As I write, your Texas Rangers have dropped five games in a row. While that’s obviously crushing to all of the points I spent the weekend conjuring in my sleep-deprived half-brain, this team has finally given fans a reason to watch. I’m not suggesting that losing is the greatest teacher, that there are such things as moral victories, or any of the usual hard-worn sports platitudes. I’m just saying this: It ain’t all bad.
With two young children and a bourgeoning alcohol problem, I can’t always carve out time to catch a game these days. A couple of weeks ago, I was watching as the Rangers were down 5 to 1 going into the fifth inning against Seattle. Even though I was certain the locals wouldn’t be able to muster enough spark to catch up in that one, I powered through on principle. And bourbon.
“And who knows,” I thought. “It wasn’t that long ago the dudes came back to best the Twins in extra innings.” Given the team’s recent history of ineptitude, I wasn’t seriously holding out hope that these limp-batted 4-A also-rans could repeat that feat. I only told myself that because I’m a baseball fan and we’re all married to decades-old cliches like, “There’s no clock in baseball” and “It ain’t over ’til Neftali Feliz gives up a hard fly to the wall that Nelson Cruz couldn’t snag because he obviously just had his nails done.”
Then it happened. Two dongs — long and majestic — off the bat of Joey Gallo, and the Rangers were doing that weird sports-orgy hop/pat/water spray thing that teams do now when they win.
I started recording games after that, and I’ve been staying kind of sober enough to watch them after my kids go to bed. All of the games have been *checks notes* watchable. This team isn’t close to brilliant, but compared to the endless waterfalls of excrement the boys from Arlington have trotted out in recent years, it’s nice to see games that the good guys might actually win. Even when they don’t.
Of course, I pitched this story on the day the team finished its crawl back to .500 last week. Then they promptly dropped two in a row in San Fran. Both of those games were total snoozers, because watching National League baseball is like being hung by the genitals and spun. But it’s sO pUrE. Nothing gets the juices going like watching pitchers donned in polyester jackets dropping a hot-ass bunt or watching three strikes glide by. And oH My gOd the StraTegy. I mean, how do they remember what to do when there’s a double switch? Are you telling me that two players are just switched? Like, doubly? How can they even do that? Do they employ wizards?
The whole Rangers season has felt like watching an old drinking buddy who is way too old to be living at his parents’ house finally start making good decisions with his life. “Wow! You started a bank account? So cool, man.”
Before that trip to the Bay, the Rangers had outscored opponents 38-17 after the fifth inning in May. At the time, the team was 7-3 in the month and had been behind at some point in each of their wins. I’m not dismissing the fact that the team promptly crapped the bed after that stretch. I just didn’t think that stretch would ever be possible with this core of players.
So how is this rise to mediocrity happening? Let’s start with the surprisingly good pitching. When Kyle Gibson was signed to a three-year deal last year, very little in his track record suggested he would be anything other than a back-of-the-rotation innings eater. This season — the best of his career so far — he’s been a legit ace. Opposing batters are whiffing nearly 31% of the time. That’s way up from a season ago, when it was 23.3% and way up from the MLB average of 24.4%. He’s getting players to chase 3.3% more of the time than last year.
If you overlook that stink bomb of an opening-day performance, he’s been the best pitcher in the bigs, logging a 1.34 ERA over 47 innings, 40 Ks, and 12 walks (as of this writing). Batters are hitting just .181 against him and popping up the ball at a 26.1% clip. That’s elite.
Ian Kennedy, who has been up and down as a journeyman starter over most of his career, has been an All Star-level closer in a league that has devalued the position. Kennedy represents the final boss of a late-inning gauntlet that includes high-level performances from a list of no-name former fringe prospects like Jon King, Joely Rodriguez, and whatever a Josh Sborz is. Starter Dane Dunning, who the team netted in the Lance Lynn trade, has been as advertised — a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher who can keep you in games.
The bats on this team are still iffy, despite outfielder Adolis Garcia doing his best Willie Mays impression. Along with Gibson, Garcia has been the story of the season. He leads the team in home runs, RBIs, OPS, and #swag — not bad for a non-roster invitee whom the front office salvaged from the Cardinals’ scrap heap a few years ago.
The resurgent Nate Lowe, whom the team acquired via trade in the offseason to end its procession of warm bodies occupying first base, has been a nice story. He’s the hittin’est non-Garcia on the team. Nick Solak, who is finally seeing full-time run at second base now that fighting house elf Rougned Odor has been sent packing, has more than held his own. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has gone from back-up catching project to one of the league’s better field-hit combos at shortstop. “Free” Willy Calhoun is also proving worthy of at bats, though he can’t seem to stay on the field for more than 12 games straight.
This is all happening at a time the Rangers’ minor league system is on fire. It’s early in the season, but the combined farm started the year 22-7. The Athletic’s Jamey Newberg recently penned an explainer on who is doing what down in the minors and why they’re so good.
Join me in enjoying this glimpse into what it’s like to have a major league team in your town. Keep your expectations low and your drink full, and you might just find yourself liking baseball again.