I’m not counting the Rangers out yet.

The Texas Rangers are about to become a case study in how an organization reacts to the toughest times. Here’s betting we’re reminded that they are a great franchise–deep and resilient and talented.

Can they still win the American League West? At a time when they’ve been absolutely crushed by injuries–”startling” is the word general manager Jon Daniels uses to describe the number–it would be silly to think they could finish in front of the Oakland A’s. They’re probably not better than the Angels or Mariners, either.

On the other hand, who knows who things will look three months from now? Daniels has constructed a baseball operation built to last, an organization respected throughout the game for its excellence.

The Rangers have averaged 93 wins the last four seasons. In that stretch, they’ve been to the World Series twice, the American League Wild Card game once and forced a 163rd game playoff with the Rays once.

And there’s not a better baseball area than Dallas-Fort Worth. The Rangers have drawn an average of 3.1 million fans the last three seasons, and local television and radio ratings have soared.

All that success breeds organizational confidence, and manager Ron Washington is a huge part of the equation. As the clubhouse has transitioned from Michael Young’s team to Adrian Beltre’s, as players have come and gone, Washington has been able to keep the group focused on a common goal.

No matter how many injuries have, the Rangers will continue to compete hard and be professional. This is the kind of thing that sounds hokey, but as players come and go and as youngsters get their chance, clubs can be dramatically transformed in a short period of time.

For core players like Beltre and Elvis Andrus and Colby Lewis, their relentless approach to preparation and professionalism is more important than ever. There’s a dynamic in clubhouses that have developed a winning culture. The collective ego of the group believes it can withstand any losses because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s important as the Rangers hand the ball to starting pitchers they never envisioned being in their 2014 plans. For instance, 23-year-old right-hander Nick Martinez.

They envisioned him being one of the anchors of their rotation for a long time. They just never imagined they would be leaning on him in 2014. And they’ve got a slew of other kids in their system–Luke Jackson and Alec Asher and Alex Gonzalez–who could end up being critical a year or two before they were scheduled to arrive.

This wasn’t the original blueprint. But Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz haven’t pitched an inning in the big leagues this season. Matt Harrison and Martin Perez probably won’t pitch another. That’s four guys Daniels had penciled into his rotation behind Yu Darvish.

Instead, the Rangers have had to turn relievers into starters and scramble to find solutions. As a result, Texas starters have a 4.60 ERA. Only two teams have been worse.

And that’s only part of the story.

Beltre is just back from a stint on the Disabled List. Second baseman Jurickson Profar has spent the season on the DL. First baseman Prince Fielder, a big-ticket off-season acquisition, has just three home runs.

So here’s how the Rangers go to the postseason for the fourth time in five years. First, their stars must perform like stars. Darvish, Beltre, Andrus, Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo have to do the things they were supposed to do.

Holland has to contribute in the second half of the season, and indications are that he will. Lewis must continue his remarkable recovery from hip surgery. And then some of the kids–Martinez, Nick Tepesch, etc.–must take advantage of the opportunity. If, say, Tanner Scheppers or Neftali Feliz can return and pitch at a high level, the Rangers have a decent chance to make a run in the second half.

Daniels has channeled resources and manpower into hiring first-rate scouts, coaches and instructors to allow the Rangers to sustain their success. This is one of those seasons when everything he has worked toward will be tested. Here’s betting it passes with flying colors.


Berkman announces retirement

Lance Berkman’s has decided to retire, he told MLB.com Wednesday afternoon.

“It doesn’t make sense to play in the physical condition I’m in,” he said.

He has had continuing problems with his right knee, the same injury that limited him to 73 games for the Rangers last season.

“I’m not going to keep trying to run out there for the heck of it,” he said.

During his 15-year career, he made the National League All-Star Team six times and was a member of five playoff teams, including the 2011 Cardinals, who won the World Series.

He had toyed with the idea of attempting to play a 16th season, but came to the conclusion that his 37-year-old body wouldn’t allow him to.

“I think I’m actually glad about it,” he said. “I’m excited about the next chapter in my life. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, and at some point, I’ll definitely coach somewhere.”

His legacy will be that he was one of the best offensive players in the game for a long stretch of his career. During his first 12 seasons, including 10-plus with the Astros, he averaged 30 home runs, 34 doubles, 95 walks and had a .410 on-base percentage and a .958 on-base-plus-slugging.

His .9429 OPS is the 26th-highest in history among players with at least 500 games. It’s higher even than Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

He was also one of the most popular players on every club on which he played, including that 2011 Cardinals team.

That 2011 season fulfilled his dream of playing for a champ. He came close in 2005 when the Astros won the National League pennant, but were swept by the White Sox in the World Series.

He was traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline in 2010 and signed with the Cardinals the following year. He fell in love with both the team and the team, and when the Cardinals won the World Series that year, he uttered this memorable quote:

“The emotions are overwhelming. I can’t even begin to describe. It’s one of those things you’ve thought about for so long, and then when it happens, it hits you harder than you ever imagined.”

That was the final high point of his career. He played just 105 games the next two seasons, spending 2012 with the Cardinals and 2013 with the Rangers.

“I’ve had a great career,” he said. “I did everything anyone could have set out to do. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”

With Tim Hudson gone and Brian McCann probably out the door, what happens to the Braves?

Tim Hudson is a reminder that prices are going up. Baseball teams have money to spend, and with a thin free agent market and at least 20 clubs thinking they’ve got a chance to win the World Series in 2014, it’s a great off-season to be a free agent.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann are going to get very, very rich, but Marlon Byrd did just fine for himself as well. This is the way the system is supposed to work.

If you’re Braves GM Frank Wren this morning, what are you thinking? You probably had Hudson penciled in for $9 million in 2014. Instead, he got $23 million over two years from the Giants.

Wren simply could not go there, and so he’s left with a hole in his rotation. At 38, Hudson was still good for 25-30 starts and 175-200 quality innings.

He’s also a great teammate, a great influence on all those young guys. On the other hand, this could be one of those moments that show off what a great organization the Braves have.

Here’s the Braves rotation in the wake of Hudson’s departure:

  • Mike Minor.
  • Kris Medlen.
  • Julio Teheran.
  • Brandon Beachy.
  • Alex Wood or David Hale.

Not bad, huh? Yes, there are questions. Beachy has made five starts since recovering from Tommy John surgery. He appears to be good to go, but there are questions. Wood has made 11 big league starts, Hale two.

Because the Braves don’t have unlimited resources, they have to build a great top-to-bottom organization, and that’s what Wren has done.

Atlanta was one of baseball’s three youngest teams in 2013. Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman were all 23 on Opening Day. Craig Kimbrel was 25.

Now it’s McCann’s turn. He’s one of the most sought-after players on the market and could be gone, too.

If you look at the Braves from a certain angle, you can convince yourself they’re good enough to hang with the Nationals in the NL East.

They still have baseball’s best bullpen and a front of the rotation that could be tremendous. In Freeman, Simmons and Heyward, they have three of the National League’s best players. If B.J. Upton can get his career back on track, if Justin Upton has a productive year, the Braves could have a dynamic offense.

But there are questions at second, where Dan Uggla has worked furiously to get his swing back. And there are questions in the rotation and behind the plate.

Wren will then have to decide if Evan Gattis can handle the everyday catching duties. In the end, Wren will figure something out.

And the Braves move on. They’ll be fine.

So the Phillies are keeping the band together. What’s wrong with that?

Revisionist history says the Phillies made terrible decisions in giving all these longterm commitments to Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, etc.

This is just silly. What were they supposed to do with these guys? Walk away from them? Allow Ryan Howard to leave via free agency?

This group of players has transformed the Phillies from a losing franchise to one of the best in baseball. Between 1984 and 2006, the Phillies went to the postseason one time.

And then this group arrived and took them to the playoffs five years in a row, won the National League pennant twice and won the World Series in 2008.

Along the way, the franchise became monstrously successful. Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, and 3 million became the norm. The Phillies led the NL in attendance three straight years.

So what did the Phillies do? They made a commitment to keeping the band together as long as possible. In a perfect world, their farm system would be supplying a pipeline of talent, but that’s another story.

With an older roster, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has done whatever he can to patch together one more run. That’s why Marlon Byrd makes sense. That’s also why Carlos Ruiz makes sense.

Yes, he may have overpaid for both players. If he stood around and waited for the market to settle, he probably could have found bargains in January or February.

But he was comfortable with Byrd and Ruiz. He thought they fit into his clubhouse. The Phillies did get younger last year as Domonic Brown made the National League All-Star team and Cody Asche and Freddy Galvis contributed.

But they’re built around Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamel, Cliff Lee, etc. They’re going to go as far as those guys take them. If they’re all still productive, the Phillies have a chance to be a factor in a division in which the Nationals and Braves appear to be a cut above every other team.

To second guess Amaro is great fun. It’s part of the deal. Having spent his life in this game, he understands how it works.

He’s believed to be in the last year of his contract, so he probably feels some pressure to get the Phillies back on track. Now he has his manager, Ryne Sandberg, in place, and is getting closer to having a roster he believes in.

Again, it comes down to those familiar names being what they once more. In the end, that’s what matters, and it’s those guys who’ll either decide whether the Byrd and Ruiz signings pay off.

Red Sox did it the right way and have a trophy to prove it.

Until the moment the World Series was won on Wednesday night, the Red Sox were focused only on the job at hand. One pitch at a time. One inning at a time. Et cetera.

“Whatever the task is in front of us, that’s the one we address,” manager John Farrell said earlier in the week.

His players did a splendid job of thinking small, so in these last few days, as they approached another championship, they simply wouldn’t allow themselves to think about what it all meant.

“You know what we’re concerned with?” Dustin Pedroia asked after the Red Sox won the American League pennant. “That would be the first pitch of the next game.”

He paused for emphasis.

“Nothing else.”

Pedroia’s point was that there would be plenty of time to consider legacies and the team’s place in the history books in the weeks and months ahead. First they wanted to finish the deal.

Even when they clinched a playoff berth, even when they won the AL, there were no crazy celebrations.

There was always another mountain to climb. The players’ message to the world — and to one another — was that there was always another threshold to cross.
Most World Series titles
Rank    Team    Last    Total
1.      Yankees 2009    27
2.      Cardinals       2011    11
3.      Athletics       1989    9
4.      Red Sox 2013    8
5.      Giants  2012    7
6.      Dodgers 1988    6
7. (tie)        Reds    1990    5
7. (tie)        Pirates 1979    5

Now it’s done. A season that began with the Red Sox widely picked to finish last in the AL East ended with a 6-1 victory in the World Series-clinching Game 6 at Fenway Park.

Right fielder Shane Victorino slapped a three-run double off the Green Monster in the bottom of the third inning to get the Red Sox rolling. Boston added three runs in the fourth, and that was pretty much that.

David Ortiz was named the World Series Most Valuable Player after reaching base four more times, all on walks, as the Cardinals finally decided to stop giving him pitches to hit.

And right-hander John Lackey, who won Game 7 for the Angels 11 years ago, when he was a 23-year-old rookie, was tremendous in another clincher, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings.

When the game ended, the emotions of a season that began nine months ago in Fort Myers, Fla., were unleashed in a torrent of bear hugs, laughter and accomplishment. In this era of unprecedented parity in baseball, Boston is the closest thing to a dynasty, having won the World Series three times in the last 10 seasons.

Remember when they were the team that couldn’t quite get over the hump? Remember the bitter disappointments of 1967, ’75 and ’86?

Now they’re the franchise that is operated shrewdly, managed brilliantly and fueled by such old-fashioned values as hard work and unselfishness.

They are cursed no more. This championship was different from those of 2004 and ’07 because it was won in their 101-year-old cathedral in front of a raucous home crowd.

This one was also different because it was so improbable. Who remembers that the Red Sox lost 93 games last season?

No general manager had a better offseason than Ben Cherington.

In a rush of signings, Cherington brought in seven free agents. None of them would be considered stars. None of them got really big money.

Cherington wanted players who had reputations for being good clubhouse guys. He wanted players who understand that playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience — that is, expectations are high, and players are held accountable.

Cherington was methodical, adding a Shane Victorino one day, a Jonny Gomes the next. Mike Napoli signed on, too. And so did David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Stephen Drew.

Everything clicked. The same things drove these players. They loved to work, and they cared for one another. Though the Red Sox got their star power from familiar names — Ortiz and Pedroia and Jon Lester — they were fueled by all of them. They improved by 28 games, led the Majors in runs and spent 164 days in first place. In short, they were pretty much a perfect hardball team.

It was hokey at times hearing the things they said about one another. It was magical, too.

“We love each other,” Napoli said. “We don’t just hang out while we’re here. We hang out off the field. Our families get together. It’s a group that’s so tight. We play for each other. No one is selfish on this team. We play for one another.”

The Rangers hang in there another day, four straight wins and hope

Maybe the Astros came to town at just the right time to save the Rangers. Speaking of the Astros, this is the two-week anniversary of their last victory.  During this little 0-12 run, they’ve been outscored 69-19.

The Reds, Indians and Rangers all swept ‘em at a time when all three teams needed victories. The Rangers were hanging by a thread when the Astros came to town on Monday. They got the sweep, and then kept going with a Jurickson Profar walk-off home run to beat the Angels on Thursday.

So they begin this final weekend of the season trailing the Rays by two games and the Indians by one. The Rays and Indians are on the road in Toronto and Minneapolis for their final series while the Rangers have three more against the Angels. The Rays and Indians begin the day with seven-game winning streaks.

Six AL teams within 3 1/2 games of a Wild Card berth with 9 days left? You betcha.

How crazy is this American League Wild Card race? Don’t blink or you’ll miss something important, and I speak as one who stayed with the Rays and Orioles for their 6-hour, 54-minute marathon that ended at 2:05 a.m. Saturday.

In case you missed it, the Rays won it 5-4 in the bottom of the 18th inning. Forty-nine players got into the game, including 28 pitchers, who threw 593 pitches.

It was a huge loss to the Orioles because it dropped them two games behind the Indians in the loss column.

Anyway, the Rays have 69 losses, the Indians and Rangers 70, the Orioles and Royals 72 and the Yankees 73. Here are some numbers:

  • The last time the top three Wild Card teams were this close this late in the season was 1998 when the Cubs, Mets and Giants were 88-72 on Sept. 25.
  • This is the first time six teams have been within 3 1/2 games of the top Wild Card spot on this date since the Wild Card was born in 1995.
  • The Rays and Rangers have had a terrible few weeks, but they’re still in good shape to grab the two spots. There’s some history to be made there, too.

The Rays have won six of nine after losing 13 of 17. The Rangers have lost 14 of 18.  Only four teams in the Wild Card era have made the postseason have enduring slumps of 4-13 or worse in the final six games. Here’s the list: 2008 Brewers, 2000 Yankees, 2000 Mariners and 1995 Yankees.

The Rays have won three of five in a stretch in which they’re playing 11 in a row against teams within 3 1/2 games of a postseason berth. They’ve got two more against the Orioles and then three at Yankee Stadium beginning Tuesday.

Dodgers roll along. Our daily update.

  • Dodgers starters are 21-5 with a 1.91 ERA since July 26. In that time, they’ve had 12 games in which the starter didn’t allow an earned run.
  • The Dodgers are 22-6 in August and 32-8 since the All-Star Break and 49-13 since June 22.
  • 22 wins in August is a Los Angeles record for the franchise.
  • July and August are the second- and third-winningest months in LA franchise history.
  • The Dodgers have eight shutouts this month, second-most in franchise history behind 10 in September 1965.
  • Last MLB team to have eight shutouts in a month was the Dodgers in September 1988.
  • Three Dodgers starters are in the Top 5 in NL ERA this month among pitchers with at least five starters. Jose Fernandez (0.82), Alex Wood (0.90), Clayton Kershaw (1.01), Zack Greinke (1.23) and Rick Nolasco (1.64).
  •  Nolasco, Greinke and Kershaw are 13-2 with a 1.30 ERA this month. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, no other three starters has combined in a single month for 13 wins and an ERA as low as 1.30 with each making four or more starts. (Source: Elias.)
  •  Since the All-Star break, Dodger relievers have a 2.10 ERA, third-lowest in NL.

If you’re the manager of the Diamondbacks, Nationals, etc., you might want to remind your players of baseball’s recent history. Hint: it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Tom Boswell of The Washington Post has an excellent column about baseball’s recent September surprises. He’s reminding his hometown team that it’s important to play the season out because you just never know.

Here are some highlights:

  • In just the past two years, six teams have imploded to lose division titles or a playoff spot.
  • The Cardinals, Rays and A’s all seemed to be eliminated, but they played it out and were rewarded.
  • It’s sometimes easier to have a we’ve-got-to-win-every-game mentality than to simply be trying to keep what they already appear to have.

There are extreme examples: the 2011 Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the Wild Card on August 25th, but won the World Series. That year, the Rays were nine games out on September 2, but clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season.

Both teams needed help. Had the Red Sox not finished 7-20, it wouldn’t have mattered that the Rays went 17-8 down the stretch. Likewise, the Braves opened the door for the Cardinals by losing 16 of their final 23. But the Cardinals did their part with a 16-5 finish.

The 2012 White Sox spent 126 days in first place in the American League Central. But they couldn’t close the deal, losing 11 of their final 15 to escort the Tigers to the postseason. The Tigers were given an opportunity and took advantage with a 15-7 finish.

In fact, two of the three American League’s first-place teams on September 1st last season—Texas and Chicago—ended up finishing second. The White Sox missed the playoffs entirely. The Rangers didn’t get out of the Wild Card game despite spending 186 days in first place and leading the AL West by 6 1/2 games on August 12th.

The A’s didn’t give up on last season either even when they trailed the Rangers by five games with nine to play. They had the lead down to two when the two teams finished the regular season with a three-game series at the Coliseum. In other words, the Rangers needed to win once to clinch the AL West.

The A’s won the opener 4-3. Lead down to one. Okay, no big deal.

Only thing is, you could see it coming from miles away. Baseball is the weirdest of sports. Teams can reel off five- and six-game winning streaks all season long. But when the finish line is near, when the heat is on, sometimes the simplest things become impossible.

If you’d been around awhile, you knew the only thing that was going to save the Rangers was for one player to step up. In the first round of the playoffs, that one player was Justin Verlander rescuing a series against the very same A’s.

Who stepped up for the Rangers? No one did. Oakland’s Travis Blackley beat the Rangers in the second game. Tie division.

On the final day of the regular season, Rangers starter Ryan Dempster couldn’t hold a four-run lead, Josh Hamilton dropped a fly ball and the A’s won 12-5 and staged a wild clubhouse celebration. The Rangers limped back to Texas and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Orioles.

The Nationals are 2-0 in a stretch of 19 straight games against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies. An offense that averaged just 3.4 runs per game in the first 114 games has scored 5.3 per game as the Nationals have won 13 of 18. Finally, they look like the team we all thought they’d be. The Reds play 15 of their final 28 against teams with losing record. But they’ve got six of their final nine against the Pirates, and those games could be critical.

The Nationals trail the Reds by seven games for the second Wild Card, and while that’s a large number, it was 9 1/2 games a week ago. They’ve at least chipped away. They have little margin for error, but they also might be able to create a little excitement in a season that has been hugely disappointing.

The Diamondbacks are just six out. Problem is, unlike the Nationals, Arizona is showing no signs of getting hot. That’s why these next 10 games—seven against the Giants, three against the Blue Jays—are hugely important. If the D-backs are going to make a run this is the time.

As for looking ahead at their schedule, they shouldn’t. They’ve dug themselves too much of a hole to worry about tomorrow or next week. Never mind those seven games against the Dodgers. Besides, if they can creep closer during these 10 games against the Giants and Blue Jays, they’ll start to feel the possibilities.

They certainly don’t want to fast forward to the bottom of the schedule because it’s absolutely too delicious to even consider. If they get to the final weekend, they may be able to take care of business themselves with three home games against the—wait for it—Nationals.

All right, Ryan Braun, that’s enough. Time to shut up. See you in at Spring Training, big fella.

I’m sure Ryan Braun was told that the reaction to whatever apology he issued would be negative. There’s nothing columnists and talk show nitwits like more than climbing on their soapbox and trashing another man’s ethics. As a matter of fact, I enjoy it myself.

Some people were going to be satisfied only if Braun had cut off both hands and announced he was going to spend the rest of his days working in soup kitchens. Otherwise, he was going to get trashed for whatever he said.

He offered a little more detail than most guys do and blamed no one except himself. He didn’t offer dates, names, places for how he scored the stuff, but that was his choice.  None of it was going to change anyone’s mind, but nothing is going to do that.

I hope those editors at the Milwaukee Journal whose sensibilities were so offended by Braun using performance-enhancing drugs that they demanded he be shipped out of town can find some peace. I hope those poor boys and girls can still stomach living in Wisconsin when Braun steps to home plate next season.

Now Braun ought to shut up for awhile. He’ll have to face reporters on this topic at some point, most likely next spring, and he won’t make people happy then, either. As Brewers GM Doug Melvin said, Braun just needs to get back on the field next season and produce.

If he plays well, he can begin to write a different ending to his career. He’ll never erase this chapter of his legacy, but he can leave people with a different memory. Those who beat their chests and say Braun let them down with his ethical failings need to take a long look at themselves.

Braun is a great baseball player. Speed and strength. Balance and vision. He has a high baseball IQ. He’s a joy to watch. Speaking as someone who has lived in a former NL Central city the last 13 years, it was amazing watching the damage Braun and Prince Fielder did in the middle of that lineup.

To transfer a moral component to their greatness as baseball players reflects our own failings more than theirs. Again, though, I digress.

Braun took banned substances because he wanted to be a better baseball player. Maybe he did it because he was injured. Or maybe he’s insecure about his abilities. Regardless, he blurred the lines between ambition and judgement. Lord knows, he wasn’t the only one. We want these guys to care as much as we care, and some guys got carried away.

Whether they did it to make millions or break records or win a World Series, we’ll probably never know. Now that would be the perfect apology.

This whole Braun thing has been fascinating. First, the leaks about him testing positive. Then his ridiculous denials and unconscionable trashing of the specimen collector. He didn’t utter one believable word. Still, some some people believed him.

Finally—and this is the part of his apology I liked most—Braun did what he should have done. He looked himself in the mirror and said, “Okay, enough.” At least it appears that’s what he did.

He decided to negotiate a suspension and move on. Next season, he starts fresh. Well, not fresh completely. Those poor Milwaukee Journal editors will still be running down the street screaming in horror. Mostly, though, we’ll sit back with our brats and beer and see what kind of player he’ll be.


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