There were two outs and the Texas Rangers were one strike away from wrapping up their first World Series title, holding a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth on the host St. Louis Cardinals.
David Freese will forever be a Cardinals hero for how that game, how the 2011 season, ended. He’s the batter the drove a fastball the other way; the ball that chewed up and spat out Cruz in right field. It was Freese, also, who forced Game Seven with his walk-off home run two innings later, after his teammates had overcome another two-run deficit in the tenth.
There were a couple ways that Cruz could have handled Freese’s long fly ball. The first, and most optimal way, was that he could have been playing deeper; this is the most common complaint of baseball fans in reviewing the game, in reviewing the pinnacle moment of the season. With two outs and the tying run at first, Cruz can’t allow extra-bases; any ball hit over his head should land in the seats. Freese’s drive fell to the ground at the base of the right field wall.
Of course, Cruz didn’t play deeper and the ball did sail over his head. Still, Cruz possesses one of the best arms in all of baseball, if he could simply turn and play the carom, surely Berkman would have been forced to stop at third, else risk a fairly routine out at the plate. But once again, Cruz misplayed the ball and allowed it to get past him a second time. As he chased it back toward the infield, Berkman raced around to score the tying run.
The only way Berkman scores on that play was if everything that could go wrong for Texas did go wrong. And it did.
Though the Rangers again blew a lead the next inning and still had a chance to win again in Game Seven, it was that play in the bottom of the ninth that will forever define the 2011 season.
There is a tendency to look at a team that loses a title bid as grossly inferior, when the facts are far from that perception. Those Buffalo Bills teams that lost four consecutive Super Bowls are sometimes looked at as some kind of a joke for failing on the biggest stage. Meanwhile, there are fans in Cleveland and Detroit that have never known what it feels like to see their team even make it to football’s biggest game. There is no shame in winning the American League Pennant. No shame in losing the World Series, not even two seasons in a row, as the Rangers have done.
Addressing the Holes
When the 2011 season came to an end for the Rangers, the club spent little time in making some key adjustments. Closer Neftali Feliz, a starter while in the minors, was earmarked to return to a starting role for 2012. The Rangers will tell you that the Feliz move had nothing to do with how the World Series ended for their now-former closer, but there is a school of thought that perhaps Feliz wouldn’t rebound well from having blown the save in Game Six.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it, GM Jon Daniels fired one of the first shots of the off-season when he inked longtime Twins closer Joe Nathan to a free agent deal in Texas worth $14 million over two years. With Nathan in place and Feliz removed from the ‘pen, the writing was on the wall that Texas wouldn’t be retaining southpaw starter C.J. Wilson, who eventually signed with the rival Los Angeles Angels.
Though their rotation appeared set going in, and Rangers president Nolan Ryan was crying poor, the Rangers spent big (bigger than any club in history, in fact) on Japanese import Yu Darvish, committing to a $52 million posting fee and a six-year, $60 million contract with the superstar right hander.
While Daniels did well to add Darvsh and Nathan, there was significant attrition on the roster that went largely unchecked. Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez, both left handed relievers, were allowed to leave via free agency, as was fourth outfielder Endy Chavez, who had a big season in 2011. Instead of replacing really any of those key contributors, Daniels and manger Ron Washington have come into camp with internal candidates to assume those roster spots.
- Elvis Andrus- SS
- Josh Hamilton- CF
- Michael Young- DH
- Adrian Beltre- 3B
- Nelson Cruz- RF
- Mike Napoli- C
- David Murphy- LF
- Mitch Moreland- 1B
- CL- Joe Nathan
- SU- Mike Adams
- RHP Koji Uehara
- RHP Alexi Ogando
- LHP Michael Kirkman
- RHP Scott Feldman
Prospects to Watch
The prize of a very deep Rangers farm system is shortstop Jurickson Profar, but you won’t be seeing him with Texas this year; he’s still just 19 years old and there’s no need to rush him. Still, if you have an eye on 2014, Nathaniel StolTz had an exciting write-up on him at Seedlings to Stars.
Profar had an unbelievable age-18 season in Low-A, hitting .286/.390/.493, walking more than he struck out, hitting 57 extra-base hits in just 115 games, and continuing to look like a plus defender at shortstop. It looks like Rafael Furcal is his downside, and that’s scary. He could develop into the best lead-off hitter and shortstop in the game, and will play a key role in Texas’ transition from their current core to their next generation.
Third base prospect Mike Olt grabbed headlines with a huge campaign in the Arizona Fall League and everyone seems to love southpaw Martin Perez as well, but the rookie everyone will be watching this year is Darvish. Though he’s produced five straight sub-2.00 ERA as a major leaguer in Japan, he has no service time in the States and therefore qualifies as a rookie.
There are wide-ranging opinions on how well Darvish can adapt to major league competition and very few expect him to dominate like he did in Japan, but most figure that at worst he’ll be an effective number three starter. From the admittedly limited footage I’ve seen so far, I’d be surprised if he were anything less than a very good number two starter, not unlike the man whom he replaced in the Rangers’ rotation.
Though the Angels managed to sign both Wilson and first baseman Albert Pujols, the road to the American League West title still figures to travel through Arlington. Top-to-bottom, very few clubs can boast the kind of offense this team can trot out there everyday.
The pitching staff may lack a true ace, depending on how well and how quickly Darvish can adapt to the United State and the Major League game, but the 2011 Rangers didn’t really have an ace, either, and that didn’t hold them back. As deep as last year’s rotation was, it may be even better this season and if so, Texas may not have a weakness at all.
Certainly there are questions and certainly there are potential pitfalls. Over the course of 162 games every team will come across those. How well you cover up your mistakes, either through depth or good fortune, will usually determine how far your club can go.
The Rangers are in a unique place with their starting pitching as they have a pair of established starters working as relievers this season. If anything should happen with injury or ineffectiveness and any of their top-five hurlers, the Rangers can avoid dipping into the minor league for help.
The bullpen has the potential to be outstanding, especially with Ogando added back into the mix. Joe Nathan is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and the Rangers are banking that he’s all the way back to his dominant form that made him one of the most-feared and respected closers in baseball for a half-dozen years or so. The Rangers have power right hander after power right hander in relief and may elect to go without a southpaw in their bullpen this year.
The lineup is versatile and deep and features all-star caliber hitters one through seven, and several of those guys (Kinsler, Hamilton, Beltre, Napoli) performing at MVP-levels at various times last season. The Rangers would like to see less of Hamilton in center field, so look for Craig Gentry to see some time in place of Murphy in the lineup. If Gentry’s bat can match his glove, he could not only improve the outfield defense, but also help to keep Hamilton a bit healthier by moving him to a corner spot.
If guys like Cruz and Hamilton can stay relatively healthy and the starting pitching is even average, the Rangers should be among the favorites to make it to the World Series yet again. The Angels will be better, but even with Pujols and Wilson in the mix, they can’t match Texas’ overall talent.
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