Jason Frasor is in his 10th year in the big leagues and has never felt this before. The season is usually dragging at this point as he’s been stuck on teams out of the pennant chase.
September for noncontenders, Frasor said, has a different feel to it. Players are more out for themselves than the team. They are looking to pad their stats to boost their free-agent value or maybe trying to lock down a job for next season.
“The season is just flying by right now; every day is so interesting, so important,” Frasor said. “It’s a very unselfish time of year. All you are about is winning. I’ve played on teams where we’ve been 20 back at this point, and you’re kind of playing for yourself. You really are.”
The Texas Rangers aren’t that far removed from those types of Septembers, but the culture has changed with three consecutive playoff berths. They are eyeing a fourth straight October run with 25 games left.
It’s the stretch run, and nothing beats this time of year for the players or fans.
“It’s an exciting month for any team involved in a playoff race. You see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ian Kinsler said. “We know what’s ahead of us and we know where we want to be, so it’s just a matter of doing it.”
Oakland isn’t going to give away the American League West title without a fight, as Texas well knows, and the other AL contenders are readying to make a run at the No. 1 seed in the playoffs the final month.
For now, the Rangers are focused on reclaiming the division crown. It’s a two-horse race once again between them and the A’s. The Angels and Mariners are more than 15 games back, and the Astros already have been eliminated.
Everybody remembers the late-season collapse by the Rangers last season when they saw a five-game lead in the division vanish over the final nine games. None of the players, though, are concerned about last year.
They’ve learned from it and are trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“Everything happens for a reason, and it just wasn’t meant to be for us last year,” shortstop Elvis Andrus said. “That’s baseball. We learn from that and make sure we don’t take anything for granted this year.”
Said Derek Holland: “We got beat last year. It’s a new year, and we know we need to go out and gain the title back. We turned the page, and we’re ready to write a new chapter.”
Texas isn’t the first team to lose a lead in that fashion, of course. That’s part of what makes September so intriguing and dramatic.
In 2011, Boston led the wild card race by nine games on Sept. 4 but missed the playoffs by going 7-20 in September. That same year, the Braves also blew a substantial lead in the National League wild card race. They had a 9 1/2-game lead on Aug. 26 but fell apart down the stretch, paving the way for the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.
It’s a new year, however, and there surely will be different storylines when it’s over. The Rangers like their chances of being one of the better ones.
The pitching staff posted a 3.09 ERA in August, second-lowest in the AL. The rotation is solid with Holland, Yu Darvish, Matt Garza and Martin Perez. The fifth spot, one of the pitfalls to last season, is still a question mark with Travis Blackley holding it down until Alexi Ogando returns.
If Blackley struggles or Ogando is deemed better suited for the bullpen, don’t be surprised if Nick Tepesch gets time in that spot.
The bullpen is also deep behind closer Joe Nathan. Tanner Scheppers has emerged as a dependable setup reliever, and Neal Cotts has been a dominant lefty. Robbie Ross appears to be getting back to his early-season form, Joakim Soria and Frasor are quality veteran pieces and Neftali Feliz has returned from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Offensively, manager Ron Washington has a more versatile team than in previous seasons. They don’t hit as many home runs or have as many everyday threats in the lineup, but there is more speed and bench depth.
The offense still shows its inconsistencies, evident by last weekend’s series against the Twins, but Washington believes the Rangers have at least found their identity after being swept in Cleveland in late July and falling six games back.
“Everybody knows their role,” Washington said. “Before this year, I had nine guys that played almost every day. I have six guys that play every day now, so it helps keep everyone involved. They’re always ready.”
They’re also ready for the stretch drive.
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