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That’s how baseball go

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I attended my first Texas Rangers game since 2011 on Tuesday, picking to go during a suddenly crucial four-game series against the Oakland Athletics. I bought a new Yu Darvish t-shirt to replace my since-Goodwilled Josh Hamilton shirt. I enjoyed a $1.99 beer and ate tacos before the game with my girlfriend along with my college bud/Bro Jackson NASCAR and nu-metal expert Robert Rich. I produced a gallon of sweat as the afternoon sun baked the left-field seats for the first two innings of the game. Things were as they’d always been at the Ballpark.

After the game was over and the A’s walked out with a 6-2 win, dropping the Rangers’ record in June to 5-12, a kid sitting in front of me told his mom, “At least FC Dallas wins.”

These are strange times in Dallas-Fort Worth, when children are turning to soccer instead of the Rangers.

Texas is in its biggest slump in years. The offense has gone full on anemic, averaging 2.8 runs per game this month before Wednesday’s nine-run outburst. This has caused a mild-to-major panic among the fan base. Folks are calling for hitting coach Dave Magadan to be fired, acting like a dude who supervises batting practice and whose main job is to say “Keep your head up” can magically make a professional baseball player suddenly turn it around. Others are worried that the Rangers will be out of contention in the AL West at week’s end if Oakland leaves Arlington with three wins.

There’s some validity to those concerns. After Wednesday’s 9-4 win, the Rangers ensured a series split at least, but there are still problems like the three-hit effort in Tuesday’s loss–another major lack of run support for Darvish, who still struck out 10 despite not having his best stuff. But what this swoon has revealed more than a Swiss cheese lineup and a cracking starting rotation is a fan base that doesn’t know how to react to a struggling team.

The Rangers have spoiled their fans since 2010 with two World Series trips and an admittedly disappointing Wild Card berth last season. But for a franchise that had three playoff appearances and no playoff series wins since coming to Texas in 1972, that’s an exponential improvement. And that improvement was reflected in the fans. They actually started showing up. Nearly 38,000 fans showed up on a sweltering Tuesday evening to watch a baseball game despite traffic-clogged Interstate 30 and it being a work night. That just didn’t happen five years ago. In 2008, the Rangers averaged 24,021 fans, 11th in the American League. 1

Expectations were raised, and the team didn’t disappoint–last season’s late implosion to lose the AL West crown to Oakland notwithstanding. After an uneventful offseason that caught the front office a lot of heat for its uneventfulness, Texas burst out of the gate and took control of the division from the start. They didn’t need Hamilton or Michael Young.

But then baseball happened. There’s a lot of truth to manager Ron Washington‘s catch phrase “That’s how baseball go,” proper grammar and sabermetric data aside. Injuries began piling up. Starters Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando joined Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz on the disabled list, forcing the team to rush Nick Tepesch, Justin Grimm, and Josh Lindblom to the majors. After hot starts, both showed what they are: serviceable pitchers at best, still in need of seasoning at Triple A. The offense took a nose dive when second baseman Ian Kinsler hurt his ribs and first baseman Mitch Moreland tweaked his hamstring, both landing on the DL. Their absence exposed some true weaknesses in Texas’ lineup. Shortstop Elvis Andrus, who was handed an eight-year, $120 million extension this offseason, hasn’t played up to his ability, sporting a .241/.294/.287 line, which is unacceptable for a No. 2 hitter and a guy marketed as the next face of the franchise. 2 Designated hitter Lance Berkman is looking like a 37-year-old guy who had to be coaxed out of retirement to play one more season. He has one extra base hit in his last 71 at-bats.

The last time Texas struggled like this–again, that late season swoon last year when the Rangers saw a 13-game lead on June 30 evaporate, culminating in a sweep at Oakland to lose the division, and uninspired Wild Card loss to Baltimore–Hamilton was the scapegoat. Now, there’s no one player to pin the blame on.

I say pin it on baseball. The fact that the Rangers hadn’t gone through a stretch like this since 2009 should be concerning and comforting at the same time. Through 162 games, you’ll have your peaks and valleys. This is a low valley, for sure, but Texas isn’t Miami. It will pull itself up. The question is, how far?

Part of the problem regarding the June freakout of fans is that people from DFW are conditioned to be football fans. Before 2010, most kids grew up wearing Roger Staubach or Emmitt Smith jerseys. With the Rangers relegated to second fiddle (or third or fourth depending on the success of the NBA’s Mavericks and NHL’s Stars), the pressure was off. There wasn’t any of the constant media knee-jerk reactions that you see in New York or Boston. That was reserved for the Cowboys, who undergo a complete teardown on sports radio, in newsprint, and on message boards following each week, especially in the post-Aikman era.

So take a deep breath and have some patience–for now. There is plenty of time to freak out come August. There are plenty of concerns that need to be addressed by then, however. For the Rangers to win the division, they’ll likely need a lot of things to break the right way in a season when everything was broken wrongly. Lewis, Feliz, and reliever Joakim Soria need to return in top form to take the pressure off Darvish, Derek Holland and the pitching staff, whose starters fell to 0-8 in June after Tuesday’s loss. Offensively, Andrus simply has to start hitting. Outfielders David Murphy and Leonys Martin have to start producing, or the front office has to go out and get someone who can through trade (or hope that a crash-course in outfielding can convert mega-prospect Jurickson Profar into a serviceable centerfielder). Moreland must return and play at the level that makes fans almost forget about the incredible season former Ranger Chris Davis is having in Baltimore.

The other problem is in Oakland. The A’s aren’t going away, even with sewage literally driving them out of their own clubhouse. As my colleague Jeff Gibson eloquently wrote yesterday, Oakland has outfield and pitching depth that should make the Rangers Athletics-green with envy. If there is anything Billy Beane excels at (other than having movies made about his shrewdness) it’s stockpiling cheap, just-above-replacement-level players (see: Inge, Brandon last season), and cashing in when two or so of them gets hot. At the game on Tuesday, the best heckle I could muster at A’s leftfielder Seth Smith was, “You have the most generic name!” I’m not familiar with two-thirds of their lineup, but glasses-wearing Eric “The Accountant” Sogard hit an RBI single off Darvish, which seems about right.

Still, it felt good to be back at the Ballpark. I hadn’t been there since they redid the outfield plaza and the visitor’s bullpen. There sure are a lot of ads for Nolan Ryan Beef these days, which I can only think was part of the price the team paid to keep the ornery owner/team president from jumping ship this offseason. But some things never change. It was still hot as hell. Stupid but well-meaning fans started “The Wave” a couple of times. The Texas Legends race–the Rangers’ version of the Brewers’ sausage race–featured Earl Campbell getting out to an early lead but losing to Nolan Ryan down the home stretch. Davy Crockett finished a distant third. Jim Bowie, whose card I had drawn for the race, apparently failed a pre-race drug test and didn’t show. Botox-ed and ever-energetic Fox Sports crowd reporter Jim Knox gave Rob and I a fist pump when we yelled “Knoxie!” at him.

The offense again sputtered. Darvish uncharacteristically struggled. Kinsler busted open his face on a collision at home plate and returned with a blood-splattered jersey¬†reminiscent¬†of the guy whose beef hot dogs were for sale at the stadium. It was a let down. But we’re a long way away from labeling the whole season a let down as well.

Notes:

  1. The mercurial Hamilton polarized himself even more from his former fans earlier this year for commenting on that fact.
  2. Some are suggesting that he’s fatigued from playing all but three games this season after playing in 158 in 2012.