Season not over, but Rangers now team to catch in AL wild card

Updated: August 16, 2009

Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Ian Kinsler homered Saturday and Sunday as the Rangers took over the wild card

No one ever says, "If the season ended today …" on the day the season ends. Why is that?

It's about to happen again, right here … If the season ended today (warned you), the Texas Rangers would be the AL wild card winners -- and they'd deserve it. The Rangers haven't had outright possession of a playoff spot this late in a season since they won their division in 1999. Here we are, 10 years later, and it's impossible not to love the way these Rangers play the game. They play hard, they have fun and you can tell they believe. And for that, they have a half-game lead over the Red Sox after taking two of three from Boston this weekend. Here's what else is working in Texas …

They have a unique bullpen mix. Did you see Neftali Feliz and his 100 mph gas blow away Boston on Saturday? Feliz was part of the bounty Texas got back in the Mark Teixeira deal at the 2007 trade deadline. He was painting the black with triple-digit heat and, at just 21 years old, became the youngest Rangers pitcher ever to record a save.

Feliz had 16 strikeouts through his first eight career innings; the last guy to do that was Francisco Rodriguez. So far, hitters have taken a total of 70 swings against Feliz and put the ball in play only 13 times. Relievers C.J. Wilson and Frank Francisco give manager Ron Washington unique role flexibility. When Francisco has been hurt, Wilson has closed. Back in the set-up role Sunday, Wilson got two big strikeouts to end the eighth inning. Francisco bounced back from Friday's disaster (seven hits, six runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Red Sox) to nail down his 16th save. That's three big arms, all getting critical outs and lighting up the radar guns.

The Rangers run. Boy, do they run. Texas stole eight bases against the Red Sox on Saturday, breaking a team record set in 1978. Even with Chris Davis in the minors and Nelson Cruz hurt, the Rangers still have a bunch of guys who can take you deep, but they haven't let that become their sole identity.

On Saturday, Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus combined to go 7-for-9 with seven stolen bases. Borbon is a unique guy; born in Starkville, Miss., where his father taught at Mississippi State, he attended high school in the Dominican Republic and then played collegiately at Tennessee. The Rangers ended up taking him 35th overall in the 2007 draft. Batting leadoff this weekend, Borbon went 4-for-5 on Saturday and 2-for-3 on Sunday, chased down balls in the left-center gap and, in leading off Sunday's game, dropped down as pretty a bunt single as you'll ever see.

The Rangers have the veteran-youth mix. It starts with Ian Kinsler. He makes them go. Watch the games; his teammates feed off his energy. Kinsler already has joined former Ranger Alfonso Soriano as the only American League second basemen ever to record at least 25 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a single season. He's the pesky/dirty uniform/presence guy that Dustin Pedroia was to Boston in '07 and that both Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins were last season in Philadelphia.

On Saturday, in his first start off the disabled list, Kinsler homered. He was then thrown at twice, hit in the head once. He responded by homering in his first at-bat in Sunday's win. "Statement" is a trite term that gets thrown around a lot in sports, but Kinsler's weekend said a great deal about Texas. So does this: They went 7-2 against the Red Sox this season.

Don't forget about Josh Hamilton. He's heating up. Consider this: On Aug. 2, Hamilton was hitting only .220. Since then, he's hit a sizzling .449 and it looks like the key has been discipline and laying off breaking balls outside the zone. As you'll note in our "Numbers to Know" (take a look over there on the right side of the page); Hamilton's chase percentage, or the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone, is only 25 percent since Aug. 3. Before, it had been nearly 43 percent. He's killing breaking balls that are thrown for strikes, hitting those at a .514 clip.

The rotation is holding its own. Kevin Millwood is going deeper into games. He's had 19 starts of at least 100 pitches after having only 13 all of last season. Derek Holland has a 1.88 ERA over his past four stars. How's this for dominant? In beating Boston on Saturday, Holland turned an 0-1 count into an 0-2 count 71 percent of the time. He also keeps the ball away; 48 of 99 pitches were located away, with a very effective slider. Righties are hitting only .182 against Tommy Hunter, who has allowed only nine hits in 75 at-bats ending in an off-speed pitch, which he's been throwing more than one-third of the time.

There's a difficult stretch ahead for these Rangers. Texas faces games against teams fighting for playoff survival: four at home with the Twins, then three at Tampa Bay, followed by three at Yankee Stadium and, lastly, three more in Minnesota before the end of August. This will be fun to watch, so it's a good thing the season doesn't end today, after all.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: Aug. 13 | Aug. 12 | Aug. 11 | Aug. 10 | Aug. 9

WEB GEMS SCOREBOARD

Touch 'Em AllHere is this week's leaderboard, with points still transferring between leagues despite Steve Berthiaume's protests.

Web Gem points will be calculated by awarding five points for the night's top defensive play, four points for second, three for third, two for fourth and one for fifth. Scoring will be based on the Web Gems from the last "Baseball Tonight" show to air on a given night.

Web Gem points leaderboard
Jack Wilson 37
Ryan Zimmerman 35
Brandon Inge 31
Carlos Gomez 27
Mark Reynolds 27
Jacoby Ellsbury 27
Cristian Guzman 25

Web Gem appearances leaderboard (players)
Ryan Zimmerman Washington Third base 12
Brandon Inge Detroit Third base 10
Jack Wilson Pittsburgh/Seattle Shortstop 9
David Wright New York Mets Third base 9
Carlos Gomez Minnesota Center field 7
Mark Reynolds Arizona Third base 7
Jacoby Ellsbury Boston Center field 7

Web Gem appearances leaderboard (teams)
Pittsburgh 33
Washington 29
Cincinnati 28
Philadelphia 26
Boston 24
Minnesota 23
New York Mets 22

ON DECK: MONDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Twins at Rangers, 8:05 p.m. ET

Francisco Liriano put an end to his long winless streak in his most recent start, beating the Royals by tossing seven strong innings to put an end to an 0-3 run over a stretch of five starts. Tommy Hunter is 5-1 over his past seven starts.

Cubs at Padres, 10:05 p.m. ET

The Cubs welcome Ted Lilly back to the rotation. Lilly has been out since July 20 with an injured knee. Despite consecutive wins against the Pirates, the Cubs could use the help, having lost seven of 10.

Cardinals at Dodgers, 10:10 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger makes only his second career start and first since 2006 with the White Sox. Haeger has not pitched in the majors this year and made only four appearances -- for a total of 4 1/3 innings -- last year for the Padres. He goes up against Chris Carpenter, who is 7-0 over his past eight starts.

For the rest of Monday's schedule, click here.


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BBTN ON THE AIR: MONDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
12:30 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: John Kruk, Peter Gammons

BBTN MINUTE: DECIDING THE AL WILD CARD

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Insider Who went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page. For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPSITUATION
Adrian Gonzalez, SD32LohseTop 4: 2-2, 0 Outs. None on.
Prince Fielder, MIL30OswaltBot 6: 2-2, 0 Outs. 1 on.
Ryan Howard, PHI30VazquezTop 6: 1-0, 1 Out. 2 on.
Ryan Howard, PHI29VazquezTop 2: 0-1, 0 Outs. None on.
Ryan Braun, MIL26OswaltBot 1: 1-1, 1 Out. 1 on.
Ian Kinsler, TEX25TazawaBot 2: 3-0, 1 Out. None on.
Andre Ethier, LAD24PetitTop 1: 1-0, 0 Outs. 2 on.
Luke Scott, BAL20O'SullivanBot 4: 3-1, 2 Outs. None on.
Nick Swisher, NYY20FisterTop 4: 3-0, 1 Out. 1 on.
The complete list of Sunday's homers

WEB GEMS

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at the Angels' nine-run outburst in the 13th inning against the Orioles:

Lucky 13th
Inside the Angels' nine-run inning
Pitches 41
Runs 9
Hits 8
Singles 6
Batters faced 12
Players with hits 7
Swinging strikes 2
Time 21 minutes, 14 seconds

The surge tied the AL record for most runs scored in the 13th inning.

SUNDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Randy Wolf• The Dodgers had been stumbling along, losing three in a row and six of eight before Randy Wolf took the mound Sunday. Wolf got things headed back in the right direction by striking out 10 over 7 2/3 innings in a 9-3 win against Arizona. Wolf had not recorded a double-digit strikeout game since June 22, 2008. Plus, Wolf drilled a two-run homer in the victory.
WORST
• It's pretty safe to go with the Orioles' bullpen, which gave up nine runs in the 13th inning against the Angels. Brian Bass came off a solid 12th inning, when he wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam to keep the game tied. He couldn't escape in the 13th, coughing up the first four runs of the inning without recording an out. Matt Albers then handed out the final five runs of the inning.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Josh HamiltonAfter going 0-for-2 on Aug. 2, Josh Hamilton's average was at .220, its lowest point since the first week of the season. Since then, Hamilton has been quite hot as the Rangers have taken over the lead in the AL wild card.

Hamilton appears to be seeing off-speed pitches better than he was early in the season, and he has been able to lay off breaking balls out of the strike zone. This has allowed him to focus on hittable pitches in the strike zone, where he is doing a lot of damage, unlike earlier in the season.

Hamilton's surge (2009)
8/3-present Before 8/3
BA .449 .220
BA vs. off-speed .478 .178
Chase pct. vs. off-speed 25.0 42.6
BA vs. pitches in zone .514 .261

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF MONDAY'S GAMES

Fantasy Adam Madison examines the nine games on Monday's slate.

Madison ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Monday. Daily Notes