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Springtime Storylines: Will the Rangers be able to survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The defending AL Champs, the Texas Rangers

The Big Question: Will the Rangers survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

Well, sure, why wouldn’t they be able to? They only had him for 15 starts last year, and they were five and a half games up in the West on the day they traded for him.  Indeed, my asking this question isn’t because I’m truly concerned about the rotation sans Lee, but because I really wanted an excuse to note that Lee, while a wonderful addition, didn’t make the Rangers 2010 season as much as lot of people think he did. At least they think he did if the questions I’m asked about the Rangers prospects this year by readers and radio hosts and stuff is any indication.

The fact is that the Rangers rotation heading into 2011 looks to be just fine even without Lee.  C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were major surprises last season, but I don’t believe they were flukes. Neither seemed to be the recipients of uncommon luck, and their peripheral stats looked strong.  I’m likewise high on Derrek Holland who, assuming he stays healthy, seems poised to come into his own as a starter.  And all of the Rangers’ pitchers will benefit by having Adrian Beltre take over at third base.

The key, though, is Neftali Feliz. Last year’s closer is being groomed to return to his roots as a starting pitcher, a role at which he excelled in the minor leagues (a final decision on whether he starts could come as soon as today).  Yes, there will be questions about his durability — he has never pitched more than 127 innings in a season, and that was three years ago — but if he is given ample rest and a sensible ramp-up, he could emerge as a front-end starter. Maybe even one that apes Cliff Lee’s half-season production in Texas.

The upshot: I think the rotation, while not the strongest in baseball, will be quite capable and won’t be a drag on the Rangers’ drive to repeat.

So what else is going on?

  • If the Rangers do put Feliz in the rotation, who closes? Ron Washington has said he wants an “experienced closer.” Which is kind of silly considering that he won a pennant with Feliz as his closer and he had never done it before.  Still, it wouldn’t shock me if Washington begins the year with some sort of closer-by-committee thing, shuffling in old hands Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver and God knows who else through the ninth inning role. The best bet, though, is that Alexi Ogando will move into the role eventually.  He went 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio in 42 innings last season and throws fire. Looks like a closer to me.
  • Michael Young’s dissatisfaction with being pushed into a 1B/DH/super utility role has taken up a lot of column inches this spring, but he’s apparently not going anywhere, trade demand notwithstanding. This may make life uncomfortable for everyone, but there are a lot of contending teams who would like to have the kind of depth the Rangers have on offense.  They’ll shuttle Young, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland and — if a space opens up due to injury or whatever — Chris Davis between DH first base, pinch hitting duties and wherever else a bat with some upside is needed.
  • And while offense is a clear strength for the Rangers, there is a big question when it comes to health. The big guns — Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler — have all had injury trouble in recent years. Not a lot that can be done about it — hamstrings are hamstrings — but it does make the Rangers vulnerable. A bad day or two for these fragile stars and the balance of power in the division could shift toward Oakland.
  • Of course, that’s where Adrian Beltre comes in.  He’s missed some time this spring with an owie or two, but aside from that freak injury in Seattle in 2009 of which we will say no more lest we cringe, he has been outrageously durable for most of the past decade. Fenway Park treated him well last year. The Ballpark in Arlington figures to do the same. One of the more underrated pickups of the offseason.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well, thanks.  Health is always a factor in division races so it goes without saying that the Rangers need to stay healthy (drat, I just said it).  But if they do, I don’t see anyone seriously challenging them for the AL West crown.  If they win it, then it will be time to talk more seriously about the loss of Cliff Lee who did make quite a difference in the playoffs last year.  But that’s a long time from now.  As we sit here on the eve of the 2011 season, the Rangers seem to be just fine.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 27: Manager Mike Scioscia #14 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim talks with umpires Adam Hamari and Dan Bellino as he protests Raul Mondesi's #27 of the Kansas City Royals two-run bunt single in the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Hi folks. Sorry about being gone for a few days. I was in New York, a place for which the phrase “nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there” was invented. It was nice to visit. I don’t want to live there. It’s like the people who say that know me.

Anyway, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 4, Indians 1: In nine of yesterday’s 15 games the losing team scored one run. Just warning you now, that’s gonna make for a lot of “[pitcher] tossed [X] [Y]-hit innings, allowing only [Z] runs . . .” summaries, with X being a number 6 or greater, Y being a number 6 or lower and Z being a value of 1 or 0. There could be a hit caveats addressed via “scattering” subroutine, but we’ll deal with that on a case-by-case basis. I realize that’s a lot of info you don’t need, but as I’ve been trying to automate “And That Happened” so it will live on forever, even past my death, these are the sorts of challenges I deal with. Anyway, Stephen Strasburg is the first to be plugged into this equation, having allowed zero runs on three hits over seven innings against the Tribe. He picked up his 14th win.

Marlins 11, Phillies 1: Here it was Adam Conley, tossing shutout ball into the seventh while scattering eight hits. He obviously had offensive help too, with Giancarlo Stanton providing enough for them to win the game with a first inning two-run homer followed by a lot of piling on. This from a team that was in an offensive drought just a couple of days ago.

Padres 8, Blue Jays 4Adam Rosales hit a two-run home run, Alex Dickerson and Brett Wallace each hit solo shots. The Padres have tied an NL record for consecutive games in which someone hit a homer. Because, of course, when you think “Padres” you think “power-hitting accomplishments.”

Tigers 4, Red Sox 3: I watched part of this game at a bar in LaGuardia waiting to fly home yesterday. Living in non-MLB cities for one’s entire adult life makes one forget that there are places where you don’t have to specifically ask for them to turn on a baseball game on the bar TV. Seriously, Columbus, Ohio sports bars will put on televised sports talk shows in which someone may mention college football in passing before showing the ballgame. All the better considering that the sound is off. And there’s nothing better than going into a bar in October and seeing five TVs with the random second-tier Thursday night Big West game and one with the frickin’ World Series on it. Anyway: Michael Fulmer pitched well until he ran out of gas on a hot afternoon, allowing the Sox to tie it late, but Miguel Cabrera saved the day with a ninth inning homer.

Rays 3, Dodgers 1: Matt Moore allowed one run in six and two-thirds but it was unearned thanks to it coming on a throwing error during a stolen base attempt. That error was by the catcher, Luke Maile, but he atoned with an RBI double in the fourth. Evan Longoria hit a two-run homer just before that.

Reds 2, Giants 1: Dan Straily outdueled Madison Bumgarner, allowing one run in seven and two-thirds to MadBum’s two — one earned — in eight. Jay Bruce‘s seventh inning homer broke the 1-1 tie in the seventh.

Rockies 3, Orioles 1: Jon Gray with one run over seven, allowing five hits. A pair of sixth inning homers from Nick Hundly and David Dahl were all the offense he needed.

Pirates 10, Mariners 1: Gerrit Cole pitched a three-hit, one run Maddux, needing only 94 pitches to do it. Andrew McCutchen and Jung Ho Kang each drove in four runs. It was pretty close until the seventh, but by then Cole could just throw it down the middle and dare the M’s to hit something. They didn’t.

Cardinals 5, Mets 4: Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong each hit RBI doubles in the ninth to rally the Cards from a run down. The Mets had their own rally in the seventh inning, scoring three to take the lead, capped by a Yoenis Cespedes homer off Adam Wainwright, but it was all for naught. This was Jeurys Familia‘s first blown save in almost a year. His streak began on July 30, 2015. Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

Cubs 8, White Sox 1: Another game that was close until late, at which point the Cubs broke out the boomsticks, getting homers from Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Addison Russell, whose bomb was a grand slam. Aroldis Chapman made his Cubs debut in a non-save situation. He struck out two of the three batters he faced and hit 103 on the gun. If the past few days have shown us anything it’s that Chapman tends to do best when he lets his pitching do the talking

Athletics 6, Rangers 4: Khris Davis homered twice, because that’s what Khris Davis does. This was his fifth multi-homer game this year. He has ten in his two full + two partial seasons. Both he and Coco Crisp hit two-run homers off of Matt Bush in the eighth. I guess if you’re Bush you can always say that whatever happened on the baseball field isn’t the worst thing to ever happen to you, but still, bad day for him.

Diamondbacks 8, Brewers 1: Yasmany Tomas had two homers and drove in five while Archie Bradley allowed one run over seven innings. The Brewers committed five errors, three by right fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and two by shortstop Jonathan Villar. I’m sure that made Craig Counsell super happy.

Braves 9, Twins 7: Freddie Freeman homered, doubled and drove in five in a game in which he reached base five times. After the game Major League Baseball’s scheduler was put on trail in front of an international tribunal at The Hague for putting this series on the calendar.

Astros 4, Yankees 1: Lance McCullers allowed one run over six and struck out ten. Colby Rasmus hit a two-run homer in the Astros’ three-run third. The homer broke an 0-for-29 skid for Rasmus. Or briefly interrupted a 1-for__ skid if he goes on another slump. Baseball is weird like that. It never ends and it allows you to frame anything in almost any way.

Royals 7, Angels 5: The Angels took a lead into the bottom of the seventh, but Kansas City scored six runs in the seventh and eighth. It wasn’t the longball, though: Raul Mondesi hit two infield singles in those innings which plated three thanks to throwing errors and the inherit chaos of speed. The first one was a bunt single and it was Mondesi’s first big league hit. It occasioned an over six minute replay delay, however, as Mike Scioscia thought Modesi ran out of the baseline and interfered with the throw to first. When he lost the replay he protested the game. Afterward he said “I would not have protested if I was not 100 percent correct on this.” Guess we’ll see.

Cardinals snap Familia’s saves streak, rally past Mets 5-4

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NEW YORK — Yadier Molina and pinch-hitter Kolten Wong each stroked an RBI double in the ninth inning, and the St. Louis Cardinals ended Jeurys Familia‘s streak of 52 straight saves in rallying past the New York Mets 5-4 on Wednesday night.

Yoenis Cespedes hit a go-ahead homer off Adam Wainwright to cap a three-run comeback in the seventh that gave the Mets a 4-3 lead. But then Familia, who hadn’t blown a regular-season save opportunity since July 30 last year, finally faltered.

Jedd Gyorko drew a one-out walk in the ninth and was replaced by pinch-runner Randal Grichuk. Molina hit the next pitch to deep center field, and Grichuk scored standing up to tie it.

Molina was thrown out at third by Familia (2-2) on pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker’s comebacker, but Hazelbaker stole second and scored when Wong lined a double just inside the left-field line.

Familia’s franchise-record saves streak was the third-longest in major league history behind Tom Gordon (54) and Eric Gagne (84).

Jonathan Broxton (3-2) tossed a scoreless eighth and Seung Hwan Oh got three quick outs for his sixth save.

Including a split of Tuesday’s doubleheader, St. Louis took two of three from the Mets in a matchup of NL wild-card contenders. It was only the second time in the past decade that the Cardinals have won a road series against the Mets.

Logan Verrett pitched seven efficient innings and slumping Neil Walker went 3 for 3 with a base on balls for the third-place Mets, who have alternated wins and losses in their last 13 games. They dropped 5 1/2 games behind NL East-leading Washington.

New York did manage to keep Gyorko and the rest of St. Louis’ hitters in the ballpark after the Cardinals had homered in 17 consecutive games – their longest streak since a club-record run of 19 games in 2006.

Gyorko went deep in both ends of Tuesday’s doubleheader, giving him seven homers in nine games.

Matt Holliday hit a two-run double off Verrett with two outs in the third, and Matt Adams followed with an RBI double that made it 3-1.

Wainwright, who entered 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in July, nursed that lead until the seventh – repeatedly pitching out of trouble. He nearly did so again after striking out Curtis Granderson and Asdrubal Cabrera with runners at the corners.

But then Travis d'Arnaud scored on a wild pitch and Cespedes socked a two-run homer off the facing of the second deck in left-center on the 117th and final pitch from the 34-year-old Wainwright.