Rangers' magic September number: 2
... As in the two most vital components to their playoff run: Josh Hamilton and Cliff Lee
Math has never been my strong point. Those word problems where you're supposed to figure out at what point two trains, each traveling at different speeds, will collide if they start precisely 100 miles apart always stumped me.
Seemed to me that if two trains smashed head-on there was a lot more to be concerned about than what milepost they'd reached anyway. Hello!
So with exactly one month remaining in the 2010 regular season, figuring out a mathematical formula that will tell us exactly when the Texas Rangers will clinch the American League West seems a lot less important than just grinding it out and getting it done. There will be plenty of time to ice down the champagne at some point in the days ahead.
But for the numbers freaks out there, here's something to think about. With the Rangers holding a double-digit, 10-game lead as they open a three-game series Friday in Minnesota, both Texas and Oakland have 29 games to play. If the Rangers simply go 14-15, a game under .500, to finish the season, the A's would have to win 24 of 29 to reach the same 89 wins and tie for the division title.
Not sure anyone should expect that from a team that just suffered a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees in New York.
Feel better now?
Fine, but don't get to feeling too fat and sassy. The Rangers still have two series against playoff-bound teams -- the Twins and the Yankees -- mixed in among their final 29 games and play the rival A's and Angels 11 times in the season's final weeks. Nothing is in the books yet, and baseball history is littered with both great comeback stories and colossal collapses.
That said, it's time for the Rangers to quietly begin getting themselves ready for October baseball for the first time in more than a decade. General manager Jon Daniels will snicker when he reads that line because I have a feeling he's been doing exactly that for at least a month already.
We can deduce his intent in the moves he's been making since the All-Star break, bringing in catcher Bengie Molina, pitcher Cliff Lee, infielder Cristian Guzman and now outfielder Jeff Francoeur. All of those moves, regardless of how those players have performed, were made to shore up weaknesses and to not only help the Rangers get to the playoffs but to succeed once that mission is accomplished.
So what do they do next, besides win every game they can?
The answer to that question is easy. Actually doing it is not. The Rangers must get healthy.
There are two major concerns right now: Lee's back and Josh Hamilton's knee.
Regardless of how Lee has pitched over the past few weeks, let's not kid ourselves; he is the Rangers' ace, and without him at the front of the rotation this isn't the same team. Whatever it takes to get him healthy and get him right, that's what the Rangers must do over the season's final four weeks. If he needs to be shut down for a couple of weeks, so be it. Better to struggle along without him now, when they have a 10-game division lead, than to go without him when the playoffs start and everybody's back to square one.
The Rangers have shown remarkable resiliency with their rotation this season. Here they are, four weeks away from clinching the fourth division championship in franchise history, and the two guys who began the season as the Rangers' top two starters -- Rich Harden and Scott Feldman -- are not only now in the bullpen, they might not even make the playoff roster.
C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter, all question marks when the season began, have been consistent and reliable. But how much stronger does the Rangers' playoff rotation become if Lee is back on his game and dealing?
Hamilton is just as critical, if not more so, to the Rangers' offense. He has had an MVP-caliber season, whether he wins the award or not, and he makes the hitters around him better when he's in the lineup.
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It has not been a typical Rangers season offensively, despite Hamilton's exceptional numbers, and part of that can be traced to the amount of time Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz have missed with injuries. But they are back now and they have a month to groove their swings and help pump new life into this offense.
That's critical because except for Lee when he's right, and maybe Wilson now and then, the Rangers don't have starters who are going to totally shut opponents down. They can keep their team in the game, but they're not going to throw many shutouts against the Tampa Bays and New Yorks of the world.
So the Rangers have a month to fine-tune their game. When October arrives, they need to be healthy and they need to be playing their best baseball of the year.
Ron Washington's right. It's really not about magic numbers or mathematical formulas. It's about playing good baseball.
Do that and the rest will take care of itself.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.
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