Editorial note: Due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts, last week’s Friday Feature was not ready to go at the usual publication time. I apologize for any resulting inconvenience or disappointment–but, better late than never, here it is.
There’s just two weeks left in the Major League Baseball season, and about two thirds of the fan bases around the country–those who have seen their teams’ postseason chances come to an end–have pretty much moved on to football. But there are still ten teams that will live to see the playoffs, and some of those fan bases are getting very excited indeed.
The just concluded series between the Mets and Yankees in Queens drew big, raucous crowds of mostly Mets fans who are in a state of near delirium over their team’s chances this October. That enthusiasm is almost a match for the euphoria that has descended on Chicago’s North Side, where Cubs faithful are believing that this time, it really really really will be their time at last. And fans in Toronto are delighted that their Blue Jays are looking like a good bet to break the franchise’s twenty-three year postseason drought at last.
But there’s another group that has reason to be pretty excited, too. Baseball fans deep in the heart are not quite looking to the Cowboys just yet, because their Rangers have stormed back from the rear of the pack to take over first place in the AL West. And the Rangers may not be just a good local story; a lot of signs point to Texas turning out to be the most unexpected team to do big things this fall.With last week’s four game sweep of the diminishing Houston Astros, the Rangers vaulted to the top of the division, a position they had not occupied since the very earliest days of the season. While the Astros had been a feel-good story all season–a team of talented youngsters arriving on the scene a little ahead of schedule–no one had given much thought to the Rangers, who lost Yu Darvish early on and seemingly had little to offer in the way of talent beyond “been there, done that” types like Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Prince Fielder who had been injured or largely ineffective since leaving Detroit. Indeed, observers thought so little of the Rangers that when they acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies, most of the baseball cognoscenti scratched their heads and couldn’t fathom why Hamels would have waved his no-trade clause to got to the Metroplex.
So while the rest of the baseball world may be seeing Texas–if they’re noticing them at all–as a nice little story of a team outperforming its expectations, it says here that the Rangers are the odds on favorites to make some big noise on the big stage.
It turns out Hamels may have had the shrewdest judgment of anyone baseball this season. With Hamels anchoring the rotation and that gaggle of old players suddenly revitalized, Texas began its steady, under-the-radar march up the standings, leaving the Angels in the dust and finally dragging down the Astros this past week.
And now the question is: what will the Rangers do in the postseason? If history is any guide–and with baseball, history is always part of the scene–Texas may very well be the smart pick to go very, very far into October.
Consider this: the Rangers played in the World Series two straight years in 2010 and 2011, and came within an eyelash–literally one strike–of winning the second of those appearances. Those ultimate failures, and their subsequent take down by the A’s in 2012–when the Rangers gagged up the division in the last series of the season–covered the team with that stink of failure that clings to teams that do not capitalize on multiple chances to take it all the way.
However, history shows that such teams often eventually come out on top.
For instance, the Dodgers of the ’40s and ’50s famously saw their seasons end in disappointment, over and over again, until they finally broke through to beat the Yankees and take the World Series in ’55.
In the ’70s, the vaunted Big Red Machine lost in the Series in ’70 and ’72 before finally breaking through in winning back to back championships in ’75 and ’76.
The latter year started a successful run by the Kansas City Royals, which saw them lose in the playoffs for three straight years, then lose in the World Series in ’80, and then suffer another playoff loss in ’84, until at last they broke through and won their only title in ’85.
On their way to winning the ’85 World Series, the Royals defeated the Blue Jays in the playoffs. Toronto would subsequently blow a division lead to the Tigers in ’87, then lose in the LCS to the A’s in ’89 and the Twins in ’91 before they finally took consecutive crowns in ’92 and ’93.
Even today’s paragon of postseason accomplishment, the St. Louis Cardinals, experienced multiple playoff frustrations under Tony LaRussa in the late ’90s and early 21st century before winning it all in 2006. And I haven’t even brought up the Red Sox, the team of three championships following a, shall we say, Texas-sized title drought.
The point is, this year’s Rangers fit the profile of successful teams of the past: taste the frustration, multiple times usually, before you get to taste the glory. Perhaps it’s even a necessary part of the formula, not just for the lessons that losing teaches you, but also because being a multiple loser in the past may lead your opponents to take you lightly–a lapse that can give a team like Texas the leg up they didn’t have before.
And another thing they didn’t have before was a pitcher who had won it all previously. They have that now with Cole Hamels, a former playoff MVP. Hamels has had decent if modest success so far with the Rangers–4-1, 3.73 ERA in nine starts–but he has demonstrated an ability to get a team over the top in the past.
Also, in Beltre, Fielder, Andrus, and possibly Josh Hamilton–if he can get on the field–the Rangers have a core of veteran players who will have to recognize that this may very well be their last chance to achieve the ultimate goal. Nothing motivates a guy like hearing the clock ticking; assuming the Rangers get into the playoff field, those guys are a sure bet to play up to the best they can muster.
So while the rest of the baseball world may be seeing Texas–if they’re noticing them at all–as a nice little story of a team outperforming its expectations, it says here that the Rangers are the odds on favorites to make some big noise on the big stage. A rematch of that 2011 Series seems like a fairly good bet right now–and if it happens, this time the Cardinals might just find themselves on the short end of that down to their last strike scenario.