Saturday, April 20, 2024 Apr 20, 2024
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We’re About to Find Out What the Rangers Are Made Of

The A.L. West has become a two-horse race, and the Rangers are bleeding momentum. The rest of July will tell us how real their hot early-season start was.
Marcus Semien and the Rangers are not knocking in runs as consistently as they were in the first two months of the season. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s weird how expectations evolve. Entering the 2023 season, the Rangers fanbase simply wanted to see above .500 baseball for the first time since 2016. Not exactly a high bar to clear, considering the massive amounts of American currency devoted toward a large portion of the roster over the past two winters, along with coaxing a future Hall of Fame manager out of a comfy retirement. There were no visions of winning the American League West and slaying the mighty dragon, the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros. 

Then April (and one game in March) happened. Texas started off the year 17-11 and followed that up with a ridiculously fun 18-9 month of May in which a white-hot offense kept delivering with runners on base. The bats regressed some in June, as expected, but Texas still managed to stay over .500 in the month, with a mark of 14-13. On June 23, their A.L. West lead stood at six and a half games. The dragon was vulnerable.

Then June ended, and July began by dropping three of four to the Astros at Globe Life Field. The series was capped off with a bonkers 12-11 loss that saw Texas erase a 10-2 deficit, and take a one-run lead in the 8th inning, only to have closer Will Smith fail to protect that advantage in the top of the 9th. Did those four games define the season? Not at all. They don’t negate Texas’ progress in the bigger picture, either. But they did plant a seed of doubt in the minds of Rangers fans as the All-Star break approaches.

Make no mistake. The final three weeks of July will set the stage for what appears to be a two-horse race in the West. Entering the upcoming weekend series in D.C. against the struggling Nationals, the Rangers’ lead in the West has shrunk to just two games on the heels of dropping two of three at Fenway Park. That included a frustrating 10-6 setback in the rubber game Thursday night, in which the bullpen allowed six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Texas looks like a club that needs time to recharge the batteries. This coming Sunday against the Nats, the Rangers will have played 30 games in 31 days. It won’t be a fully restful break, either, as six of the 26 players on the roster will spend part of next week in Seattle at the All-Star Game, with four starting in the infield for the American League squad. 

That’s hardly ideal when Texas returns from the All-Star break with a nine-game homestand against the Guardians, Rays, and Dodgers. Cleveland is a winnable series—the Guardians are a sub-.500 team that struggles to score runs—but the Rangers will have to deal with ace Shane Bieber that weekend, who hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in recent years but has still posted 2.0 WAR through half a season. The Rays and Dodgers are both battling injuries to their starting rotations, which will likely be addressed ahead of the trade deadline (and maybe before they face Texas). However, each club can hit its way past those issues. Tampa is second in MLB behind Texas in runs scored, while Los Angeles has scored the second-most runs in the National League after the surging Atlanta Braves. 

What about the other horse? Well, Houston just swept two from the awful Rockies at Minute Maid Park this week. Right now, they are in the middle of a four-game series against a Mariners club that has underwhelmed all season after ending a 21-year playoff drought last season. The Astros return from the All-Star break with a nine-game road trip against the third-place Angels, last-place Rockies, and last-place Athletics—and if the weak competition weren’t enough, Houston is a good road club, having piled up 221 runs as the visitor en route to a 25-19 record. 

All of that sets the stage for the Astros and Rangers squaring off again in Houston one week ahead of the August 1 trade deadline. And if Texas doesn’t regain some momentum beforehand, you can expect Ranger fans to be even more rattled than they already are. Aside from extending the division lead, that means two things in particular.  

First, for the past month, Texas has hit .226 with runners in scoring position. You didn’t really expect them to sustain the .327 mark they held in April and May, did you? Of course not, but we have seen less clutch hitting for more than a month. The offensive downturn has coincided with All-Star second baseman Marcus Semien cooling off; since putting together a 25-game hit streak, he’s batting .211 over the past 29 games. 

Second, the bullpen has been a dicey proposition most of the season. Texas has converted just 16 of 32 save opportunities; 50 percent will not cut it, friends. The Rangers are well aware of the problem, having acquired Aroldis Chapman from the Royals last week, but it would behoove general manager Chris Young to keep working the phones to fortify the pen. They should also be in the market for another starting pitcher, as the club is one injury away from relying on handing the ball to rookie Cody Bradford every fifth day. (Last month, I offered a list of names to keep an eye on.)

Baseball Reference currently has the Rangers postseason odds at nearly 95 percent, but if the reaction following the Houston series is any indication, fans almost certainly don’t trust that number. The recent wobble reminds everyone too much of the history of a club that has suffered through too many second-half letdowns along with a fair dose of October heartbreak. 

And that’s why it matters that the Rangers pass the tests they’ll be put through in the coming weeks. Not only would it restore the momentum from April and May, but it would also validate that this team, and the way it’s helped North Texans rediscover the fun of baseball season, is real. The Rangers don’t necessarily have to take down the Astros in the end for that to remain true. But at the very least, they can’t let the dragon soar all the way past them before the calendar turns to August. 


Sean Bass

Sean Bass

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Sean Bass covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He's lived his entire life in North Texas and has worked for Sports…

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