We’ve all seen the printout while we’re driving: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Maybe Rangers fans should have paid more attention to the disclaimer throughout the first-place joyride that has been the spring and summer in North Texas. Not only are the rival Astros riding their tailgate and laying on the horn, but the Seattle Mariners are also going well above the speed limit in the left lane with zero intentions of tapping the brakes. Hopefully there’s a state trooper or two hiding behind a billboard along the interstate.
Texas certainly picked a fine time to go on a season-long seven-game losing streak, one that has shrunk its division lead over both Seattle and Houston to a paltry game. The check engine light is flashing, and fans are beginning to panic.
For much of this season, the American League West was shaping up to be a two-car race between Texas and Houston. Focusing on the Astros made things simple for Rangers fans. Check the scoreboard and root like hell for whatever club happened to be facing Houston that night. In the meantime, the Mariners have gone on an absolute tear. Last week they swept a three-game road series over the Astros, a little more than a month after winning three of four in Houston. In August, they have ripped off a pair of eight-game win streaks, putting the Rangers and Astros on high alert. (More on the M’s in a moment.)
There are plenty of reasons why the Rangers have hit the skids, but none bigger than a faulty bullpen that has been a reliable reliever or two short all season long. On Thursday night in Minneapolis, the pen blew its 23rd save in 47 attempts in a 7-5 loss to the Twins. It didn’t help that manager Bruce Bochy had to turn to his relievers early after starter Andrew Heaney failed to get out of the fifth inning while nursing a 5-3 lead. The bullpen has yielded 22 runs over the past seven games.
The most trustworthy relief arm Bruce Bochy can call on is flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman, who allowed a game-tying homer in the ninth inning in Monday night’s extra-innings road loss to the Diamondbacks, wasting an eight-inning gem from Jordan Montgomery. The other main setup men have been awful of late. Josh Sborz has been tagged for six runs over his last three appearances, lasting just an inning and a third. The righthander registered no outs in a disastrous eighth inning against the Twins. Closer Will Smith has allowed 12 runs in his last eight outings, which included giving up the go-ahead two-run blast from Twins pinch-hitter Ryan Jeffers in relief of Sborz. Jose Leclerc has improved over the past month-plus, earning a chance to pitch in higher leverage spots recently. He might get even more opportunities by default, never mind that the Rangers have six years of knowledge for how inconsistent he can be.
Chris Stratton has a 1.72 ERA since being acquired with Montgomery from St. Louis at the deadline but has been slotted to throw the middle innings when starters don’t go deep enough. (It could be because his peripherals suggest that ERA should be closer to 4.00.) A year after being Texas’ best reliever, Brock Burke is being used in a similar role, or in losing situations in the later innings. Martin Perez has only been used in mop-up duty since being demoted to the bullpen after the club acquired Montgomery before the trade deadline.
Heaney could join him if the injured Nathan Eovaldi returns to the rotation. More innings from starters could mask the stench of the open sewage pipe that is the Texas bullpen. This might be the only fix on the horizon.
Another way to cover for a bad bullpen is for the offense to return to the prolific levels we saw over the first two months of the season. During the losing streak, the bats haven’t cashed in as often with runners in scoring position: the Rangers are hitting a putrid .224 as a team. We are seeing the impact of All-Star rookie third baseman Josh Jung being out with a broken thumb. It also seems the club rushed All-Star catcher Jonah Heim back from his wrist injury. While he’s still fine as a receiver behind the plate, the torn tendon sheath in his left wrist has limited him to hitting only from the left side and has zapped his power. Since returning on August 13, Heim is 2 for 26 with no extra-base hits.
Let’s say the bats come around. (There are recent signs of hope, with 34 hits and 11 extra-base hits over the past four games.) Let’s also say the rotation regains the level of consistency we saw the first week-plus of August. Would that be enough to fend off the reigning World Series champs and a playoff team from a year ago that also happens to be the hottest team in baseball?
The Astros aren’t the juggernaut they were in 2022, but their offense has improved after a slowish start to the season, and reacquiring Justin Verlander at the trade deadline makes them a legit contender to repeat as champs. FanGraphs still has the Astros with the highest chance to win the World Series among American League teams, at 10.8 percent. The Rangers check in at 3.9 percent, behind even the Mariners, at 5.4 percent.
Maybe it’s recency bias, given their 16-5 record in August, but Seattle feels like the team that is primed to ride this wave to a division title and into October for a second straight year. After being stuck in the mud for much of the first half of the season, the Mariners have figured things out at the plate. This month they are hitting .283 as a team with an OPS of .846. Second-year phenom Julio Rodriguez has led the way, hitting a ridiculous .383 over the past month, including an MLB-record 17 hits in four games last week. The Seattle bats have finally matched the arms; a rotation of Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, and Bryan Woo has a chance to win every series. It’s the sort of depth that allows the M’s to place the promising Emerson Hancock on the 60-day I.L. this week with a shoulder injury and not even sweat such a loss.
And unlike the Rangers, the Mariners have more than one guy (Chapman) in their bullpen who consistently misses bats. Even after trading closer Paul Sewald to Arizona before the deadline, Seattle can roll out the likes of Matt Brash, Justin Topa, and Gabe Speier, who all have a strikeout rate north of 30 percent.
The schedule is also turning in Seattle’s favor, too. The club begins a stretch against the Royals, Athletics, and Mets. It’s not hard to imagine the M’s could be atop the A.L. West when the calendar flips to September. Seattle makes a three-game visit to Arlington on September 22-24, then returns home for three games against the Astros and a season-ending four-game series against the Rangers. The West could be decided then and there.
The glass has been broken, and the panic button has been mashed by many in the Rangers fan base. Not winning a game in more than a week and a bad bullpen will do that. Hope for a division title isn’t lost by any means, but with another bad week, Texas could be looking up at the Blue Jays in the wild-card race. We all wanted meaningful baseball in August and September. It’s here, folks. Buckle your seatbelts. Stay safe, and stay nourished.