Commentary

Struggling Rangers seek consistency

Lack of clutch hitting stands out for Texas, which nonetheless remains near top of West

Updated: May 6, 2011, 3:24 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

SEATTLE -- The Texas Rangers return home bleary-eyed and a bit staggered following a road trip that saw them drop three of four in Oakland and two of three in Seattle.

There are plenty of areas to assign blame, although the offense certainly took most of it following a 3-1 loss in Seattle on Thursday.

The Rangers wasted a complete-game effort by Colby Lewis because of an inability to get the big hit at the crucial moment. That lack of clutch hitting was a storyline on the road trip.

Michael Young
Steven Bisig/US PresswireMichael Young has done an admirable job of carrying the Rangers' offense, which hasn't produced timely hits.
"It seems like we can't build an inning right now," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "It's a long season and we all understand that in here, but it definitely gets frustrating and we want to get going as an offense."

The Rangers finished with a .249 average on the trip and scored just 3.85 runs per game. It doesn't help that the Rangers are without Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz at the moment.

Cruz could return this weekend, but he's been in a slump himself. He is 2-for-23 with eight strikeouts in his past six games and is batting .161 (10-for-62) in his past 16 games to watch his batting average go from .302 to a season-low .219. Without Hamilton and a slumping Cruz, the Rangers' offense has to rely on Michael Young, who has hit well. But Young needs help.

"We haven't been able to get hits when we need some," manager Ron Washington said. "We had the guys that produce for us at the plate in key situations. It just didn't happen."

It sends Texas back home in second place in the American League West, one game behind the Los Angeles Angels. The Rangers have lost six of their past seven series.

They can take solace in the fact that the New York Yankees aren't exactly starring on Broadway these days. New York lost the final three games of a four-game set in Detroit and didn't get the clutch hits when it needed them.

It was just three weeks ago that the Rangers faced the pinstripes in New York. That series came just days after 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton's headfirst dive into home plate in Detroit caused a small fracture in his upper arm. He's just now taking swings off a tee, and while that's certainly a sign of progress, Hamilton isn't likely to return until June.

Before Hamilton's injury, the Rangers were pounding out runs and finding ways to win games late despite early questions about the bullpen. Neftali Feliz earned his fourth save April 11 in Detroit, and the Rangers were on top of the AL at 9-1.

The next day Hamilton was out and, in the theme of the Motor City, the Rangers' offensive engine lost horsepower. Then the tires went flat when Feliz first felt soreness in his right shoulder in the chilly air at Yankee Stadium. He was placed on the disabled list the next weekend, and the bullpen problems only magnified.

Since Hamilton's injury, the Rangers are 8-14, one of the lowest winning percentages in the majors in that stretch.

"We need to be more consistent," outfielder David Murphy said. "We need to have good at-bats, get a big hit here or there and other than that, pitchers go out there and pound the strike zone and for the bullpen to do a good job when we get the lead."

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Steven Bisig/US PresswireThe lowest fielding percentage in baseball has only added to the Rangers' struggles.
Despite the issues of the past three weeks, the Rangers have managed to stay at or near the top of the AL West. Part of that is the good start that put them ahead to give them some wiggle room during this recent bump in the road, but also because the other AL West teams haven't been able to put together extended winning streaks of their own.

"It says that as inconsistent as we've been lately, we're in a good spot with our best baseball yet to be played," Murphy said. "We struggled a little bit in April last year as well and once we found our stride, we were pretty consistent the rest of the year. We need to find that as a team and once we do the rest of the year is going to be fun."

Feliz returns Friday, just in time for a full house at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Boy, have Washington and that bullpen missed the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year.

Texas has optioned and recalled a host of pitchers in the hopes of finding relief. Darren O'Day (torn labrum in hip) and Mason Tobin (right ulnar collateral ligament inflammation) had to go on the 60-day disabled list. Pedro Strop couldn't seem to handle the late-inning, big-league pressure and was sent back to Triple-A to settle down.

Cody Eppley, an O'Day starter kit complete with a sidearm delivery, has shown an early ability to get outs, but he's unproven. Mark Lowe has returned, hoping that his slider has more movement and that when mixed with his 97 mph fastball can allow him to perform better than he did to start the season.

With Feliz out, Washington has relied on his 40-something lefties -- Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes -- to close down games late. And they've been inconsistent. The shuffling has left Washington in the precarious spot of turning over close games in the sixth or seventh innings to unproven pitchers.

"We've got to play," Washington said this week. "We're not crying about it. Those are the guys we have down there. We've got confidence in them. We have to keep putting them out there and hope they get the job done. That's what I've got."

Once Feliz joins the bullpen Friday night, that will allow Washington to better mix and match things in the late innings. He still has to hope a right-handed arm steps up to seize a critical setup role. But at least he can use Oliver and Rhodes, along with those right-handed options, earlier in the game, knowing he has his shutdown closer back on board.

The Rangers' pitchers combined to post a 2.22 ERA in the first 10 games of the season. Since then, it's at 4.52. But this recent skid isn't solely the fault of the pitching and the offense.

The defense hasn't done its job, either. The Rangers have the most errors in the league with 29 in 32 games, and going into Thursday, they had the lowest fielding percentage. They have 23 errors in the past 22 games, including seven multi-error games in that stretch.

"Defense is just like any other part of the game -- it's rhythmic," Washington said in Seattle. "We certainly were out of character as far as playing defense goes. It's something that we certainly have addressed. Now we have to go out there and put things back together."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

Richard Durrett joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He writes about colleges, the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. Richard spent nine years at The Dallas Morning News covering the Rangers, Stars, colleges, motorsports and high schools.

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