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Baseball

The Rangers Magic Number: Texas-Tampa Bay, Game 2

A sweep of the Rays puts Texas 11 more wins away from a World Series victory.
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The Rangers are fighting to have three more celebrations just like this one. Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports.

Editor’s note: What’s old is new again. Mom jeans are fashionable. Same goes for loafers. You are, at most, three degrees of separation from someone with a variation of a mullet. And the Rangers are back playing October baseball.

So, back for the first time in seven years is Jamey’s Magic Number format. The premise is simple: for however many wins the Rangers have left to capture the World Series, Jamey will write that many items in this column. After Wednesday’s 7-1 series-clinching win against Tampa Bay, that number is now 11. If they take Game 1 in Baltimore on Saturday, it will be 10. And if the Rangers go all the way? Well, that’s the only time you should be excited about a Jamey Newberg column with zero to say (even though you’ll forgive him when he inevitably finds a thing or five to remark upon the World Series trophy finally coming to Arlington).

Let’s have some fun.

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Illustration by Devin Pike

Here we go: 11 things.

11. Nathan Eovaldi picked an excellent time to reintroduce us all to First Half Nathan Eovaldi. Though the Rays might respectfully disagree.

The high point of Eovaldi’s season came when he was mic’d up while twirling a scoreless second inning of the All-Star Game in July. At the time, his record stood at 10-3, with a 2.83 ERA. At 33 years old, with two Tommy John surgeries on his ledger, Eovaldi was atop the baseball world, a development not even the Rangers could have expected coming into the season. 

He’d make just one start after that before a forearm strain shut him down until September. Once he returned, he pitched six times, and not well. His ERA was 9.30. His velocity was down. His command was not there.

Wednesday’s assignment, in a game that would either seal a Wild Card Series win or force a decisive Game 3 without a clear pitching plan, felt like two times through the order, if that, after which Andrew Heaney or Martin Perez would take over to try and get the game to the late innings. 

But we got First Half Nathan Eovaldi, who was nearly as masterful as Jordan Montgomery had been in Game 1, narrowly missing seven shutout innings while striking out eight—including five the first time through the Rays order—and walking none. He consistently got ahead in the count. He earned swinging strike threes on his splitter and on his four-seam fastball and on his curve. And not only did he fire three shutdown innings in three opportunities, but he demoralized his former team along the way. After Texas scored four in the fourth, he threw a 12-pitch inning, 10 of them for strikes. After the Rangers tacked on another run in the fifth, he responded with a quick seven-pitch bottom half (five for strikes). The Rangers then scored two more in the sixth, and Eovaldi retired the Rays in order, needing only 11 pitches (eight strikes) to do it.

The Rangers advance, having completely outclassed the Rays’ starting pitching. That was not on the bingo card.

10. Had there been a game today, the start likely would have belonged to Dane Dunning on short rest, just as Game 162 in Seattle did. He can presumably now start Game 1 in Baltimore on Saturday, with Montgomery going on Sunday on regular rest and Eovaldi taking the ball Tuesday in Arlington. But I do wonder, had Dunning pitched today and the Rangers advanced, if the thought was Saturday’s start would go to Cody Bradford and that’s why he was left off the Wild Card Series roster, since he wasn’t going to be used. 

Could we see Bradford on the ALDS roster in place of Grant Anderson or Matt Bush? Or even in place of Will Smith? He won’t need to start Game 1, but he offers length that Smith cannot, if not reliability. And I haven’t looked at the Orioles enough to speculate on whether having an extra lefty in lieu of Anderson or Bush might make sense, though there’s multi-inning depth from the left side with Heaney and Perez. Presumably either Heaney or Perez gets the Game 4 start (if needed) on Wednesday. But that could go to Bradford as well, I suppose.

And, no, it’s not going to Max Scherzer. The thought of Scherzer and Jon Gray being ready for the ALCS if the Rangers get past Baltimore is plenty tantalizing. But surely that’s not a consideration yet.  

9. For all the (warranted) talk about the missed opportunity of getting a bye week had the Rangers held on to win the division, the following pitchers are getting that week off anyway: Dunning, Heaney, Perez, Anderson, Bush, Smith, Brock Burke, and Chris Stratton, not to mention Bradford. Remarkably, the Rangers won this series using only five pitchers: Montgomery and Eovaldi for 13 2/3 innings, and the combination of Sborz, Jose Leclerc, and Aroldis Chapman for the other 4 1/3.

As for the decision to let Leclerc close the series out, even though the lead was six runs and he’d thrown 18 pitches the day before, my attempt at reading Bruce Bochy’s mind leads me to wonder if the manager knows there could come a time or two when Leclerc is needed on back-to-back days in really tight spots this month. Wednesday provided a relatively low-stress opportunity to build some confidence in Leclerc: that he can do it in spite of rocky results this year on no days’ rest. It took 24 pitches, and it wasn’t the cleanest inning, but Leclerc finished with a flourish, punching out both Manuel Margot and Curtis Mead to bring on the team’s second celebration in five days.

8. As dominant as the Rangers’ pitching was the last two days, the offensive awakening was just as encouraging. Tuesday’s four-run performance was aided by sloppy Tampa Bay defense and featured a number of squandered opportunities to put the Rays away. On Wednesday, though, the bats were alive. The team’s 12 hits included eight for extra bases. Five of the seven runs came with two outs. Only seven runners were left on base, after Texas stranded 13 the day before. Josh Jung, after a hitless, two-strikeout effort in Game 1, chipped in Wednesday with two doubles and a triple. He’s the sixth rookie in major-league history to pile up three extra-base hits in a playoff game.

All that said, I still can’t figure out why teams give Corey Seager anything to hit. The three-hole has been a nightmare in the second half, with Robbie Grossman the latest placeholder. There doesn’t seem to be a great solution, now that Mitch Garver has cooled off.

7. Unless …

Evan Carter—who homered, walked, and was hit by a pitch yesterday, lifting his series slash line to a silly .750/.875/2.000—is going to be this team’s leadoff hitter for a very long time, likely starting in March. But the way he’s hitting right now, and hitting for extra-base power, I wouldn’t at all be averse to sliding him into the third spot to protect Seager. You could also sell me on leading off with him now and moving Marcus Semien to third in the order, but it may be too much tinkering to ask Semien to adjust his role at this point, and it doesn’t seem like Bochy’s style anyhow.

But it can’t continue to be Grossman, or the Orioles are going to double down on what the Rays did and take advantage of a gift-wrapped strategy for not letting Seager beat them. Grossman can help against lefties—I’m not sure if Baltimore will keep the recently reactivated John Means in the rotation, and he’d be the only southpaw in the mix—but a playoff team should have a better solution in the first inning than having Grossman bat behind two MVP candidates.

6. For all the worries I had about Adolis Garcia getting too big with his game in the Rays series, the 110-mph line drive he rifled into Tyler Glasnow’s hamstring on Tuesday and the home run that kicked off the scoring on Wednesday, not to mention the line drive he hit to third base with two runners on an inning later, were perfect examples of how much damage Doli can do without having to sell out for power. Hopefully, he continues to stay in control at the plate in the next series. He doesn’t need more than that.

5. Garcia’s buddy Randy Arozarena, whose career postseason OPS trails only Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, went 3 for 8 in the series, but the Rangers did a tremendous job of making it barely matter. Only once did Arozarena bat with a runner on base, and that was in the first inning in Game 2, when he struck out after a Yandy Diaz single. Texas pleasantly made Arozarena a nonfactor.

4. Since August 1, the Rangers have:

  • Won eight straight and 12 of 14
  • Lost eight straight
  • Won three of four
  • Lost seven of eight
  • Won six straight
  • Lost four straight
  • Won six straight again
  • Lost four of six
  • Won two straight playoff games

So. Weird.

3. We don’t give nearly enough love—and I’m guilty of this myself—to Jonah Heim.

The man has caught 21 of the Rangers’ last 22 games. That’s unheard of in the modern game.

He was very close to calling and catching two shutouts in this series—against a team that was shut out only seven times all year. You heard both Montgomery and Eovaldi go on and on after their starts about how in sync they were all day with Heim, how he thinks along with them pitch to pitch.

He frames as well as any catcher in the game. 

He throws phenomenally well for a catcher his size.

He switch-hits with power.

He’s been traded three times (including once by the Rays), all in relatively small deals that caused little ripple.

He’s found a home. 

No, he’s made a home.

You wouldn’t have to talk me into wearing a Heim 28 jersey. That’s a dude.

2. So it’s on to Baltimore (another of Heim’s former teams), to face the only club in the American League that won more games this year than the one the Rangers just sent into the offseason. There won’t be a season-ending collapse to overcome, or a transcontinental flight. The Rangers will actually get a little time to rest before the next game, and they’ll even get to play at home in this series. Plus, Texas wins pennants when it beats Tampa Bay in the playoffs.

I hope there’s enough adversity to overcome in this one. The Rangers seem to be at their best when they’re counted out.

1. Finally, I’m thinking about Jon Daniels. The man who signed Seager and Semien. Who traded for Garcia and Heim. Who drafted Carter and Jung. The man who hired Chris Young.  

The man who built two World Series teams here and whose fingerprints will be all over the third if all goes as planned.

I can’t imagine what this series must have felt like for him. His new club against his old one, in a fight to the death. While his loyalties are certainly to his current employer, there are countless relationships he left behind formally, but certainly not fully. Players. Coaches. Trainers. Staff. Execs. Owners.

This has to be a painful time for the Rays, who won 99 games but were swept out of the Wild Card round. But the pain JD must be feeling, I’m sure, goes well beyond that and settles in different ways.

I hope he’s able to enjoy the Rangers’ next round of playoff games with the rest of us—this time with a rooting interest free of guilt and nuance and warring emotion.  

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Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…

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