Magic Number: 63
A little while ago, at a point when the AL West lead was something like six games, some commentator on ESPN Radio announced how excited he was that the AL West was finally "the pennant race we all expected it to be."
It was a weird statement, because the AL West is still barely a pennant race. Texas has the second largest division lead in baseball. Baseball Prospectus places their odds of winning the division at better than nine-in-ten. Yes, it is dramatically closer than it seemed late July would be way back in May, but the pennant race everyone expected was going to be a down-to-the-wire dogfight; not the kind where one team is hanging around in striking distance should a lot of things go right.
That's why there's no reason to panic about a series loss this weekend. Or, even, really to be particularly upset or disappointed.
Friday night was certainly miserable, to be sure. An early Elvis Andrus home run off Jared Weaver seems like the kind of thing that should set up a fun game, but that ended up being the only offense Texas could muster. Derek Holland could not stop surrendering extra-base hits, or miss any bats, in an awful six earned run outing. Four innings in to the series, the idea of a sweep seemed just about over.
But just about all that damage was pretty much undone in game two. Texas is better than Anaheim, but the Angels are certainly a formidable team. You know this because the media keeps reminding you of how "hot" they are, right? Even when you are the Texas Rangers, you don't expect to march on to the home field of a top five (at worst) baseball team and win the series. It sounds kind of lame to admit, but merely getting through a three game set with a victory should come off as marginally disappointing at worst, and a strong showing all around Saturday made sure that's what we got.
The offense put forth three home runs in the second inning off of Ervin Santana, effectively putting the game away almost as soon as it began, and giving a glimpse that maybe the offense could be returning. The man who at one point seemed headed towards another MVP, Josh Hamilton, was a non-factor the whole series, with just two hits and three times as many strikeouts, but nearly everyone else showed up at some point, including the disappointing Mike Napoli, homering twice against his old team Saturday.
The offense scored nine Saturday, but didn't need nearly that much to win thanks to Yu Darvish. Improving from some recent struggles, Darvish overcame four walks by throwing 11 strikeouts in seven three-hit/two-run innings. The walks are still annoying, but it was the kind of game we had been missing from the early part of his season, and he handed the series over to his All-Star teammate Matt Harrison for a shot at a big series victory.
Unfortunately, Harrison can't shut teams out every start. He surrendered harder contact that we are used to from him all night, and two walks against four strikeouts wasn't enough to keep his team in the game.
The offense managed a decent showing as well, scoring another four runs. Nothing too exciting necessarily, but 15 runs over three games against Angel pitching in their own stadium is pretty nifty. They even managed to scrap out a shot at victory even after Harrison and an ineffective bullpen had allowed seven runs, loading the bases with one out in the ninth before Andrus flew out and Hamilton struck out to cement his series of futility.
Still, the Ranger leave three games in enemy territory outscored by just a single run, and having given up just a single game in the standings. They still sit five games over the Angels, which is still a fairly big lead at this late of a date. Seven would certainly have been nice, but unreasonable to expect; and five is a lot better than three.
The offense and pitching need to get on the same schedule for Texas to reach the impressive win totals we once figured they could hit this year, but they've played strongly enough for the first four months to take serious control of the division. They may have missed a chance to take more firm control this past weekend, but the Angels did little to damage it. A series was played, and in the end the division is pretty much where it was before it started: still barely a pennant race.