By David Mullen
That nauseous feeling in your stomach, restlessness, thumping heartbeat and sweating one might be experiencing this September is not caused by some new virus originated in the Far East.
It originated in the “Near West” and it’s called Rangers Fever. The symptoms may seem unfamiliar because Rangers Fever has not been found in Arlington since 2012 when Texas last made the playoffs as a wild card team and lost a one game playoff to the Baltimore Orioles.
Compounding the symptoms were the expectations set when the Rangers led or were tied for the top spot of the AL West for the first 130 games of the 2023 season, from March 30 to August 27.
After 144 games of the 2023 season, Texas is 80-64 and in a three-way battle with the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners for first place in the AL West. Three division winners and three wild card teams make the postseason. Texas, Houston, Seattle, the Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are essentially vying for five playoff spots. The Minnesota Twins will win the AL Central and gain a first-round home field advantage with a final record that will be worse than any of the wild card teams.
The Rangers won’t be under .500 this season and would conceivably have seven to 10 more wins without an underperforming bullpen unable to hold late game leads.
Like every baseball fan loyal to one team, a new season opens with optimism. The sun rises with every team having an even record. But fans are blinded by the sunlight of optimism. Most teams have an uneven chance of winning a division or qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card. The sun sets on many teams quickly.
Remember the Rangers of 2022? After 144 games in the 2022 season, Texas was 63-81 and 31-1/2 games behind the eventual World Series Champion Astros. The Rangers had fired manager Chris Woodward midseason, finished with interim manager Tony Beasley at the helm and ended in fourth place, 38 games back. That was less than one year ago.
With no salary cap, the rich teams can spend more. While that doesn’t guarantee success, having and spending money certainly helps. The success of the lower payroll Orioles and Rays this season bucks the trend. But the Rangers have spent a lot of money in the last two years to become competitive, and it has paid off. Texas fans shouldn’t feel unwell. They should feel rejoiceful.
Since 2013, the Los Angeles Dodgers have won the NL West in all but one season, when they finished one game back and still qualified for the playoffs. The Dodgers estimated 2023 player payroll is in excess of $220 million, about $20 million more than the 2023 Rangers. The Oakland A’s total payroll is one-quarter of the Dodgers, and the A’s are on their way to another last place finish and 100 loss season.After signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for the 2022 season and beyond, the Rangers addressed a pitching void. They signed or acquired pitchers Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Jon Gray, Jordon Montgomery, Aroldis Chapman and Nathan Eovaldi. Little doubt the payroll will expand in 2024 with a slew of new bullpen options. But the biggest offseason acquisition was manager Bruce Bochy. He knows how to motivate a team to win while facing obstacles like shaky bullpens, batting slumps and injured players.
Rangers’ fans feel queasy about the rash of injuries. deGrom threw 30 innings this season before breaking down. All-stars Josh Jung and Aldonis Garcia are on the injured list. Eovaldi is just coming off of the list, and Scherzer’s current health is in question. Good teams can win championships despite injuries to key players. In recent history, the A’s won the 1972 World Series over the Cincinnati Reds’ vaunted “Big Red Machine” despite losing their star outfielder Reggie Jackson when he suffered a hamstring tear stealing home in game 5 of the 1972 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. The A’s beat the Reds in seven games, six decided by one run. The 1988 Dodgers were massive underdogs to the powerhouse A’s who featured the “Bash Brothers” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. The Dodgers were without their best player and clubhouse leader Kirk Gibson. Even casual baseball fans know that Gibson had one mighty left-handed swing remaining in the season, used it in Game 1 and hit a walk off homer against A’s ace reliever Dennis Eckersley. The Dodgers went on to sweep Oakland in four games.
Sometimes it just takes one unlikely player to star through the playoffs for a team to win a championship. Bill Mazeroski did it in 1960 when the dark horse Pittsburgh Pirates beat the New York Yankees in seven games. The Yankees had Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Add in Elston Howard and Roger Maris, and New York had star power. Pittsburgh had grit. The “Amazin’” 1969 New York Mets beat the dominant Orioles in five games in the World Series with a team of misfits like Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Ron Swoboda and Donn Clendenon. Having a young Tom Seaver helped. The St. Louis Cardinals barely made the playoffs, caught fire and beat the Detroit Tigers in the 2005 World Series behind unheralded infielder David Eckstein, who hit .364 in the Series. The Cardinals’ 83-78 regular-season record is the worst by a World Series Champion in baseball history.
All of the surprise teams had at least one great pitcher and one player that rose to the occasion. If the Rangers advance, maybe it is Montgomery, Gray or Eovaldi, or Robbie Grossman, Leody Taveras or Mitch Garvey that will play above expectations. Bochy will have the right prescription for success. The 2023 Texas Rangers are making the playoffs and will play in October. Rangers’ fans should not feel ill about the current state of the ballclub. They should feel great. It is just a case of Rangers Fever, and baseball fans have not been infected around these parts for more than a decade.