Who gets left behind in the A.L. West?
Rangers, Astros and Mariners will give us the closest thing to pennant-race drama
Even though the vehicles are slow and erratic, it still can be a race. Even though the world isn’t really fixated on the jostling at the back of the playoff line, conditions are still favorable for the choke.
The Cincinnati Reds, several of whom were riding minor league buses 12 months ago, assumed a 9-0 lead over Pittsburgh Saturday and lost 13-12, the greatest comeback in the history of a Pirates franchise that is 137 years old.
The Houston Astros, defending world champs and a crew that has basically played September and October like a trusty old banjo, has gone 2-7 since Sept. 11 against Kansas City and Oakland, two of the worst teams in American League history.
The Miami Marlins are fully capable of sweeping three from the almighty Braves, then turning around and dropping two of three to the Mets.
Anything is possible when you throw open the playoffs to any team in the street. Twelve of the 30 will play in the postseason, excluding the three (Yankees, Mets, Padres) with the highest Opening Day payrolls in the game. Baltimore, which was 52-110 in 2021 with Matt Harvey starting 28 games, has a chance to win its 100th game in this, the final week of the season.
And, improbably, there will be tangible drama in the American League West, where Texas, Houston and Seattle circle two chairs and wait for the music to stop.
Yes, the pennant races you and I remember, the ones involving Mel Stottlemyre and Bucky Dent, Chico Ruiz and Frank Tanana, were all about identifying a winner. This one is about stigmatizing a loser. But it is all we have and, as the sixth-seeded Phillies proved last year, a World Series participant could be right there in the midst of this charade, hiding in plain sight.
The Texas Rangers had led the way in the A.L. West for most of the season. On Sept. 8 they lost to Oakland and found themselves three games out of the lead, and in wild-card trouble as well. Since then they have won nine of 13, including a 3-game sweep of Seattle. That, thanks to Houston’s mysterious brain freeze, has given the Rangers a two-and-a-half game lead, going into the final furlong.
Beginning Monday, the Rangers have three games in Anaheim, against a club that has basically hidden in a fallout shelter since the All-Star break and waited for the all-clear. A sweep of the Angels would probably mean a low-stress weekend in Seattle for the Rangers. Anything less, or a series loss, could necessitate a hard-earned win or two.
First, Seattle plays host to Houston, which is currently in an 8-for-52 slump with men in scoring position. The Astros lead the Mariners by a half-game in the tepid battle for the third and final wild-card. At which point does experience give way to fatigue? Chas McCormick, one of Houston’s better young players, said recently that “we don’t seem to want it enough,” and veteran third baseman Alex Bregman said, “We’ve been playing terrible.”
Despite the efforts of Kyle Tucker, who has probably been the most meaningful player in the league, the champs need a quick dive into Playoff Mode. After the Seattle series, they must finish up at Arizona, which was 60-60 on Aug. 15, is 22-13 since, and will be attempting to wrap up an N.L. wild card slot of its own. If Houston can remember how it has forged a winning road record, that would be helpful.
Seattle is hitting .239 in September, confirming a year-long problem, but it has the best rotation in the West by far, and centerfielder Julio Rodriguez’s ability to tilt any game in any inning. Plus, the game is coming to its ballpark this week.
This is the essence of late September baseball. It doesn’t depend on capacity crowds. It has its own dank vibe, at least in outdoor ballparks. The sun sets before the first pitch. Sweaters are dictated. Hitters are squeezing the bats, squinting to figure out unfamiliar pitchers who just came in from Altoona or Little Rock. The eliminated teams, like the Pirates, are just out for mischief, playing without fear of consequence. Everybody’s tired, sore and edgy. It suddenly gets difficult to win a game.
The Rangers pulled themselves out of that funk, and just in time. Their batting order is a minefield. Marcus Semien leads off with 27 home runs, 97 RBI and a .350 on-base percentage. Corey Seager follows with 33 home runs and 96 RBI in just 507 plate appearances, and a .394 on-base. Seager is second to Shohei Ohtani in OPS and leads in batting average (.333). Semien and Adolis Garcia are 1-2 in runs scored, and Garcia’s 103 RBI are second only to Tucker’s.
Nathaniel Lowe has 80 RBIs, rookie Josh Jung 70 in 115 games.
Jonah Heim leads A.L. catchers with 91 RBIs. He’s the high school catcher from Buffalo who didn’t come in from the cold until he got to Texas, his fourth organization. The Rangers got him from the Athletics when they traded veteran shortstop Elvis Andrus, and Heim brought a defensive reputation that he has maintained, with only two errors in 117 at-bats.
Heim handles a pitching staff that has needed constant re-assembly, including the somewhat-predictable injuries to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. The Rangers got a lift from lefty Jordan Montgomery, whom they got in a deadline trade from St. Louis. Montgomery is 4-2 with Texas in 10 games with a 2.92 ERA. That allowed them to trade former first-round pick Cole Ragans to Kansas City for Aroldis Chapman, who was famously swift when he came up with the Reds. Now it’s not unusual to see 100-mph relievers, and Chapman can have his rough moments, but he has struck out 49 in 28 innings for Texas. The bullpen, with lefty Will Smith in the back end, has needed every whiff, and it stings a bit to see Ragans winning the A.L. Pitcher of the Month award in August. But you never know about bullpens in the playoffs. Washington’s bullpen was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 2019 playoffs, but suddenly it became the modern-day equivalent of the Nasty Boys, and the Nationals became world champs.
The Rangers also have manager Bruce Bochy, whom they pried away from the vineyards to expand his Hall of Fame resume. He managed the Padres to the second World Series in their existence, then he managed San Francisco to three different playoff seasons and won the World Series in every one. That means his teams have won the last nine playoff series they’ve played.
Bochy’s dexterity with a bullpen is well-known, as well as his refusal to overreact. He also writes down pretty much the same lineup every day, regardless of matchups. In spring training he told Semien how he planned to use him during the season and how he would prime him for the October postseason. That impressed Semien, because managers don’t usually discuss October in April. Especially Texas managers. The Rangers have played in two World Series and lost both, and Bochy inherited a team that went 68-94.
Bochy knows confidence must be cultivated like a promising grape. It’s debatable whether confidence is contagious, but there’s no doubt that lack of confidence is, and Bochy prioritizes it. When he was in San Diego, Tim Flannery was one of his coaches, and Flannery remembered Bochy at the blackjack tables in Vegas, with alarmingly high stacks of chips in play.
“If you want to win a big war,” Bochy explained, “you gotta drop a big bomb.”
Today’s playoff races are more like applications for grants. They’re not about greatness, they’re about separating the decent from the mediocre. But for the Rangers and the Astros and Mariners, surviving will feel just like winning.