This time last year, the Texas Rangers entered the final month of the regular season three games up in the American League West. That lead grew to five games with nine to play, and the countdown to a third straight division title was underway.
But the counter never hit zero. The Oakland A's launched a huge late-season rally while the Rangers collapsed. Oakland celebrated an AL West title on the final day of the season, making one final impressive comeback by erasing an early 5-1 deficit against the Rangers to sweep the series in Oakland and win the division.
The Rangers' season ended two days later with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the AL wild-card game. Now, Texas enters the final month of the season with a slight lead in the AL West over the A's. And they begin September in earnest with a three-game series in Oakland, beginning on Monday. This time, though, there won't be any late-season collapse for the Rangers. Why? Here are four reasons (in no particular order):
Last year, the A's young starters outperformed the Rangers' rotation when it counted most. What crushed the Rangers more than anything as they tried to close out the division was they managed just one win in September from the No. 5 spot in their rotation. In fact, it was a spot that gave the club fits for much of the second half of the season.
That's not the case this year. Travis Blackley, recently picked up off waivers from the Houston Astros, has added depth to the back end of an already-strong rotation (and Blackley, pitching for the A's last year, beat the Rangers in the penultimate game of the season, by the way). Yu Darvish fronts this rotation and is in Cy Young contention. Derek Holland has found his consistency and is giving this team innings and keeping them in games. While Matt Garza hasn't pitched as well as he did for the Cubs before the trade, the Rangers have still managed a winning record when he takes the mound. Martin Perez looks like, well, some of those A's youngsters from last year. The 22-year-old hurler is pitching with confidence and poise. It's a strong rotation that is ready for the stretch drive.
There's perhaps no better motivator in the major leagues than the Rangers' skipper and he'll use the disappointment of last year as a way of keeping his team focused and hungry.
Whenever they've had a rough patch -- and it hasn't been often -- they've managed to snap out of it and refocus. Twice this season, Washington used perfectly timed meetings to help that happen. He shouldn't need that now. This Rangers team knows what happened last year and it's committed to not allowing its focus to wane. Fatigue was an issue late last season and Washington has made sure to rest his regulars when necessary this year in hopes of helping them stay fresh in September.
The loss of Nelson Cruz was supposed to put a pretty big dent in the Rangers' run production. But the Cruz suspension hasn't had nearly the impact in large part because the Rangers have responded by turning up the pressure on the bases.
Texas constantly looks to go from first to third or steal a base when the door is open to do so. The Rangers have manufactured runs and found a way to generate some offense without relying as much on power, something that was needed even with Cruz in the lineup. But with the club's top home run hitter and run producer out (Cruz led in both categories when his suspension in the Biogenesis case came down), it really had no choice.
This team struggled to score runs over the weekend against the Minnesota Twins, but must continue to employ the aggressive style on the bases to make up for some power loss with Cruz's absence. Perhaps Lance Berkman, if healthy enough, can help a bit too as a September call-up.
One of the biggest question marks for the Rangers when they departed Arizona to finish spring training was the bullpen. Joe Nathan was an established closer, but there was uncertainty as to who would bridge the gap between the starter and Nathan.
Several relievers are helping fill that role, including Tanner Scheppers. The youngster had a terrific first half, ran into a rough patch and appears to be reverting back to form. Neal Cotts has emerged as a reliable lefty for Washington and Jason Frasor has pitched well in the seventh inning. It gives the Rangers plenty of options to protect late leads.
It should also help Texas to have Neftali Feliz back as an option now, too. His velocity, as expected, isn't all the way back, but he pitched well in his rehab appearances and got outs in his 2013 debut on Sunday.