The most important series of the season is up next for the Texas Rangers just as they are going through their worst stretch of the year.
In their three most recent games, each one a loss, some aspect of the club failed. In other words, don’t just blame the offense.
On Wednesday afternoon, the pitching staff couldn’t stop the Rangers’ losing ways.
Matt Garza, the hired gun, ran out of bullets after four innings, and the heretofore rock-solid bullpen couldn’t put up a badly needed zero late.
The result was a 7-5 Pittsburgh victory and a three-game sweep of the Rangers with division-leading Oakland headed to Rangers Ballpark on Friday.
The Rangers’ playoff hopes are hardly gone. They continue to lead the wild-card race, though their hopes of winning the American League West are fading. They are three games back after the A’s beat Minnesota on Wednesday night.
But there is work to do over the final 17 games if the Rangers are going to unseat the A’s.
“As a team, we’re going through struggles in every phase of the game — defensively, offensively, pitching,” third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “Not good enough to win ballgames is the bottom line. I think we need to tidy up everything about the game and find a way to beat the other team. We’re positive that we’re going to get better, and we have to execute.”
Manager Ron Washington did not hold a team meeting after the Rangers’ third straight loss and their third sweep at home in a series of at least three games. He called the team together Sunday morning in Anaheim, reminding them that if they keep putting themselves in position to win, they will win.
But they didn’t lead a single inning this week against Pittsburgh, which entered on a four-game losing streak. The Rangers were down 4-0 on Wednesday as Garza struggled to command his pitches.
He started to crumble in the third, when he walked No. 9 hitter Felix Pie to start the inning and saw him score two batters later.
The Pirates opened the fourth with a walk, this one to Pedro Alvarez, and followed it up with two singles to load the bases. Garza walked the next batter, the .219-hitting Clint Barmes, to force in another run.
After Pie struck out, Elvis Andrus bobbled a Jose Tabata grounder that should have been a double play. Instead, Russell Martin scored for a 3-0 lead.
Garza (3-4) was finished after four innings, his shortest in 10 starts with the Rangers. His American League ERA grew to 4.46, and he dropped his third straight decision, hardly the stuff of a pitcher acquired to help push the Rangers to the West crown.
“I’m not happy because I’m not where I want to be, but I’ve got to just keep going,” Garza said. “Nothing else. Keep going, keep pitching, keep working and get ready for the next start.”
Pittsburgh padded its lead to 4-0 in the fifth against Joseph Ortiz before the Rangers finally got going against A.J. Burnett, who retired the first 13 batters he faced. A.J. Pierzynski doubled with one out in the fifth to end Burnett’s dominance, and the Rangers opened the sixth with two walks and a single.
Andrus followed with a single off the glove of a diving Barmes at shortstop to cut the Pirates’ lead to 4-2, but Ortiz, Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts combined to give back the two runs in the seventh.
The Rangers kept coming, though, scoring three more in the seventh. David Murphy, Ian Kinsler and Andrus delivered three RBI singles to move the Rangers within one run at 6-5.
But Barmes took Tanner Scheppers deep in the eighth, clanging one off the left-field foul pole, and the Rangers, who went 6 for 15 with runners in scoring position, missed out twice with runners at first and second in the eighth.
“Every time we put runs on the board, we couldn’t get a shutdown inning,” Washington said. “If we’d gotten a shutdown inning, maybe it would have been different. We didn’t get one today.”
Instead, the Rangers got their sixth loss in their past seven games and their ninth in the past 12, and their September record dropped to 2-8 ahead of their biggest series of the season against Oakland.
“We’ve got to come back Friday ready to play,” Kinsler said. “Every game is the biggest game of the year, regardless of the opponent. Obviously, Oakland is ahead of us in the standings, but we have to play better baseball. That’s the bottom line.”