MINNEAPOLIS It's just nine games into the 2012 baseball season, but the Texas Rangers are already going about business as usual.
They're traveling to the same ballparks, shoveling in the same postgame meals. They have the same pregame routines, the same celebrations, largely the same spots in their batting order. Look over those box scores a little too quickly, and it's still 2011.
But the Rangers are far from complacent. They've simply found what works, the blend of personalities and talents, habits and eccentricities that makes a championship caliber team. If you ask them, it's going to take a lot more than a few high-profile signings, a couple of stars poached from the National League and one lured from among their own, to alter the terrain of the American League.
This past offseason was the best free agent market in years, and the American League, with its lure of designated hitters and the cash that appeared with just a few signatures on unprecedented TV contracts, capitalized. Gone was Albert Pujols from St. Louis, enticed by 10 years and 240 million from the Angels, and a similar nine-year, 214 million contract was bait enough for the Brewers' Prince Fielder to sign in Detroit.
Those two moves caused a renegotiation of the American League's power structure before the season even began. Without watching one regular season Fielder at bat in a Tigers uniform, many analysts projected Detroit, which finished with the third-best record in the American League last season, to be its best team in 2012. FOX's preseason MLB power rankings list the Tigers as the No. 1 team in the major leagues, followed by the Angels and then the 2011 league-champion Rangers, who finished with a 10-game lead in their division over the Angels.
No doubt the Tigers' and Angels' big moves this offseason were at least somewhat predicated on challenging both the Rangers' dominance and their failure on the game's greatest stage. For the past two seasons, Texas has made it to the World Series and lost, first to the Giants and then to the Cardinals. Before the Rangers, no team had lost two consecutive World Series since Bobby Cox's Atlanta Braves in 1991 and 1992; no American League team had done it since the Yankees in 1963 and 1964. In fact, before the Rangers' recent foibles, the American League as a unit hadn't lost two consecutive World Series since it dropped four in a row from 1979-82.
It's easy to see why other teams would tire of the Rangers' dominance, how they'd be driven to desperate (read: expensive) measures to shake up the 2012 playoff landscape. And though dropping October's most meaningful series two years in a row might be enough to derail a team, the Rangers have managed to parlay those losses into a carefully negotiated confidence. While they might not yet know how to win a World Series, at least they know how to get there -- which is more than the Angels and Tigers of recent seasons can say.
"It's huge," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said of his team's World Series experience. "Going into spring training, we all know what we want to accomplish and what it takes to get back to that level of play. So there's really no panic. There really aren't any question marks amongst ourselves and what we believe in this clubhouse. It makes the season, makes coming to the ballpark, easier."
But the Rangers' confidence is an understated one, buried among routine and the rhythm borne of two straight American League championships. Closer Joe Nathan, who left the Twins to sign with the Rangers this offseason, said he's noticed the Rangers don't let what happened last season or even what they want to achieve this season dictate the conversation. The team knows where it's been and what it's accomplished. There's no reason to discuss it at length, and instead, Nathan said, the team has mastered focusing only on the present, on the next opponent, the next game.
But 19 times this season, that next opponent will be the Angels, the team that did the most to beef up its roster over the winter. Not only did they sign Pujols, but they also lured former Ranger C.J. Wilson away from Texas, and with Kendrys Morales' return nearly 22 months after suffering a broken ankle, the Angels also improved from within. They're angling to upend the Rangers not only on a larger stage, but also within their own division, the American League West, which might be the site of baseball's most exciting showdown between experience and all that is flashy and new.
Wilson, a southern California native, pointed out that the Angels have been good since he entered professional baseball, and though they've had only one losing season since Wilson's 2005 major league debut, they've also never made it past the ALCS in that time. They've been good enough, with enough of a winning history and enough cash to attempt to make the jump to great.
The Rangers know the Angels will be a threat, but what they did this offseason proved nothing more than fuel for a team that's determined to make the playoffs for the third straight season under manager Ron Washington. In fact, when the Rangers look at all of the money and meetings, the flights and phone calls and hours of wooing that made up the Angels' offseason, they can't help but be a bit flattered.
They're still trying to catch us, and that's the fun part about it," Kinsler said. "They need to make these huge, powerful moves to try to I guess stir up things and try to jump us. That's just basically a show of respect."
And through the early games of 2012, the Rangers still seem to have the advantage. It may only be April, but after defeating the Twins 4-3 on Sunday, the 8-2 Rangers grabbed a four game lead over the division-worst Angels, who go into Sunday night's game against the Yankees with a 3-5 record.
Just one of those three wins came against the Twins, the teams' only common opponent, whom the Rangers swept Sunday afternoon courtesy of Josh Hamilton's 449-foot two-run homer in the eighth inning. The Rangers outmanned the Twins, scoring 14 runs to Minnesota's six over the course of the three-game series, whereas the Angels let the Twins' offense explode on Wednesday and Thursday, when it scored six and then 10 runs, edging the Angels by a run each day.
Through Sunday afternoon, the Rangers are batting a collective .267 to the Angels' .258, and their pitchers' 2.30 ERA is far better than the Rangers' collective ERA of 4.43. Even so, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire drew comparisons between the two teams after facing the Angels, observing that both have speed, power and are unafraid to play small ball. But the Rangers' reputation precedes them.
"It's a very good lineup over there," Gardenhire said of Texas. "You look up and down the lineup, they have a little bit of everything... They do a lot of things, plus a dominant pitching staff with some great arms in the bullpen. This is a complete baseball team."
Through these first nine or ten games, it's easy to see that statistics, both past and present, can at time have little bearing on the outcome of both a game and a season. Adding a first baseman with a career .328 batting average and a starting pitcher with a career 3.60 ERA going into 2012 should provide an instant boost, but in the Angels' case, they haven't yet.
Just look at last season, for that matter. The Rangers were third in the major leagues in runs scored (807), first in team batting average (.283) and second in home runs (210), yet they lost the World Series to a Cardinals team that was fifth in runs (762), fifth in average (.273) and 13th in home runs (162). So much of statistics depends on ballparks and matchups, even on leagues, so it's hard to precisely say how they'll translate from team to team or year to year.
Instead of statistics, Wilson said winning comes down to comfort and to a team's ability to handle close games. There will always be freak occurrences, balls bouncing funny and pitches coming off the fingertips just that much wrong. It's how a team deals with all those factors that determines whether it's a championship-caliber squad.
"I think most teams, it's how they do in those games that are one-run games," Wilson said. "I think that's really what it comes down to. Like today, there was a couple weird plays -- ball hits a base, some other weird stuff -- and those things, some of those went against us today. Over the course of the season, we hope that evens out."
Funny hops and bad bounces often seem easier to handle for a team like the Rangers, whose players have been turning double plays and fielding grounders together for seasons. Kinsler said he knows exactly what to expect from his teammates, how they're going to react to certain situations and challenges, which makes dealing with those obstacles all the more seamless.
"Every team has talent," Nathan said. "You could look on every roster in the major leagues and there's talent across the board. I think it's the teams that can play together. This team has proven that they do a lot of things well together."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said that he's seen some teams like his, teams that have added key new players, hit the ground running in spring training. His doesn't seem to be one of them, though, and it's still working out the early kinks. The team needs to get over a hump, he said. Pitchers need to find their rhythm, and Pujols must find a way to shake his early season slump and improve his current .250 average and .314 on base percentage.
It's not so much that the Angels need to improve. They simply have to figure out how to play together, to find a way to tip the scales ever so slightly in their favor. They've done the administrative part, assembling the best that money could buy last winter; now they need to let chemistry and acclimation play their parts.
"The difference between winning and losing a game sometimes is a bad bounce," Wilson said. "Sometimes it's a bad call. Sometimes it's a bad pitch. It comes down to one play sometimes. I think that's why you just have to put the best team together that you can and know that more times than not, you're going to have a competitive day."
Right now, the Angels are dealing in the currency of hope, the blind faith that what worked on other teams will somehow fuse and work for them. The Rangers, however, have hours of tape and shared experiences to affirm their belief that they can win again. They have seven pitchers who could be legitimate starters on any other team -- Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando were banished to the bullpen in favor of Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz -- and perhaps the best lineup in the major leagues. It's a scary lineup, Nathan said ("It's nice to be on this side of it."), one whose third, fourth and fifth hitters are batting .350 through its first three series. Right now, on paper, the Rangers look good. In person, they might just look better.
"I think the asset is that we've been together for a while, and we've been in the playoffs two year in a row," Washington said. "So there's the asset. They know what it takes to grind through a 162-game season, and having the same guys does make a difference."
But perhaps the biggest difference between the Rangers and the Angels comes not in who and what carried over from last season, but in their approach to additions this year. The Angels added because they had to, because what they did in 2011 wasn't enough. The Rangers, through the cache that two consecutive World Series berths brings, were able to lure and gamble. It took little more than a call to get Nathan on board -- "When Texas called, it definitely made it easier knowing it was Texas, for sure," he said -- and its high-profile status did a lot in luring Japan's best pitcher, Yu Darvish, to Arlington.
Darvish may just be the best example of why Texas is different. Sure, it paid big bucks, 60 million over six years, for him, no different from other teams' expenditures. But though Darvish had a .144 ERA last season in Japan, he's still a gamble. He's never played against American teams in American ballparks before, and for as much of a chance as he has to be the new face of Japanese baseball in America, there's just as much of a possibility he could be a complete bust.
It was a wager the Rangers were willing to take, and really, they were one of few teams equipped to do so.
So yes, these early games are just a microcosm of a season, making up less than seven percent of the contests these teams will play. Texas fared better than Los Angeles against their common opponent, Minnesota, but neither team has faced the other to see what form a true matchup will take. Early on, themes are emerging, themes of acclimation and carried-over momentum. And for as often as Angels outfielder Torii Hunter says that Pujols is going to be okay, for as many times as the Rangers say their World Series losses are really an advantage, no one really knows. The only thing that's certain right now is that while the Angels can speak in hypotheticals, the Rangers are dealing more with certainty.
"I think we got better as a team also, and we were better than (the Angels) last year," Kinsler said.
That's a decent argument for success, but really, no one says it better than Washington.
"They can play, man."
Yeah, man, they can. But soon enough, the Angels may be saying the same thing.
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