Breaking balls

Opening week proved the Rangers can be the best and worst team in baseball

"I won't offer any excuses," he said through a thin, friendly smile. "I just lost it in the fifth inning, that's all. I just take every inning as it comes. It doesn't surprise me or disappoint me. I just pitch till Johnny comes and takes the ball away. I mean, if I went out there and pitched a perfect game, it wouldn't matter. It's just one game."

Which is something fans often tend to forget at the beginning of the season, when they look for any hint of where their team might go as April turns to May turns to hopes of pennants and World Series. Keep in mind that during one week in the summer of 1977, four teams, including the Rangers, led the AL West during a single week. Baseball is the most unpredictable sport there is, where heroes and goats look exactly alike.

"In baseball, you see a lot of surprises," said Juan Gonzalez with good-humored understatement. "Baseball is baseball." He smiled as though the answer was so obvious, and he's right: Baseball isn't, well, football.

"When the momentum changes, you can see it," shrugged second baseman Mark McLemore. "It's not one of those subtle things. It happens. One team just starts scoring runs. The momentum changes. You can't pinpoint this or pinpoint that most of the time. Sometimes you can, but when the momentum changes, you can't. You leave a pitch out over the plate, a guy hits it, and it gets contagious. But just like it changes for them, it can change for you. You can't let it get you down. If you do, you might as well keep walking off the field, go in the clubhouse, and go on home."

The loss on Opening Day means, of course, absolutely nothing. Today's loss all too often gives way to tomorrow's blowout victory, which all too often leads to the next day's one-run defeat. Opening Day may well inspire sanguine poetry from grown men normally given to grunts, but Clark put it in perspective when he offered this blunt assessment: "Opening Day is the biggest hype anyone has ever seen."

Indeed, just 54 hours later on the very same field against the very same team, the Rangers absolutely humiliated the White Sox by the final score of 20-4. Five Rangers hit home runs: shortstop Kevin Elster, designated hitters Mike Simms and Lee Stevens, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and right fielder Juan Gonzalez, whose thrilling seventh-inning grand slam put the game forever out of reach for the White Sox. The Rangers set a team record by recording 23 hits; they also committed two errors, but who remembers on nights like this? Certainly not White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who looked as though he might begin crying at any moment as he sat in the dugout and watched the Rangers dance on his team's grave.

Given the Rangers' performance in the first two games--a devastating defeat one minute, a giddy win the next--you can't but help feel this will be another roller-coaster season for a franchise that has won only a single division title in the 27 years since the Washington Senators moved to Arlington. One day, the Rangers strand their roster out on the base path, failing to score easy runs; the next, they're jogging from home plate to home plate as though in a relay race.

Elster and McLemore turned the routine plays with consistent style to open the season; two nights later, McLemore's kicked-ball error, and another by third baseman Fernando Tatis, allowed two unearned runs in the third inning. This is a team that will break your heart if you let it, one good enough to be great but mediocre enough to rot in the August sun. Better to resign yourself to the third-place inevitable and then let them pleasantly surprise you as they did in 1996, when they won the American League West with a patchwork roster of would-be washouts and injured superstars. (At press time, the Rangers were 3-3, including Rick Helling's terrific 5-0 shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday and a 9-2 embarrassment the following day.)

Burkett's brilliant/awful performance on Opening Day and Aaron Sele's give-and-take-and-give-again showing two nights later (he threw 104 pitches against the Sox and couldn't even get through the sixth inning, though he gave up only two unearned runs) underscored how tenuous manager Johnny Oates' starting rotation really is. If he truly thinks he's got five guys on his roster who can go 15 games, as he keeps insisting, Oates is either eternally optimistic or dangerously delusional.

It seems somehow appropriate that the best outing by a Rangers pitcher during the season's first two games came courtesy of right-handed pitcher Roger Pavlik--a 15-win, All-Star Game starter just two years ago, relegated to the bullpen by Oates just two weeks ago--who came into the game for Sele, allowed two inherited runners to score, then threw a mere 13 pitches to retire the Holy Trinity of Thomas, Belle, and Ventura.

There's often nothing more dangerous than an athlete with something to prove, and that night, the 30-year-old Pavlik--who won only three games last season and sat out most of 1997 after undergoing surgery to remove a spur and bone chips from his right elbow--came in and hurled the ball as though he had revenge in his heart and a knife in his hand.

"Pitching is pitching," Pavlik offered after the game, as though that explains everything. And sometimes, it does. Like the man said, baseball is baseball, and thank God for that.

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