BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The Rangers open a six game home stand this week with Yu Darvish scheduled to pitch the first and last games. He improved his record to 4-1 last Wednesday in Anaheim with a dominating performance over the Angels in a “must win” game for the Rangers. Terming a game as “must win” in April may sound like an overstatement, but in this case the “must win” tag is applicable. First, the Rangers and Angels either rightly or wrongly perceive themselves as the chief rivals to win the division. Certainly in the early part of the 21st century, the Angels dominated the division. Toward the end of the first decade, the Rangers did what they should have been doing all along – they discarded shortcutting the process to putting together a winning team (Andres Gallaraga, Ken Caminiti, Richard Hidalgo, etc.) and decided to build a farm system that supplied Major League ready players for the Major League team or for trade to acquire the pieces the Major League team needed to contend.

The change in approach paid off with World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, as well as the opportunity to participate in last year’s playoffs as the Wild Card had they won the play-in game. The Angels have been left out in the cold for three straight years. In reality, the Athletics won the division with an up an coming young team, but the reality and perception may not match.

In any event, a division game is worth two non-divisional games. By winning, a team not only records a win, but tags a division rival with a loss. The saying goes that a team can’t win a pennant in April, but can lose it. That’s essentially what happened last season to the Angels, who won just four of the first 16 games, and never fully recovered. The Angels are in danger of duplicating their April fate this year, as they go into play Sunday with a 9-14 record and 6.5 games out of first place. The teams had split the first two games of the series to start last week, and Wednesday’s game would decide the series winner. It was a chance to add to the Angels’ woes.

Even more importantly to making Wednesday’s game a “must win” was the pitching matchup. Darvish has become the Rangers’ ace, the type of pitcher that steps up to win when the team needs a win. The Angels had scheduled Tommy Hanson, acquired from the Braves last winter, to start, but Hanson was not available after departing on bereavement leave. Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia opted to bypass veteran swingman Jerome Willams in favor of rookie Mike Roth, who a year ago was pitching for the University of South Carolina. He was in the big leagues despite having pitched fewer than 50 innings in professional baseball. Scioscia chose Roth as he is left-handed, and the Rangers have struggled this year against lefties.

Darvish stepped up with a devastating performance. Ranger announcer Steve Busby, a former Major League pitcher himself, said that Darvish had better “stuff” Wednesday night than he had in his near perfect game against Houston earlier this year. Darvish struck out 11 in six innings, allowing just five base runners on three hits and two walks. It was the 11th start in Darvish’s young career to reach a double digit strikeout total.

Scioscia’s theory in starting Roth appeared to work early, as he shutout the Rangers the first time through the batting order. That came to a halt in the fourth, as the roof caved in on Roth. He recorded just one out as the first of three Angel pitchers that saw action in the inning. The Rangers capped their rally with a Nelson Cruz home run with two aboard, his third home run in four games. When the smoke had cleared, the Rangers had plated nine runs, the biggest inning since 2007. 11-3 was the final score.

Darvish’s ERA dropped to 1.65, fourth in the American League. Going into play Sunday, he led the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 49 in five starts. In short, he is stepping up to be one of the top five pitchers in the American League. It was a huge gamble on the part of Rangers GM Jon Daniels to let C. J. Wilson walk in free agency two winters ago. Wilson had won 31 regular season games over the previous two seasons that had helped the Rangers get to the World Series both years. Daniels gambled that he could win the bidding in the posting process for Darvish, then sign him to a contract that would almost match Wilson’s taking price. The total package for Darvish ran well over $100 million; but at this point, Darvish is looking to be worth every penny, and Daniels is looking like a genius for procuring the true staff ace the Rangers have been seeking for years.

COCKTAIL CONVERSATION: Last Wedenesday’s game was a “get-away” game for both teams. The Rangers headed to Minneapolis, and the Angels went to Seattle afterward. Wednesday’s game time was the Angels’ call, and they chose to make the game a night game causing late night travel for the teams. The strategy seemed to backfire as the Angels lost two of the first three against the Mariners, while Texas won the first two in Minnesota before losing Saturday.

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