Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Resurgent Rangers Could Really Surprise

Last year, in a rather unspectacular display of punditry, I predicted the Texas Rangers, freshly endowed with Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, would win 100 games. Of course, they crashed and burned in an unprecedented blaze of injury, securing just 67 victories and being so bad as to net the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft. 

Accordingly, this year, I dramatically altered my perception of Texas, picking them to once again finish in the cellar, especially after Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar were lost to long-term injuries.

Therefore, through the first forty-five games of the 2015 season, one could argue that both viewpoints have been satisfied. On the one hand, Texas produced a truly awful start, with a 7-14 record in April affirming my suspicions that some kind of hangover would be felt. But, more recently, they've shown signs of morphing into the juggernaut I once envisaged, with a resurgent offence exploding into life and leading the Rangers to consistent success.
Prince Fielder, hub of the resurgent Rangers.
Now, with a steady string of reinforcements on the way, Texas figures to continue improving, to the point where the team may ultimately fly under the radar right into the heart of a complex American League playoff race.

Right now, the Rangers are the hottest team in baseball, having won six consecutive games, including a sensational sweep of the Yankees in New York during the Memorial Day weekend. Texas also took a series from the Red Sox last week, before thumping the Bronx Bombers by a combined score of 30-15 in a three-game set. The Rangers also outhit the Yankees 40-25, then proceeded to beat the Indians 10-8 on Monday, improving their overall record to 22-23, just three-and-a-half games out of the second wildcard spot.

Undoubtedly, an offensive outburst is fuelling the Texas revival. Over their last ten games, the Rangers are averaging 10 hits, 6 runs, and 2 home runs per contest. Just a fortnight ago, Texas looked doomed, with Choo slumping badly and apathy setting in. Now, they've soared into contention, and, in the month of May, led all of baseball in runs scored, home runs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS. After much struggle and worry, this team is finally a force to be reckoned with.

Quite frankly, it all begins with Fielder. As Reggie Jackson would say, he's the "straw that stirs the drink." Prince is the catalyst, the instigator, the menacing superstar on whom the Rangers rely for production. I always thought he would succeed in Texas, where the ballpark fits the profile of his swing beautifully. Now, for the first time as a Ranger, Prince is back to full health and back to his irrepressible best, hitting .365 with 9 home runs, 33 RBI and 66 hits without missing a game thus far. Fielder also has 22 multi-hit games, and 10 multi-RBI games, including his last four, during which he hit .550 and slugged 1.250. 

Ultimately, Prince is having an MVP-calibre season and, slowly but surely, his performance is proving contagious. Adrian Beltre endured a slow start but is quietly rounding into form; Delino DeShields, a Rule 5 pick, is finally fulfilling his potential as a blazing spark plug atop the batting order; and even Choo, often derided following a poor start to his Texas tenure, has shown signs of life in recent weeks. Moreover, Elvis Andrus has improved of late, with 11 RBI in May, while Josh Hamilton, re-acquired from Anaheim at almost no financial cost, will likely provide some pop following a very strong rehab assignment.

Thus, rookie manager Jeff Banister finally has plenty of options, and plenty of hope. I was very impressed by his dignified approach early in the season, when positive results were not forthcoming. Where many others would've become discouraged or panicked, Banister remained stoic and confident. He believed in his players, and he believed in the process. Now, his Rangers are rounding into form, and raising eyebrows across the league.
Jeff Banister, a manager with hope.
Essentially, this recent winning streak has told us a lot about where Texas is as a team. To rattle off six consecutive wins, including two at Fenway Park, three at Yankee Stadium, and the series opener in Cleveland, is mightily impressive. That kind of run is typically only authored by teams of tremendous character, teams of terrific leadership, and teams heading to the postseason. 

Obviously, there is still plenty of work to be done. Texas remains six-and-a-half games behind the surging Houston Astros, and the team's pitching, led by Yovani Gallardo, has been fairly mediocre. But by mid-summer, the team should have several pitchers back from injury, and the Rangers think tank, spearheaded by Jon Daniels, has always been highly creative in searching for ways to improve the roster. Accordingly, one wonders whether Texas may once again become 'buyers' at the trade deadline, in the hope of making another run at October.

Such a decision will, to a large extent, depend on how this team plays over the next four to six weeks. If Banister and Fielder can keep the Rangers ticking along, perhaps a handful of games adrift of a playoff berth, at the end of June, then Texas could become a major player at the deadline. However, even if they regress to the mean in the coming days and weeks, at least this recent winning streak has entertained and energised Rangers fans, who've endured plenty of hardship in the past eighteen months. 

It's been a wonderful stretch of winning baseball which, at the very least, has enlightened what was becoming a pretty gloomy outlook in Texas. For that, Rangers fans must be incredibly grateful.

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