Last season, no one took the Tampa Bay Rays seriously. They sat atop the AL East throughout the dog days of summer, and yet, there was still the notion that they were going to blow it. These were the Rays, we were talking about. They were that bottom-feeding team that didn’t know how to spell October since their inaugural season in 1998. They simply didn’t belong in the playoff discussion.
Until October rolled around, and they were playing the Phillies in the World Series.
This year, the Texas Rangers have assumed that role.
Though the Rangers sit 4 1/2 games behind the Angels in the AL West, they are very much alive in the wild card race — just a game behind the Red Sox. A weekend series win puts them in sole possession of first place.
How? It’s the same question we all asked about Tampa a year ago. The Rangers have been one of the most poorly-developed franchises this decade. They haven’t made the postseason since 1999, haven’t really come close, for that matter.
But they’ve had the hitting. All decade long the Rangers have had one of the most feared lineups in baseball. It’s been their pitching that’s let them down. So what did they do? Nothing, except trade Edinson Volquez to Cincinnati for Josh Hamilton straight up before 2008. Sure, Hamilton had an MVP-like season for much of last year, but would China trade for rice, even if it were really good rice? Volquez was an ’08 All-Star, too, an arm the Rangers desperately needed.
But honestly, how have the Rangers suddenly become serious contenders on Aug. 14?
It starts with Kevin Millwood and ends with four guys you’ve probably never heard of. Millwood has reinvented himself this season, solidifying himself as the ace of this young Rangers staff. He’s 9-7 in 2009 with a 3.38 ERA in a hitter-friendly park in Arlington. Don’t ask how, but at age 34, he’s simply getting the job done.
Then comes the slew of no-namers: Scott Feldman (12-4, 3.90 ERA), Tommy Hunter (5-2, 2.26), Dustin Nippert (3-1, 3.62 ERA) and Derek Holland (5-7, 5.04). That’s the Texas rotation. On paper, nothing special. On the mound, downright effective.
Of course the bats are still there. With Hank Blalock, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Marlon Byrd and Nelson Cruz, there’s no shortage of productive lumber in Arlington and there hasn’t been in years.
But Scott Feldman at 12-4? Surprising, but did you foresee Grant Balfour having a 1.54 ERA in 51 appearances a year ago? Baseball can be unpredictable.
It seems as though the Rangers are the 2009 version of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox better hope that’s just a metaphor.