In advance of the Angels' crucial four-game series with the first-place Texas Rangers this week, we caught up with ESPNDallas.com's Richard Durrett to hear his thoughts about the team the Angels are chasing.
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Q. From afar, it looks like the Rangers have gained their most consistent groove in a while. How have they done it without Adrian Beltre? When will he be back?
The Rangers are playing consistent baseball. The starting pitching has found a groove and the entire team seems to have more confidence knowing if a starter can go six, manager Ron Washington has Koji Uehara and Mike Adams in that bullpen along with Mark Lowe, who has pitched well. Neftali Feliz has been inconsistent this season, but he's still the closer and a force when he's right. Add in the fact that the offense is getting the clutch hits that it wasn't producing just a few weeks ago and you have a team that is confident and consistent. It's good timing, too. The schedule stiffens with this series against the Angels and a couple coming up with Boston and Tampa Bay on the road, not to mention another visit from the Angels in late August.
Q. As you say, in addition to the Angels series, which are usually hardfought, the Rangers have to play the Red Sox and Rays a bunch of times coming up. How have they typically fared against those clubs and what do you expect?
It will be tough, no doubt about that. But the Rangers believe they can compete with any team and for whatever reason the past few seasons, they've raised their level of play against that type of competition. I think beating David Price in Game 5 in Tampa Bay last year certainly helps with that confidence. Yes, it's a different team in 2011. But a lot of those guys are still around and to win in that kind of environment allows them to draw on that experience. It's a much different Boston team the Rangers will face than the one they swept to start the season. And it could be a ALCS preview too. It's never easy to win in Fenway. It should be interesting.
Q. You're around these guys a lot and covered them during their World Series run. What is the vibe like compared to a year ago? Will the fact that they're in a tight pennant race vs. a rout make any impact on their psyches?
It's different this year, I will say. Not sure exactly why, but different. It's still a close bunch, but they have their own identity. You won't see them doing the claw anymore, BTW. The players felt that was a 2010 thing. And I like that about them. They've got the same lofty goals, but want to chart their own path. That said, Cliff Lee gave this team an ace in the hole that they knew would rise up in the postseason. They don't have that kind of starting pitcher this season, but the staff as a whole has done a solid job. And they are slightly better by record now than they were a year ago. I honestly don't think a tight pennant race will get to this team at all.
Q. If you compare these two teams in the three phases, Texas would appear to have the edge because its offense is so much stronger. The Angels say the key to this race is for them to get their offense going. Is there one key for Texas, in your mind?
Defense. It just hasn't been as good as expected. They'll score enough runs and now that management has taken care of the bullpen issue, that's not a problem. But the defense has been way too inconsistent. Part of that is not having Adrian Beltre around. He seems to lift the entire infield, though Michael Young has certainly filled that spot well in his absence. But Elvis Andrus has made too many errors on routine balls and they aren't doing the little things consistently like throwing to the proper base, hitting the cutoff man, etc. If they can sharpen that up, you'll see a complete team ready to make noise again in the postseason.
Q. Is the bullpen better with the new guys, Adams and Uehara? How solid is Neftali Feliz entering this home stretch?
The bullpen is way better. It allows Washington to shove Mark Lowe, who has pitched well, to the sixth or seventh and still have Uehara and Adams to go to. It gives them depth late that they haven't had all season. Feliz is still fine on the velocity, but the fastball command hasn't been the same. He's just not the dominant pitcher he was last year. His walks are up and strikeouts down. Still, he's shown flashes. They've got to figure out how to get those flashes into more lenghty bursts down the stretch.