They're Not Going to Do This Are They? Assessing the Rangers' Playoff Chances.
When they woke up week ago Wednesday, the Rangers were effectively dead. They'd lost to the Yankees 21-5 the day before. Martin Perez, just returned from more than year off after Tommy John surgery, had gotten smoked in his Tuesday start, giving up eight runs while getting only three outs. The team had dipped to five games below .500 at 47-52. The were eight games behind the AL West-leading Astros and five games behind the Twins for the second wild card spot. There were six teams between the Twins and the Rangers. The Baseball Prospectus playoff odds model assessed the chances of the Rangers making the playoffs to be 4.5 percent.
The gloom overshadowed the building rumors that the Rangers were close to trading for their longtime target, Phillies ace Cole Hamels. When the teams struck a deal Wednesday night, sending Hamels and reliever Jake Diekman to the Rangers for six players, including top prospects Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams and Jake Thompson, the general assessment was that the Rangers had made a deal for the near future, as Hamels had three years left on his contract, rather than the present.
The Rangers won that night, and proceeded to win six of their next seven as well, capping eight days of fun by finishing a sweep of the Astros Wednesday night. The Rangers suffered their only loss since trading for Hamels on Saturday during Hamels' only start for the team — but the bullpen blew that one. As the club enjoyed their off day Thursday, they were five back of the Astros for the division lead and two back of the Blue Jays, who'd overtaken the Twins, for the second and final wild card berths. They're squarely in the middle of a group of six or seven teams — the Astros, Angels, Rangers, Blue Jays, Orioles, Twins and maybe the Tigers — chasing three playoff spots, the AL West crown and both wild cards. Baseball Prospectus' odds, in their infinite wisdom, now estimate that the Rangers have a 17.2 shot at making the playoffs. Not great, but certainly not hopeless — thanks to the promise of improved starting pitching, a better bullpen and a favorable schedule down the stretch.
Hamels, obviously, makes the Rangers rotation better. He's remarkable for his consistency — eating innings and giving his team a chance to win in basically every start. He'll be just as good here as he was in Philadelphia, barring injury or something genuinely weird happening. He's not the only starting pitching bump the Rangers are getting down the stretch, though.
Perez, the guy who got completely lit up by the Yankees, was outstanding in his next outing. He got 22 more outs, working eight and a third innings while throwing just 80 pitches, and gave up two hits in beating the Giants. In only his third start since his surgery, Perez was again the guy Rangers fans have dreamed on since he was signed as 16-year-old out of Venezuela. Results for pitchers returning from Tommy John — having an elbow rebuilt, essentially — are notoriously erratic, but the Perez on display against the Giants is a guy who one feels comfortable with pitching against anybody in the last 50-odd games of the season.
Then there's Derek Holland. The mercurial lefty, who missed most of 2014 after hurting his knee — Holland's unconfirmed story is that he tripped over his dog Wrigley — has missed most of 2015, too. Early during his start in the Rangers home opener in April, Holland felt a twinge in his shoulder and hasn't pitched in the big leagues since. Tuesday night, he made his second of what are expected to be four or five minor league rehab starts. The results weren't great, he gave up three hits and three walks in two-plus innings of work, but Holland looked good. His fastball touched 95 mph and he threw 55 pitches, in range with what the Rangers wanted as he builds stamina. He could be back in a month, just in time for a couple of crucial September starts.
The Rangers bullpen, as it stood in the middle of last week, was a mess. Closer Shawn Tolleson — who's been great — seemed to be the only guy manager Jeff Banister trusted, and no lead seemed safe. While that's still largely the case, some help has arrived, and more is on the way. Diekman, the guy thrown in with Hamels by the Phillies, hasn't given up a run in five appearances since coming to Arlington. He won't be that good forever. His left-handed delivery shows too much of the ball to right-handed batters for him to be anything more than a lefty-on-lefty specialist long term, but a lefty-on-lefty specialist happens to be one thing the pen desperately needed before Diekman's arrival. More promising is Thursday's call up of Luke Jackson from Triple A Round Rock. Jackson throws 98, has a really good change-up and has been working pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen in the minors. The best case scenario is that he grows into the multi-inning fireman role occupied by Alexi Ogando for much of the 2010 and 2011 Rangers' seasons.
The Rangers' recent seven-out-of-eight streak has all come in Arlington. That's important because the team had been, until last week, abysmal at home all season. They're still just 23-29 at Globe Life Park, an abnormally bad record at home for even a mediocre team. If the last week portends a turnaround, it will a boon to the Rangers playoff hopes. The majority of the team's remaining games — even after completing a 10-game home stand Wednesday — are still going to be played in Arlington.
If you made us guess, we'd still say the Rangers aren't going to get in. The bullpen — even in its improved state — is still a big problem and counting on big performances out of Perez and Holland is a crap shoot. Still, what looked like a lost season a week ago is now going to be exceedingly interesting to watch down the stretch. After 2014's debacle, rolling into a meaningful August and September sounds pretty good.
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