August 14, 2009
I've been away from home a lot this summer. There's no one reason for it, just a lot of time away from the city. This weekend, though, I'm looking forward to kicking back and watching a lot of baseball, with two key matchups drawing most of my attention: the Red Sox and Rangers dueling for the AL Wild Card in Arlington, and the Braves trying to close the gap on the Phillies in Atlanta.
In many seasons, the Rangers have faded by August 14, wilting in the heat of the Texas summer. While they've fallen off the pace in the AL West, unable to match the Angels' blistering run, they've continued to ride excellent defense to the fourth-best record in the AL and a solid +52 run differential to go with it. In an season that has seen so many of their hitters turn in disappointing seasons-Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Chris Davis, and Hank Blalock have all fallen short of expectations-they've ridden arguably one of the best defenses in team history to contention:
Rangers' Best Single-Season PADE Year PADE DER 1981 2.19 .723 1979 2.07 .715 1977 1.90 .710 2009 1.75 .705 1988 1.63 .716
That defense has enabled the team to break in not just top prospect Derek Holland (who starts Saturday night's game), but also pitch-to-contact starters Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman. The Rangers are next-to-last in the AL in strikeouts and walks allowed, but they lead the league in fewest runs allowed because they make plays when given the chance. Elvis Andrus isn't getting much play for AL Rookie of the Year, but his defense and that defense's subsequent impact on his team's postseason hopes should put him in the discussion.
That defense shut down the Red Sox last month, helping hold the Sox to six runs in three games of a Rangers sweep. The Sox batted .214 (18-for-84) on balls in play and hit just one homer in the series. They've added Victor Martinez and swapped out Adam LaRoche for Casey Kotchman, all of which simply highlights the need for them to bench David Ortiz and Jason Varitek, who have been crushing the team with their slack hitting since the All-Star break. The Sox prevent runs almost as well as the Rangers do-second in the league-by getting strikeouts and limiting walks, while playing below-average defense. Their offense, however, never came back from the break-4.5 runs per game since, as opposed to 5.3 before. The Sox have scored two runs or fewer a ridiculous 10 times in their last 26 games.
This series does not feature the top pitching matchups you might expect given its importance. Tonight's pairing on Jon Lester and Kevin Millwood has the highest Q score, and is as good as it gets for the Sox in the series. Rookie Holland will try to follow up last Sunday's shutout on Saturday night against Brad Penny, and then Boston sends Junichi Tazawa to the mound on Sunday to go up against Dustin Nippert. It's not a must-win series for the Rangers, but it is an opportunity to take the lead in advance of a brutal stretch of schedule. Starting next Friday, the Rangers play 15 of 19 games on the road, including a nine-game trip to Tampa, New York, and Minnesota, and they've been an much better team at home (37-21) than on the road (27-28). They're the underdog based on any criteria you use, so taking advantage of head-to-head matchups, especially at home, is essential to their chance at becoming the surprise team in the tournament.
The nice thing about the weekend's slate is that the two series I want to track will be in different time slots on both Saturday and Sunday. The second, in fact, gets the coveted Sunday night slot on ESPN, and will feature a terrific pitching matchup between Javier Vazquez and J.A. Happ. Of course, with the Braves, most games will have a chance to feature a great pitching matchup, as they have five starters contributing at least two wins above replacement. Beyond that rotation, they've got a bullpen that features two excellent famous relievers as well as less-heralded contributors Peter Moylan, Eric O'Flaherty, and rookie Kris Medlen. The Braves may have the deepest pitching staff in the game, and that's without considering what they could get from Tim Hudson down the stretch. With an average offense that's been heavily reliant on some fluke seasons (Martin Prado, David Ross, Omar Infante) surrounding a strong core, the Braves' chances to reach October rest in the hands of that deep staff.
The Phillies were all but ceded the NL East-and in some corners, a repeat pennant-after winning 14 of 15 and then trading for Cliff Lee a week later. A lead that stretched to seven games on July 28 was cut to 3½ earlier this week, and is at 4½ over the Marlins and five over the Braves heading into this weekend. There are far too many head-to-head matchups left among these teams to declare the race over. The Phillies have nine games left with the Braves and six with the Marlins, and face a week-long road trip to Atlanta and Miami starting September 18. The Phillies have the most talent in the division, and Lee has ripped off three great starts since coming over; they are the favorite. They lead the NL in runs scored and their bullpen has, for the second season in a row, been better than expected (this in spite of Brad Lidge's collapse). It is unlikely that they can fall out of the lead, but if they do, it will be because of their performance in the 15 games they have left with the two teams chasing them.
The Braves have the better starter in two of the three games, although you could debate tonight's matchup between Joe Blanton and Jair Jurrjens, and they'll have home-field advantage this weekend. If they're going to have a chance in September, they have to take at least two right here in August. Slipping to six or eight games back with six weeks to play and just six games left with the leader would be a big hole to climb out of.