Jun 5, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre (29) is congratulated after scoring a run by second baseman Rougned Odor (left) and right fielder Dan Robertson (right) against the Baltimore Orioles during a baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Rangers won 8-6. Mandatory Credit: Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians (30-30) @ Texas Rangers (30-30)

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Red-Hot Wahoos Travel to Texas to Take on Struggling Rangers

And just like that, the Cleveland Indians are the hottest team in baseball. After sweeping both the Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers out of Progressive Field, the Tribe have won six straight games after dropping five of six to the Orioles and White Sox. This most recent hot streak, which sees the Indians playing their best baseball of the season, has pushed them back to .500 with a record of 30-30. In addition, the Indians have pulled themselves out of the AL Central basement and back into third place, 3.5 games behind of the suddenly mortal Detroit Tigers.

People, I don’t know if you realize this or not, but we are suddenly in the thick of a division race once again. What seemed like a season on life support and teetering on the brink of disaster as recently as a week ago, is once again alive and kicking. With their next six games against teams struggling to tread water in 2014, the Indians have a tremendous opportunity in front of them to further close the gap in the AL Central standings. That opportunity begins tonight as the Tribe heads to Arlington to take on the struggling Texas Rangers.

The Rangers are having a rough go of it in 2014. After years of dominating the AL West and the American League in general, sitting below .500 and in fourth place in their own division is not something they are used to dealing with. However, this decline is something that we all should have seen coming. The door, window, or whatever opening you want to use as a metaphor has been slowly closing since the end of the 2012 season.

After back to back World Series trips in 2010 and 2011, a late season collapse in 2012 led to the A’s winning the West and a berth in the first wild card play-in game  for the Rangers (a loss to the Orioles). 2013 saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in three years after losing a one game playoff to the Tampa Bay Rays. All of that appears to follow the typical timeline of contention. A gradual rise to the top of the proverbial mountain followed by an eventual and gradual decline back to the bottom.

Towards the end of 2013, it appeared that their window of contention was beginning to close. With the way 2014 is playing out, that window might have just been slammed shut. despite their best efforts. In the offseason, the Rangers made a concerted effort to rebuild their team while remaining contenders. Typically when it comes to teams that achieve success but seem to plateau over time, one of two changes typically occur – change the manager or change the roster. The Rangers opted for the latter, tinkering with their current roster while retaining the services of Ron Washington as the man in charge. In the words of Homer Simpson… “D’oh!”

This winter the Rangers made to very high-profile moves. One of these was the signing of Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year $130-million deal. Choo, who had blossomed with the Indians and Reds was brought in to jump start the Rangers already high powered offense. With the loss of incumbent right fielder Nelson Cruz to free agency, Choo would be relied upon to help fill the void created. To date, Choo has looked like a great signing for the Rangers. So far he is slashing .280/.414/.855 with 31 runs scored.

rangers

Jun 1, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Texas Rangers left fielder Shin-Soo Choo (17) on the bench against the Washington Nationals during the sixth inning at Nationals Park. The Rangers won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The signing of Choo was necessitated by the trading away of Ian Kinsler to the Tigers. Kinsler had been a regular at the top of the Rangers lineup throughout their most recent run of success, with him gone, the Rangers were in desperate need of a new lead-off option. Choo fit the bill for everything they were looking for. Of course, we can’t mention the trading away of Ian Kinsler without mentioning what they gained in return. In exchange for an all-star second baseman that hits for power, gets on base, and steal bases, the Rangers acquired Prince Fielder and his lead weight of a contract.

While the Choo signing has been nothing but spectacular, the acquisition of Fielder has been a complete and total disaster. Knowing that they were taking a risk on an overweight and sub-par defensive first baseman who had experienced significant regression over the past two seasons, they felt it was worth the risk, that the hitter friendly confines of Arlington and a change of scenery would do him good. It was sound logic that many could jump on board with.

Whoops…

Fielder recently went on the disabled list and will be lost for the season following neck surgery. A major blow unto itself, season ending surgery was not something many people expected from the normally durable Fielder. However, it would have been an even bigger blow had Fielder been productive prior to the injury. For the 2014 season, Fielder hit a paltry .247/.360/.360 with three home runs and 16 RBI. So again, while losing Fielder is a big loss due to his potential as a power hitting run producer, his actual production to date is something that could be replaced by a Triple-A prospect.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the Rangers have had to overcome, though, is the injuries to their starting rotation. They’re an Alan Alda and Mike Farrell away from having a full fledged M.A.S.H. unit. Matt Harrision’s career is in jeopardy after spinal fusion surgery. Tanner Scheppers experienced elbow soreness. Martin Perez had Tommy John Surgery and is done for the year. Derek Holland injured his knee “falling at home” during the offseason and still is not back.

As with any team, injuries are going to happen, but to take on that many injuries to a starting rotation is almost too much to overcome. From that stand point, one could almost view this season as an outlier thanks to a series of unfortunate injuries across the board. The injuries have taken their toll and it is apparent after taking one look at the Major League stat boards. The Rangers rank near the bottom in every significant pitching category. So despite an offense that still ranks among the best in baseball, run prevention remains an issue. It’s an issue that doesn’t appear readily solvable either, unless of course they can find some type of magic elixir to cure each and every single injury that has begotten them.

Even their top prospect, Jurickson Profar, was not immune to the injury bug. He has disappointed up to this point, but that does not mean their isn’t still some excitement centered around his potential. Even still, his injury was a blow the Rangers didn’t appear ready for. After all, they traded away Ian Kinsler to make room for him in the everyday lineup. His injured shoulder has kept him out all season to this point and it appears likely that he won’t return until next season.

So to put it as simply as possible, the Rangers are struggling. If this was a home series, where the Indians are an American League best 22-11 on the season, there would be reason to be optimistic. However, this is in Texas and on the road so far this season the Tribe is a bitter 9-19. That is worst in the big leagues and they are the only team in baseball without double digit road victories. Whether it’s a mental thing or physical is unclear, but the Indians struggles on the road are the one thing that can make a feeble opponent look like a powerhouse.

Pitching Match-Ups:

A battle of a current ace versus a future ace. Can Bauer match Darvish pitch for pitch? More importantly, can the Indians, who struggle at time offensively, find a way to solve the riddle that is Yu Darvish? It’ll be a challenge, one that the Indians may not be overcome. Darvish is good. Really good. Don’t be surprised if he puts the breaks on the Indians winning streak.

Jun 1, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Yu Darvish (11) throws during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Tomlin has been great this season since being promoted to replace Carlos Carrasco, a spot he should have won from the get go. Look for that to continue. Meanwhile, Tepesch has been relied upon to fill in for the banged up Rangers rotation. Will the Indians exploit his inexperience on their way to a win?

Masterson is coming off of a spectacular outing in which everything came together. The problem though this season has been putting together good performances back to back. Is this the time through the rotation where that changes. Meanwhile, Indians hitters have always hit Saunders well. Can they do it one more time?

T.J. House has come to the rescue in a big way in place of an injured Zach McAllister. He hasn’t been spectacular, but he has been steady and solid, averaging six innings per start. Can he keep it going for one more start before McAllister returns? Meanwhile, Martinez is another young pitcher filling in that otherwise would probably still be in the minors. Can the Indians exploit that advantage or are they doomed to make him look like an all-star.

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Tags: Cleveland Indians Prince Fielder Shin Soo Choo Yu Darvish