TROUBLE IN THE BAYOU CITY

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The Texas Rangers limped out of Houston Thursday in last place in the West at 12-17 after narrowly avoiding a sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros. Texas rallied late for a 10-4 win Thursday afternoon, after losing the first three games of the series. Worse, they lost top starting pitcher Cole Hamels for two months with an oblique injury.

The series started Monday with Andrew Cashner giving the team a fine performance. He pitched six strong innings, and the offense posted a pair of runs that scored on an Elvis Andrus double and Mike Napoli’s fourth home run. Cashner came out to start the seventh inning with his team in front 2-1, but lasted just two batters as he walked the leadoff batter and gave up an infield single. They both scored as did three more Astros when Tony Barnette relieved and gave up three more hits while retiring just one batter. When the smoke cleared, the Astros had tallied five runs to take a 6-2 lead.

Texas went quietly in the eighth – three up and three down with a pair of strikeouts. In the ninth, two batters reached base on an Astro fielding error and a walk, but a pop up and a double play ground ball quickly ended the game withthe 6-2 final score.

Tuesday, the big trouble came. Hamels warmed up for the start, but literally minutes before the game was to begin he felt a pain in his right side and was unable to go. Alex Claudio became the starting pitcher in what was a bullpen game. Claudio was brilliant for three innings, and the offense supported him with four home runs over the first four innings for a 5-0 lead. He gave up a soft single and a home run to start the fourth, but rallied to retire the final three batters and keep the Rangers’ lead at 5-2.

Claudio’s outing ended one batter into the fifth, after he gave up a home run to Marwin Gonzalez that cut the Ranger lead to 5-3. Under the cixrcumstances, it was an outstanding performance by Claudio in an emergency situation. Four relievers nursed the 5-3 lead into the eighth inning. That’s when the Rangers’ night fell apart. Keone Kela was the Rangers’ fifth pitcher of the game, and he was one out away from getting out of trouble. The Astros loaded the bases with two outs, and Marwin Gonzalez came to the plate again. He broke the game open with his second home run of the night, a grand slam that put the Astros in front 7-5.

Jeremy Jeffress relieved, but the third out of the inning proved elusive. He gave up singles to the first three Astros he faced to produce another run for the Spacemen. It proved to be an important run, as Nomar Mazara hit a two run home run in the ninth to bring the Rangers to within a run at 8-7 with no outs. The tying run reached base, but was stranded on third when Carlos Gomez struck out to end the game.

Wednesday’s game got out of hand quickly. Nick Martinez gave up four second inning runs, two of which came on gopher balls off the bats of Carlos Correa and Brian McCann. The Rangers answered with a run in the fifth inning, but the Astros put the game away in the sixth with another four spot. Marwin Gonzalez homered in his third straight game to account for two of the runs. Houston capped off the 10-1 win with two more runs in the eighth inning.

That set the stage for Thursday’s Ranger win to avoid the sweep. The Rangers scored early and often to take charge of this one. They put four on the board in the first, one more in each of the second and fifth innings, and four more in the eighth and ninth. They almost needed them all, as four releivers walked nine batters over the final four innings to provide the Astros scoring opportunities. The Rangers however escaped with a 10-4 win.

This series is about as important as a series can be in May. The Astros were picked by many to win the division and took charge in April. However, they needed to exorcise the demons of the Rangers, who had dominated them over the past two years. The Astros led the West for more than 100 days in 2015, but felt like the division championship was hijacked with a late Texas run. The Rangers went 13-6 against the Astros in 2015, when 11-8 would have given the West Division championship to Houston.

2016 was even worse from Houston’s standpoint. Texas won 15 of 19.

The Rangers came into this series struggling as they had three losing weeks among the first four and had not been .500 since losing on opening day. They started the series five games behind Houston with the chance to exert their usual dominance and be solidly in the race..

Obviously, the Astros triumphed and now lead Texas by eight games. Instead of righting the ship, the Rangers showed the same problems that have kept them from winning all season. The offense is inconsistent and too reliant on home runs. More than 50% of their runs are being driven in with home runs. They’ve scored 134 runs which ranks fourth in the American League and ninth in the Majors, but they come in bunches one day and hardly at all the next.–

Last week’s 2-4 record at home is a perfect example. They scored 28 runs in six games, almost five runs per game. That’s a good number. However, 20 of the runs came in the two wins, leaving just eight runs for the four losses. That’s two runs per game, and teams don’t win often with just two runs.

Another big problem is strikeouts. The Rangers struck out at least 10 times in each of their last five games including a season high 16 Tuesday night. Joey Gallo leads the team with 42. Napoli isn’t far behind at 37. Gomez is also in the 30′s at 31, while Shin-Soo Choo, Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara are in the 20′s.

On the pitching side, the starters ERA ranks in the top five in the league, but that’s not to say the starting rotation is not a concern. Hamels injury is a major blow. Tyson Ross has had a set back in his rehabilitation and likely won’t be available until late May or June. It’s also noteworthy that the gaudy starting pitcher ERA stats have come against lesser competition. The Rangers have played just seven of 29 games against teams with a winning record – three against Cleveland and four against Houston – and they have a 1-6 record in those games.

The bullpen is still unsettled. Kela is back, and Sam Dyson has rejoined the team after a 10-day DL tint that included a tune-up at AAA. However, the effect of Tuesday’s bullpen game is still being felt. At least three relievers are not available Friday night in Seattle after the workload they put in against Houston.

And in general, the staff is simply walking too many batters. Walks build pitch counts and provide scoring opportunities for opponents.

To top it off, the defense is struggling. Texas has committed 25 errors in 29 games. Only Boston has committed more. That has led to 12 unearned runs, almost one-half run per game.

So the Rangers are in Seattle this weekend and finish this nine game, three city road trip with a pair of games in San Diego on Monday and Tuesday. It’s a team with a lot of troubles right now. On paper, if they get players back from injuries – players that they counted on when they put together this team over the winter – players like Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Tyson Ross and Jake Diekman; this team should be good. The worry though is that with Houston looking like the real deal atop the division, the Rangers could be digging too big of a hole to come back from.

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