Rangers mess with bullpen, get horns

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ron Washington said confidently before Game 3 of the American League Division Series that if his team and the visiting Tampa Bay Rays both brought their A-games, he'd take his Texas Rangers every time.

But what if the manager doesn't bring his A-game?

Hampered by not having the injured Frank Francisco for the eighth inning and a roster decision to keep a pinch runner for the ALDS instead of an extra pitcher, Washington managed himself into a jam late in Saturday's game. It proved costly, as the Rays pummeled the Texas bullpen to take a 6-3 victory and guarantee a Game 4 on Sunday at The Ballpark in Arlington.

Handed a 2-1 lead on Ian Kinsler's tiebreaking leadoff homer in the bottom of the seventh, the Rangers were six outs outs away from clinching the first playoff series in franchise history in front of a record 51,746 fans. That's when the Texas bullpen ran out of gas and Washington ran out of moves.

He'd used every available pitcher on his postseason roster besides Sunday's starter, Tommy Hunter. Had the game gone into extra innings, as it appeared for awhile that it might, long man Dustin Nippert would be on the mound for the duration, win or lose.

That is not a position in which the Rangers want to find themselves.

Washington insisted it wasn't as bad as it looked.

"I had guys down there for extra innings," Washington said. "I could have used [Game 2 starter] C.J. [Wilson] and … I could have used [Game 1 starter] Cliff Lee."

And if that statement doesn't scare you to death, nothing will.

Wilson? OK, maybe so. He's not going to get another start in this series. But he did just work 6 1/3 innings and throw 100-plus pitches in Thursday's start. How ready could he have been? In complete fairness to Washington, it was Lee's day to throw on the side anyway. Still, there's a huge difference in a between-starts side session and pitching in extra innings in a tie game.

Washington managed this game, in fact, as if it was his team that was down 2-0 in the best-of-five series. He managed scared, which is about as uncharacteristic of Washington as it gets.

Remember, relievers are like chips at a Vegas craps table. They must be used conservatively and wisely. And Washington ran himself out of chips.

Skittish after starter Colby Lewis walked three of the last four hitters he would face trying to hold on to a 1-0 Rangers lead, the last one leading off the sixth, Washington brought in left-hander Derek Holland, obviously hoping he could at least get the game into the seventh, if not the eighth.

Instead, Holland struggled to put away the left-handers he'd been brought in to face, surrendering a line single to Dan Johnson and walking Carlos Pena.

"I wasn't happy with the way [Holland] wasn't actually pounding the strike zone right there," Washington said, "so I brought in [Alexi] Ogando."

Ogando got a fastball up to B.J. Upton, who lined a double into the left-field corner to tie the score, 1-1. But the rookie right-hander got Jason Bartlett on a routine fly ball to right to get the Rangers out of the inning.

Instead of bringing Ogando back out for the seventh, though, Washington, who loves left-hander Darren Oliver like most of us love ice cream, brought his favorite flavor in for the third straight game in this series.

Too much of a good thing. Oliver, who just turned 40 while the Rangers were in Tampa, didn't have it, especially when Washington tried to stretch him through the seventh and into the eighth. A one-out double by Johnson and Pena's RBI single -- note that both are left-handers -- tied it at 2.

Washington didn't have much choice but to dip into his bullpen yet again, this time for submarining right-hander Darren O'Day, who came on to strike out Upton.

This is where Washington completely veered into dangerous territory. He pulled O'Day and went to his closer, Neftali Feliz, to face No. 9 hitter Bartlett.

"Bartlett had good numbers against him and since I was going to use Nefti anyway against [lefty-swinging John] Jaso, I just figured I would bring him in to get the one [out]. He would be there in the ninth inning, anyway."

The big problem with that thinking is that it left Washington with only Nippert in the bullpen if the game went extras. Or, to follow Washington's logic, Nippert, Wilson and (gulp) Lee.

Why not stick with O'Day for at least one more hitter, hope he can get Bartlett out and then bring Feliz in where he's more comfortable in the ninth, for one inning? Two of the three hits O'Day had given up to Bartlett were basically squibbers and he would have had to come up with an extra-base hit to score the slow-footed Pena from first.

Another point to remember: There's no need to automatically lift O'Day just because a left-handed hitter is coming up. Left-handers hit just .229 off him this season.

Moot point now. A shaky Feliz walked Bartlett, then served up a hit-me-please breaking ball -- after nine straight fastballs -- that Jaso deposited into center field to give the Rays their first lead of the series.

By bringing in Feliz, leaving him with only Nippert left in the 'pen, Washington was essentially gambling that the Rangers would win the game in the eighth or ninth.

Tampa Bay flipped the script. Finally able to breathe with their first lead in the series, the Rays put the Rangers away in the ninth. Carl Crawford led off with a drive into the Rangers' bullpen to chase Feliz. Four batters later, Pena's two-run homer off Nippert left the Rangers' celebration champagne sitting in puddles of melted ice somewhere in the bowels of the stadium.

The question is, are the Rangers melting away, too? The advantage is still theirs, of course, and I like the Sunday matchup of Hunter vs. Tampa's Wade Davis.

Why not bring Lee back on three days' rest, you ask, setting up Wilson to start Game 1 of the ALCS?

First, the Rangers cannot afford to think about the ALCS right now. Their only objective has to be to win this series and worry about the next one when -- and if -- it gets here.

There's also the fact that Lee has never worked on three days' rest.

"We've checked the numbers and the numbers say that not very many pitchers have been able to come back and do that," Washington said. "There [aren't] many [CC] Sabathias out there.

"We decided to give Tommy Hunter the ball. He won 13 games for us. We trust him and feel good going into [Game 4]."

I don't have a problem with that reasoning.

There are some disquieting issues to consider going forward, though, most of them revolving around the back end of the bullpen.

First, Washington will almost certainly be without Oliver for Game 4. He's worked in all three games and threw 27 pitches Saturday. The Rangers have asked a lot of him this season and frankly, he's beginning to look cooked.

He shrugged when I asked him if he had anything left.

"I'll try to rally tonight," he said. "Maybe I can find some good [mojo] somewhere."

Feliz, at the very least, has had his confidence shaken. When Crawford hammered his ninth-inning homer, Feliz dropped his head and stared at the ground. The rookie has to bounce back quickly if the Rangers are to put this away.

Finally, no Francisco and only six relievers -- five if Oliver's not available -- means Washington has to be more careful with his 'pen. That could be problematic Sunday, because Hunter, for all his success -- he's 7-0 at home -- averages just less than six innings per start. That means Washington may have to squeeze at least 10 outs from his bullpen in Game 4.

Mostly, though, the Rangers simply need to play relaxed and remember that they're still in the driver's seat here. No panic. No running scared.

They simply need to put their A-game on the field Sunday.

That, by the way, includes the manager.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.