This was supposed to be the start of the most important final week for the Texas Rangers in a decade. A four-game clash against the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim beginning Monday could have had playoff implications.
But Sunday's crushing collapse in a 7-6 loss to Tampa Bay puts the Rangers' postseason hopes on life support. The Rangers gave up three unearned runs in the eighth inning -- something this club hasn't done much of this season -- and closer Frank Francisco blew a three-run lead in the ninth as the Rays came back from a 5-0 deficit after seven innings.
The Rangers need the unlikely feat of sweeping the Angels followed by wins against the Mariners and help from Oakland this weekend to have any shot. It wasn't just Sunday's loss that cost Texas. The club can also blame a 2-7 homestand in September, when soggy conditions and a severe offensive drought pushed them too far behind to make a strong enough charge toward their first playoff appearance since winning the AL West in 1999.
But despite the finish, there still are plenty of reasons for optimism. The 2009 season was a good one for the Rangers. They won more than 80 games for just the second time since 1999. The club could win 90 games, something that hasn't happened in a decade. They made strides in the development of a gaggle of young players, and it appears they are poised to be contenders next year and beyond.
That doesn't mean there isn't work to do. And for the first time in recent memory, it doesn't start with pitching. General manager Jon Daniels' top priority is to bolster an offense that did not deliver consistent run production. He also must improve the middle relief and fill in a few holes on a tight budget as the ownership situation remains a question.
But overall, it certainly appears the franchise is headed in a positive direction.
Let's look back at five highs and lows from this season:
Scott Feldman: In a season full of surprising performances from young players, Feldman has to top the list. He began the season in the bullpen and moved into the rotation when Kris Benson (remember him?) was injured in late April. A cut fastball and renewed confidence made Feldman, 26, the most reliable member of the rotation. He became a road warrior, setting a club record with 12 wins away from Arlington. He was consistent all season, with at least three quality starts each month from May through September.
Infield shift: Michael Young was hesitant to move from shortstop to third base before the 2009 season, but the move helped the left side of the infield and paved the way for rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus. Young, a Gold Glove winner and a five-time All-Star at shortstop, learned the angles and nuances of playing third base with relative ease. Andrus, 21, exceeded expectations despite 22 errors, tops among AL shortstops. Andrus' range helped inflate that number, as he got to balls that others wouldn't have, and he also made more than his fair share of spectacular plays. And he surprised many by hitting .269 and stealing 31 bases while situated mainly at the bottom of the order.
Flame-throwing rookie: Neftali Feliz became a must-see for Rangers fans in the final months of the season. The 21-year-old hit triple digits on the radar gun and left opponents shaking their heads after striking out. Feliz allowed only one run in his first 22 major-league innings, but struggled with his command after that. But there's no denying his raw talent. The bigger question is whether the Rangers use the fireballer as a starter or as a closer.
Marlon Byrd: A clubhouse leader, Byrd has batted at various spots in the lineup and has become, along with David Murphy, the club's most reliable hitter. His 89 RBIs are tops on the team. Byrd's contract expires after the season, and his price could be too high for the Rangers to re-sign him.
Lack of offense: What happened to the offense? A year ago, the Rangers led the majors with 901 runs, a .283 batting average and an .816 OPS. But the big bats weren't consistent this season. The Rangers will not reach the 800-run plateau for the first time since 1995 and appear destined to finish in the middle of the major league rankings in most offensive categories, including average and OPS. The middle of the batting order has been shuffled because of injuries and lack of production. Add to that Chris Davis' woes and inconsistent stretches by Hank Blalock, and the result is the offense wasn't clutch enough.
Josh Hamilton: He was the talk of baseball at the 2008 All-Star Game, when he mashed ball after ball into Yankee Stadium seats during the Home Run Derby. But this season, Hamilton slumped early and then dealt with injuries. The result: a .268 average (336 at-bats) with 10 homers and 54 RBIs. How disappointing is that? Last season, Hamilton surpassed 54 RBIs on May 27. The Rangers need more from him in 2010.
Tale of two halves: That was the story for Kevin Millwood and Ian Kinsler in 2009. In fairness, they belonged in both categories at times this season. Millwood started the season with 8-7 record and 3.46 ERA, pitching deep into games and making a push to be on the All-Star team. But since the break, Millwood has had trouble with his mechanics, even taking extra time between starts to try to fix it. He had a strong outing last week to reach the 180 innings needed to guarantee his $12 million contract for 2010. Kinsler, who started as the leadoff hitter, had an up-and-down season. The second baseman had a blistering April, but struggled in the summer -- hitting just .157 in July and missed 16 games (mainly in August) with a strained hamstring. Bold prediction: Millwood and Kinsler bounce back in 2010 with more consistent seasons.
Money: The pending sale of the Rangers and the team's fiscal situation has been a cloud hanging over the franchise for much of the season. Owner Tom Hicks is attempting to sell his majority stake, and the club has dealt with a tight budget. They didn't make any major moves at the trade deadline this season, and it's unclear what they can do in the offseason until a new owner (or ownership group) is on board. How many veterans could the club mix in with this young team? What will the budget be for next season? Those are questions that can't be answered until the sale is complete.
September homestand: The Rangers were only two games back in the wild-card race -- and 5.5 behind the Angels in the AL West -- at the start of a nine-game homestand on Sept. 11. It rained for nearly the entire homestand, creating numerous delays and one doubleheader. The offense stalled, managing just one run in 48 innings during one stretch. The pitching also suffered, and the 2-7 homestand effectively ended the season.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.