www.redeyechicago.com/sports/sc-spt-0922-notes-rogers-baseball-20130922,0,1186551.column

redeyechicago.com

Rays and Rangers still could enjoy playoff runs

That is, if they can get acts together enough to maintain wild-card status and enter postseason relaxed

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

4:54 PM CDT, September 21, 2013

Advertisement

September has been a cruel, frightening month for the Rangers and Rays, who held their ground in a terrific series last week at Tropicana Field. But all of the angst could wash away easily in October.

Since spring training, the Rays and Rangers have viewed themselves as playoff teams. They're in for a fight this week to hold off the Indians and Orioles in the wild-card race, and the Rays and Rangers are asking for trouble after stretches in which they have gone 9-16 and 4-13, respectively.

Yet here's a surprising reality: No matter how bleak things look, they still could be positioned nicely if they just hang in there to land a spot in that precarious one-game wild-card elimination game.

You wouldn't want to try to sell this idea on the streets of Dallas-Fort Worth, as Rangers fans have nightmares about the wild-card loss to the Orioles that ended dreams of a third straight trip to the World Series. But as much effort as teams put into the attempt to manufacture postseason success, the reality is that crazy, unexpected things happen in October.

Look no further than the Cardinals teams that played their way to World Series parades in 2006 and '11 after finishing the regular season ranked fifth and fourth in the National League in wins. They were able to win because they were good teams and they did not get in their own way.

They played free and easy, the way the Rangers did in wiping out a stronger Rays team in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, not the way the Rangers did when it mattered most at Busch Stadium in Games 6 and 7 of the '11 World Series.

It is really, really tough to win it all when anything less is failure. That's the reality against which the Tigers battle in their quest to reward owner Mike Ilitch with a Commissioner's Trophy to go alongside his four Stanley Cups.

You will hear a lot of talk about home-field advantage this week, but playoff series take on a life of their own. Remember how last year's World Series swung wildly when Pablo Sandoval and the Giants hammered Justin Verlander in Game 1?

That team was playing free and easy, and that's tough to do when you are the team everyone expects to win. It has been 14 years since we had a World Series involving teams that both led their leagues in regular-season wins.

In the 18 years that MLB has used a wild-card format, the teams that led their league in wins have only a modest 40-31 record in playoff series. They have won the World Series six times while being eliminated in their opening series 14 times — with the most recent victims being last year's Nationals, the 2011 Yankees and Phillies and the Rays in '10.

If the Rangers had won 90-something games, as most expected, manager Ron Washington would not be worried about losing his job. But the lack of expectations could turn into a good thing, provided they grind out enough victories against the Astros and Angels to grab one of the American League's two wild-card spots.

The Rangers had lost seven in a row before beating the Rays on Tuesday, and they didn't lead in any of those games. Things got bad enough that general manager Jon Daniels felt it necessary to give Washington one of those dreaded votes of confidence.

"My full expectation is he will be back," Daniels said. "And my expectation is that I will be back too. I've always viewed (Washington) as more of a partner than anything else, and I expect that partnership will continue next year."

Before October is over, the two could be conquering heroes again, like they were before everyone started taking them so seriously.

Turning up the volume: A.J. Burnett was the Pirates' ace a year ago, and Francisco Liriano and little lefty Jeff Locke have stepped up to fill that need for most of this season. But rookie Gerrit Cole is making his case to be the Game 1 starter when the playoffs roll around.

Cole, who pitches Tuesday at Wrigley Field, has won his last three starts, allowing only two runs in 20 innings against the Rangers, Cubs and Padres. He has struck out 28 and walked six in those starts, including a 12-strikeout outing Thursday against the Padres. It was the most strikeouts for a Pirates rookie since Jose DeLeon fanned 13 Reds in 1983.

"He continues to evolve as a pitcher — I mean, he threw me changeup, slider, curve, everything, fastball away, fastball in,'' Padres catcher Nick Hundley said. "Anytime a guy with that type of stuff starts to pitch that way, yeah, the sky is the limit for a guy like that."

Cole was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft. He agrees that he is gaining confidence, especially with his command.

Manager Clint Hurdle is set to pick between Cole and Liriano for either a one-game playoff to determine the NL Central champ or the first game of the playoffs, which could be in the one-game elimination round. Cole, who just turned 23, takes a workload of 1791/3 innings into Tuesday's start against the Cubs, but there has been little talk about limiting his innings.

Have a seat: It took only two hours for the A's to sell out the Coliseum's lower two levels for the AL Division Series, after which they began selling upper-deck tickets. That means the tarps that were in place last October are coming off, increasing the stadium's capacity from 35,067 to 48,146. The center-field tarps atop seats added when the Raiders returned — the so-called Mount Davis seats — will remain.

Oakland was a crazy place to play last season, even with the smaller crowds. It could be really nuts this time around.

"I can imagine," manager Bob Melvin said. "But we still have to get there first."

Despite the playoff anticipation, the A's have not been immune to small crowds seen around baseball in September. They came home from sweeping the Rangers in Texas and going 5-1 on the road to draw 14,629 and 18,771 for games against the Angels.

"It's our last homestand, and we're in first place," a disappointed Josh Reddick said. "We want to see all the support this city could bring. There are a lot of green seats, so it's not fun, especially at the end of the year."

Reddick was surprised to hear the team was selling upper-deck seats for the playoffs.

"Hopefully, we can fill up the bottom seats before we go that far,'' he said.

Considering all options: The Giants are baseball's biggest offseason wild card. They could finish 20 games out after winning the World Series last October, and they are determined not to allow the Dodgers to have a long run at the top.

General manager Brian Sabean has said he wants to re-sign Tim Lincecum but for now has opened extension talks only with Hunter Pence. Manager Bruce Bochy says the priority is adding "somebody who can drive the ball'' to the lineup, and that push to add a power bat has them weighing a move of Brandon Belt from first base to left field.

Belt is a good defensive first baseman, but there aren't a lot of impact outfielders expected on the market.

"I'm definitely open to it,'' Belt said of a possible position change. "I think you could stick me anywhere out there."

The Giants are among the teams known to have a serious interest in Cuban defector Jose Abreu, a first baseman who is believed to be a better hitter than Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. It is a good sign that Abreu already has established residency in Haiti, which means he could be cleared to sign in time for the winter meetings, if not earlier.

The other first basemen expected on the free-agent market include Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales. The Marlins are expected to trade Logan Morrison, but he's a risky proposition given all the repairs on his knees.

Perhaps the most intriguing name on the Giants' radar is Wladimir Balentien, who broke Sadaharu Oh's Japanese home run record this year (although to be fair, the lively ball being used did prompt the commissioner to resign). Balentien, a native of Curacao, is a longtime friend of Hensley Meulens, the Giants' hitting coach.

"He wants to come back (to the U.S.)," Meulens told the San Francisco Chronicle. "His dream is to come back and play in the major leagues."

Balentien, who is in his third year in Japan, signed a three-year contract with the Yakult Swallows last winter, however.

"Nobody knows how to go about it, to get out of the contract," Meulens said.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers