Barring an epic, Texas-sized collapse over the remaining 12 games of the regular season schedule, the American League West-leading Texas Rangers are poised to return to post-season baseball for the first time since 1999.

Of course, nothing is yet set in stone, but with their magic number still standing at six after last night’s second consecutive loss at Anaheim, any combination of Ranger wins or Oakland losses equaling six will guarantee them a berth in the playoffs. With a seven game lead in the division, the odds favor Texas heavily to gain entry into October playoff baseball once again.

They still won’t know who awaits them until possibly the last day of the season, as the Yankees and Rays are still locked in a ferocious battle atop the tight AL East standings. It will be either New York or Tampa, however, as neither of those teams are able to face one another, due to hailing from the same division. Whoever settles for the Wild Card between those two will face Minnesota, with the East winner taking on the Rangers.

Regardless of their opponents, the Texas Rangers still have questions to ask of themselves prior to entering the fray of October playoff baseball. Let’s take a look at three of the most significant issues facing the Rangers as the regular season winds down.


Can They Win Away From Arlington?

Throughout 2010, the Rangers have been a force to be reckoned with at The Ballpark at Arlington, with their home record standing at 48-26.

Over 74 home games, they currently rank second to only the Yankees in runs scored at home, their collective .291 home batting average leads all AL teams, and their team home OPS of .810 is also second only to New York. Offensively, they present a formidable challenge in Arlington for even the most resolute of visiting pitching staffs.

For a park renowned as a hitters’ haven, the Rangers’ pitching staff has also performed well at home. Their staff ERA of 3.61 in their ballpark ranks them fifth amongst AL clubs, only trailing Oakland, Seattle, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay, most of whom play in parks that tend to favor pitchers far more than Arlington does.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, as things stand currently, they would not possess home-field advantage in any series throughout the post-season. Unless they can go on a miraculous run, aided by a complete collapse by Tampa Bay, they will finish with the worst record of any American League playoff club, assuring that they will play the role of visitors more than that of hosts.

This is not particularly encouraging news for them, as Texas has, by far, the worst road record of any AL playoff-bound club at 35-41. It gets even worse upon closer examination, as the Rangers have not won a single ballgame in 2010 while visiting Yankee Stadium, Target Field, or Tropicana Field. They are 0-10 when playing at any of their likely playoff foes’ parks, a trend that must be reversed if they hope to progress deep into the playoffs this year.

As a pitching staff, the Rangers see their collective ERA rise from 3.61 at home, to 4.25 on the road. Not a significant increase, but when you consider that total includes many innings against the Angels, Mariners, and A’s—all in the lower half of offensive scoring in their own parks—then it becomes more acute of an issue. The Rangers won’t be so fortunate in October, as the Yankees and Twins rank first and fourth respectively in runs scored at home.

Offensively, the Rangers are not nearly the threat away that they are in Arlington. Ranking only eighth amongst all AL teams in road scoring, their team-wide slugging percentage of only .387 drops them to tenth out of 14 clubs. Similarly, their .709 OPS also ranks them tenth.

Although they won’t hold home-field advantage, the 2010 Rangers have seen plenty of success at home against their likely playoff competition. At 2-1 versus Tampa, 3-1 versus Minnesota, and 4-1 against the Yankees, including a three-game sweep just two weeks ago, the Rangers will feel confident in their own ballpark. However, they’re going to have to overcome their lack of success on the road, particularly against their three American League opponents, if they hope to escape the first round of the 2010 playoffs with victory.


How Serious Is Josh Hamilton’s Injury?

Yesterday’s news regarding Josh Hamilton’s two fractured ribs provided some relief to the star outfielder, since he finally has a reason for the mysterious pains that have plagued him since September 4.

He has not played since crashing into the wall at Target Field that day, and team doctors have had trouble diagnosing the particular issue that has kept him sidelined. They finally discovered the injured ribs and have begun treatment, but Hamilton is still out indefinitely, and not involved in any baseball activities for the time being.

Of course, the Texas lineup is not entirely dependent upon Hamilton, as they have proficient hitters throughout, but the absence of one of the AL’s leading MVP candidates cannot be underestimated in the post-season.

Not only is Hamilton leading all MLB hitters in batting average at .361, but his slugging percentage of .635 and OPS of 1.049 are also tops in the league. He leads the Rangers in almost every offensive category, with his .414 on-base percentage and 31 home runs  pacing the club, and his 97 RBI trailing only Vladimir Guerrero.

Statistically, Hamilton’s formidable production is obviously missed, but his absence affects the balance of the predominantly right-handed Texas lineup as well. Aside from Hamilton, only David Murphy, Julio Borbon, and Mitch Moreland, among the regulars, hit left-handed, so there could be a gaping void in the heart of the order, which would serve to make match-ups easier on opposing managers.

Considering that Hamilton is tearing up right-handed pitchers in 2010 to a scorching .405 batting average, with a monstrous 1.175 OPS, versus a .271 and .789 against lefties, he would clearly force foes to burn through left-handed relief in an effort to subdue him late in games. If he’s not able to play regularly, that concern is not nearly as pronounced, since Vlad, Kinsler, and Michael Young are all more productive against left-handed pitchers and wouldn’t require opponents to make as many moves to their bullpen.

Of course, players like Murphy and Moreland can help to alleviate the balance issues, but they’re not nearly the offensive threat that Hamilton is that would require bullpen moves on a constant basis. Against a team such as the Yankees, this becomes even more of a consideration, since they have only one left-handed reliever in their bullpen, Boone Logan.

If Josh Hamilton is to make a significant impact for the Rangers this post-season, he must improve enough to play regularly in the outfield. Normally, the designated hitter role could be used to ease Hamilton into playing time and, even if he wasn’t fully healthy, to keep his potent bat in the lineup.

However, the Rangers’ second-most powerful bat, that of Vladimir Guerrero, resides nearly full-time in the DH spot, so that isn’t likely an option for Hamilton. Vlad has played a handful of 2010 games in right-field, but the Rangers have no desire to re-visit that defensive configuration, for the good of the defense, as well as helping to preserve Vlad’s health.

With apparently no set timetable for a return, and the regular season quickly dwindling, the health of Josh Hamilton is becoming a greater concern by the day. If the Texas Rangers hope to progress beyond the Division Series for the first time in franchise history, the status of their star outfielder must be resolved soon. Otherwise, fans in Arlington may have to wait another long off-season before getting the chance to urge the Rangers on once more.


Will the Lack of Adversity Down the Stretch Make It Difficult to “Turn It On” Come October?

After trudging through a mediocre April in which they bottomed out at 10-12, finding themselves in fourth place in the AL West on April 29, all the Rangers needed was a three-game winning streak to vault them into first place by May 2.

They continued to turn it around in May when they went 15-12, despite a run differential of only plus one. The modest improvement in their fortunes was enough to keep them in first or second for most of the second month of the season, never dipping more than a 0.5 games out of first through the end of May.

One last day of second place, on June 7, a half-game out, the Rangers then went on a tear over the course of the month, posting a stellar 21-6 record in June. That tremendous hot streak helped them to finish June at 47-30, 4.5 games up in the division. Then they turned on the cruise control.

Despite posting unimpressive monthly records of 14-13 in July, 13-15 in August, and 9-9 in September, the Rangers saw their lead in the West balloon to 10 full games on September 18. Somehow, although they’ve played baseball at a 36-37 pace since July 1, they have not held less than a 3.5 game lead during that span.

A division race that was expected to be a thrilling fight from April through September, the AL West has, in actuality, been anything but. Mike Scioscia’s always-tough Angels saw their season derailed by a few key injuries and maybe a couple mistakes on player personnel decisions.

The Mariners, after bringing in Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley, became a trendy pick to challenge the perennially favored Angels for the division crown.

Oakland, despite their small market financial constraints, continually find ways to maximize their modest resources to remain competitive against their wealthier opposition.

The enthralling drama that was expected to take place never actually occurred. By the July 31 trading deadline, with the Rangers leading the West by 8.5 games, the only action of interest was the slew of veterans that Texas would pick up to solidify their position.

There is always the fear that a team with a significant division lead can become complacent without the everyday tension of a close race to keep them sharp. With such a seemingly insurmountable lead, games can take on the feeling of “meaningless” as the team easily breezes their way toward the post-season.

Of course, a sizable lead does afford a team certain luxuries as well, such as resting key players down the stretch to keep them healthy, and setting up your rotation in the final weeks, so that it is aligned precisely as you wish for the post-season run.

It’s never simple to determine how a team will react to a lack of competitive adversity down the stretch. Will they be able to reignite that fire that saw them claw their way to the top of the heap in the first place? Or will the shock of the postseason be too much for them to bear, once the level of intensity proves to be far greater than what they had grown accustomed to for several months of the regular season?

If the Rangers are to advance deep into October, they need to step it up a notch now, so they aren’t caught unaware once the playoffs begin.


Let the Games Begin

With less than two weeks of games left before baseball’s “second season” begins, time is running out for teams to put the finishing touches on their 2010 campaigns.

It’s often said that getting to the playoffs is the ambition, and that once there, anything can happen. If the Texas Rangers are blessed with a healthy Josh Hamilton, if they can find a way to win on the road, and are able to step up their game after months of running away with their division, the talent is there to finally bring a World Series championship to Arlington.

The time to answer those critical questions lurks just beyond the turn of the calendar into October.

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