoon's rubber match to determine the winner of this Rangers/Tigers skirmish, Miguel Cabrera boasted a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 20-to-0 in 35 plate appearances this season where he had worked the count to 3-0. Prince Fielder? 33-to-1 in 43 plate appearances. Allow me to restate that for emphasis: in 78 total plate appearances this season where Fielder/Cabrera had worked the count to 3-0, they had gone on to strike out just once, and had gone on to draw a walk 53 times.
A pitcher might have managed to claw and scrape his way out of such a 3-0 hole and go on to retire one slugger or the other on a ball in play, but he was far likelier to go ahead and concede the at-bat, and based on that 1 K in 78 PA statistic, a strikeout was virtually out of the question.
During the first inning of yesterday's tilt, though, Yu Darvish mired himself in back-to-back 3-0 counts against Fielder and Cabrera (with a runner on second base, to boot), fired off consecutive strikes to bring both counts to 3-2, and then miraculously struck both Fielder and Cabrera out swinging. They had been all but impervious to the strikeout this season after going up in the count 3-0, and it didn't matter, because Darvish blew them away anyway.
I don't mean to get hung up on this bit of statistical minutia, but I do feel like that first-inning sequence was just quintessential Yu Darvish, and that it was also sort of a microcosm of his season -- a season that seems to constantly vacillate between maddening and brilliant, with little in the way of predictability from one batter or inning or start to the next.
Now, we did have the good fortune of getting a bit less maddening and a bit more brilliant yesterday, as Darvish sort of applied the brakes to his recent skid and pitched well enough for Texas to secure a win (6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 8 K, 0 HR, 120 pitches, 68 strikeouts), and talked after the game about his comfort level being enhanced by some recent coaching advice and his recent efforts to emulate his NPB game-prep regimen, as well as the latest adjustment to his pitching mindset:
"I think the biggest difference from my past was that after I walked those guys, I didn’t think about it,"Darvish said. "I didn’t let it drag on into my next hitters. I just concentrated on competing against the next hitter and getting those guys out. That thought process of ‘I walked him, so be it,’ might be the reason that I was able to concentrate and focus on getting the next guys out."
So, you still had a decidedly mixed performance where Darvish's command ebbed and flowed, where he struggled to maintain a ball/strike ratio and a level of efficiency conducive to longer-range success, and where his flashes of dominance were rudely interrupted by major trouble on several occasions; a key distinction for this start relative to other recent starts where he floundered was that the walks didn't come back to haunt him this time, and that's great and all, but now the question becomes, 'can he maintain this new, more confident mindset?'
Because the more you look back at this year's winding Darvish narrative, the more apparent it becomes that this has just been one great, big, season-long effort for him to find just the right combination of game prep, pitching approach/mechanics, and mindset to forge a path to sustainable effectiveness on the bump. When something hasn't worked or hasn't clicked, he's tried something else; heck, it's the middle of August and he's still tweaking the process after every start. Again, though, that's the thing about his latest bunch of comments: if he's legitimately hitting his groove/comfort level right now and him doing so is going to effectuate much better pitching, then that's awesome ... but if his next start goes awry, does he try something else entirely?
I don't know the answer to that question, and, frankly, I've grown a little weary of speculating on what's going through his head from one start to the next. What I would like to do now instead is point out a couple of things about his six post-ASB starts (38.0 IP, 40 H, 45 K, 26 BB, 7.11 ERA) that jump out at me when stacked against his six starts immediately preceding the All-Star break (41.2 IP, 33 H, 51 K, 18 BB, 4.10 ERA), when times were a bit more prosperous for Darvish (data courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info)
(1) The fastball hasn't been as good. During those six starts immediately preceding the All-Star break, Darvish averaged 93.1 mph on his fastball -- not including the lower-velocity cut or split-fingered fastballs, of course -- and maxed out at 97.1 mph, with a swinging-strike rate of 9.9 percent, an overall strike rate of 63.1 percent, and a strike zone rate of 48.5 percent. In his six starts since the All-Star break, Darvish has averaged 92.4 mph with the fastball (96.7 mph max) with a swinging-strike rate of 7.1 percent, a strike rate of 60.9 percent, and a strike zone rate of 46.9 percent.
A few of these changes are quite subtle, and it's possible that inaccurate pitch classifications/velocity readings are skewing the results a bit, but from a velocity/control standpoint, Darvish's fastball just hasn't been the same since the All-Star break. That said, though, his fastball yesterday closely approximated his pre-ASB fastball (93.0 mph average, 95.2 mph max, 10.2 percent swinging-strike rate, 65.3 percent strike rate, 50.6 percent zone rate), and that gives you a little something extra to hope on, as it could be that the velocity drop stemmed from something more temporary in nature, and wasn't an ominous leading indicator of Darvish running out of gas.
Of course, the fact that Darvish threw 120 pitches over six-plus innings on a sweltering August afternoon in Texas also seems to suggest that the Rangers aren't particularly troubled by the prospect of him running out of gas. I hope they're correct in that assessment.
(2) His breaking ball against same-handed batters has gone to hell. I'm not quite sure what to make of this, but since the All-Star break, his swinging-strike rate with curveballs/sliders against right-handed hitters has almost been halved (24.7 percent before, 13.6 percent after), and yesterday afternoon he induced just one swing-and-miss with the curveball/slider out of 25 such pitches against right-handers. I'm at something of a loss as far as what's going on here; the heat maps indicate that he's putting his breaking ball low and away more often than he did before the All-Star break, but his results have been worse with it, leaving one to contemplate whether he's being too predictable with the offering and/or not sequencing it in the most efficient manner possible.
What does this all leave us? I wish I knew. Tim Cowlishaw writes this morning that Darvish should be relegated to long relief in the post-season if he continues to struggle, but barring an implosion of apocalyptic proportions, that's just not going to happen. The Rangers are going to live or die in October due in no small part to what Darvish ends up giving Texas after Game 162, and we still don't have much, if any, idea of what he's going to deliver ... and for the next 7-8 weeks, that's for us to fret over, and for Darvish to try and figure out once and for all.
A few things this morning:
● After all of the heartwarming and nostalgic pomp and circumstance around the Rangers' 40th anniversary celebration and Eric Nadel's long-overdue induction into the Rangers' Hall of Fame, Derek Holland toed the rubber and began his latest attempt to get his season back on track ... and promply hung a 1-2 slider to Austin Jackson that was clobbered over the left field fence. Five pitches after that, he allowed a 3-1 single to center field, and I think it was about at that point that most of us began to take note of the developing pits in our stomachs, because Holland yet again looked like didn't have it, and if he didn't have it in a game where he was matched up against Justin Verlander, the Rangers were probably dead in the water.
At that point, though, something changed with Holland that we've wanted to see change for quite a while, and though I don't know whether it's especially realistic to expect this change to stick, it apparently had a significant impact last night -- and the change was that Holland got mad:
"I was very upset with myself," [Holland] said. "Going into the game, as I was walking in from the bullpen, I felt like I had everything I needed today. One pitch got away from me. This is a good ballclub we're going up against. They have a lineup that can match up with us. I left a pitch for Jackson to hit and he took care of it. I took care of what I needed to do. I got pissed at myself and I made the adjustment and it worked from there. I kept my cool. I didn't get as pissed as I normally would and kind of pace around. I gathered myself, slowed everything down, told myself, 'Hey, that's one, don't worry about it. Let's keep plugging away.' I did."
After not recording an out with his first nine pitches of the game, Holland recorded 23 outs with his next 93 pitches while attacking early and often with a perceptibly zippier and better-commanded fastball; it was, in fact, the best velocity he's displayed in any home start (93.3 mph average; 95.7 mph max) since the beginning of April, and he coupled it with a more confident/aggressive approach in that he consistently attacked both left- and-right-handed hitters with up-and-in heat that the Tigers didn't seem entirely prepared for. Yeah, he missed a few times over the middle of the plate and was fortunate that he didn't get burned for those mistakes, but it was Holland at his very best (7.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 1 HR), and it was the sort of performance that tends to rejuvenate all manner of hope as far as Holland "figuring it out" and taking the next step forward.
Once again, that's probably not too realistic. It was a great start, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here or formulate unrealistic expectations as far as this signifying a turning point in Holland's development. We've seen enough of him to know that isn't a smart play. Just be grateful for this one start where Holland stared down Verlander and matched him pitch for pitch, and hope that there was some predictive, repeatable element in last night's start that he can carry forward with him.
● Since this was a Holland/Verlander pitcher's duel, the score was naturally knotted at 1-1 going into the ninth inning, and if I may say so myself, the top of that ninth inning was about as harrowing as anything we've watched unfold all season. Alexi Ogando -- who had been summoned into the game after Holland began to waver just a tad in the eighth inning -- induced the first out without incident, but then proceeded to lose Miguel Cabrera on balls. His replacement, Robbie Ross, did the same with Prince Fielder, after which things took a very pecuiliar turn as Ross then began to pitch to a lefty-crushing Delmon Young, even though Mike Adams was already fully warmed up:
In an attempt to get reliever Robbie Ross some confidence, Washington allowed the left-hander to throw one more pitch after he walked Fielder in the ninth inning. That pitch was a ball to Delmon Young. At that point, Washington had seen enough.
“Once [Ross] walked Fielder and the next pitch was a ball, I had to go get Mike Adams,” Washington said. “Thank God for Mike Adams.”
Adams then entered to face Young already down 1-0.
“Why I didn’t start [against Young], I’m not sure,” Adams said. “It’s not often you come in with a pitch already thrown. The situation I came in was a little bit different, little crazy, but I just kind of blocked that situation out.”
It was an extremely perplexing attempt at bolstering Ross's confidence, given the enormity of the situation at hand, the risk entailed by having Ross throw even a single pitch to Young, and the fact that putting Adams in a 1-0 hole really put him at a disadvantage once he began dealing to Young -- and while Adams fought back in the at-bat, Young ended up slapping a ground-ball single past a lunging Michael Young at second base to load the bases with one out. But, hey, one 6-2 force out and one fly out to center field later, the inning was over, the Rangers had escaped from their moment of great peril, and all was (sort of) forgiven. This could have gone south very, very quickly, and maybe it actually should have gone awry for Texas, but it didn't, and so here we are.
● For any and all grousing that might ensue over the way the top half of that ninth inning was managed, though, the bottom half was perfectly handled. Two huge walks from Nelson Cruz and Michael Young (albeit not terribly difficult walks), followed by Craig Gentry pinch-hitting and attempting (and failing) to get the sacrifice bunt dow), a Geovany Soto strikeout, and then Mike Olt getting the call off the bench in place of Mitch Moreland against a lefty-tossing Phil Coke. I'd slather the unrestrained hyperbole on nice and thick here, but I don't think it's really necessary; that's what .gifs and .mp3s were made for, after all. I'll just call it a splendid piece of hitting, and leave it at that for the moment.