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Against all the odds, the last game of the season matters for the Texas Rangers and the American League West. And things do not look so good.
It was not supposed to be like this.
If the Rangers had simply managed winning just three of their past eight games -- that's it -- the AL West would already be won. Instead, due to an abysmal limp to the finish, for the first time in franchise history, they will play for a division crown in game 162.
Unfortunately, the truth is likely they are the underdogs in that game, too. Texas is almost certainly the better team than Oakland -- and failing to win the division doesn't change that -- but given the game being on the road, Rangers fans probably shouldn't expect to win Wednesday.
Which means a nightmare scenario. It means going through nearly an entire season in firm control of the division, only to be relegated to a playoff. Sure, Texas is officially in the postseason, but no one is going to consider the loser of the Wild Card game a real playoff team. It means screwing with the rotation, extra travel, and extra time on the field for a team that has already had to play more than anyone else over the past two seasons.
Just a week ago, home field advantage through the playoffs looked like a near-certainty; let alone winning the division. Suddenly, a whole season of baseball can be ignored for the last day. Nearly every season, some team has a melt down, and if the Rangers are going to be a perennial contender, the odds were always good that one of these years they would be that team. So here it is, staring us in the face.
It's not so much that Texas has been a disappointment. 93 wins might be a little worse than most expected, but not by much, and they have played better than that. The problem has been the A's relentless combination of luck and skill being better than anyone else in the division should have been, let alone themselves.
So should the A's win today's massive, pivotal game, and should the Rangers fall thanks to inferior playoff positioning, we have a whole offseason to look back on all the little things that could have changed the season. How much of this team's staggering down the line has been due to fatigue, and could management have helped that with some extra time off? What if Colby Lewis or Neftali Feliz -- just one of them -- stay healthy? What if Michael Young gets benched? What if Joe Nathan doesn't blow each of his first two appearances on the season? What if Martin Perez doesn't balk in a run Monday? The Rangers lost 22 one-run games this season, and if just one of them changes, we are not at this point.
Baseball doesn't usually come down to stressing over the tight losses over a long season, but it does now for the Rangers.
Then maybe they end up winning and everything is all better. While Oakland should be favored, it's not by much more than a coin flip.
Ryan Dempster takes the mound for Texas in an ideal situation for him. His main problem is keeping fly balls in the park, and boy does Oakland have a stadium to help you with that! The concern now -- and going forward -- though is more the offense than the pitching, something we haven't said often as Rangers fans. Players in a cold stretch are more likely to perform to their career mean in the next game, rather than staying cold, but that is for players who aren't worn out. The sense that Texas is fatigued could be way off, and maybe we should expect a nice 4-5 run offense today, but that is hard to believe watching them lately.
For the A's, it's righty A.J. Griffin, who through six shutout innings in his only start against Texas. He keeps hitters off balance with a fastball that only hovers around 90 miles per hour, but matches it with a curveball that comes in at under 70; a change and a slider complete his repertoire as tertiary pitches. During his brief time in the majors, he has been solid at getting strikeouts and tremendous at avoiding walks. The hope is probably that an aggressive offense like Texas can jump on his fastballs, since he spends so much time in the zone, but that curve is troubling.
We have not known baseball like this. The playoffs start early for the Rangers. You may decide to be pumped, you may decide to be stressed, it will be hard to simply treat this as another game. The Rangers have controlled their destiny for months, and at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the 11th hour, they've allowed their opponents to do the same.
Here goes nothing?