Cruz-less Rangers could toe thin September line

With their diminished offense and their narrow division lead, the Texas Rangers’ margin for error is already perilously thin.

They don’t need to be making it any thinner.

But fielding lapses, leadoff walks, a rising pitch count and another base-running gaffe all conspired to turn an otherwise glorious August afternoon at Rangers Ballpark into an ugly 4-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

The Rangers have lost five of their last seven games against the sub-.500 Mariners. For the fifth time in six games, the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz-less lineup has struggled to score runs. They have hit one home run in their last seven contests.

All this on a Sunday when the pitching matchup appeared to be heavily skewed in favor of the Rangers. It began with Seattle spot starter Erasmo Ramirez — burdened with a 7.06 ERA and an opponents’ batting average of .294 — against Yu Darvish, who flirted with a no-hitter his last time out.

Reprising a disturbing trend, however, the Rangers’ lineup struggled to string together base runners. Ramirez allowed only four hits. When he departed after seven innings, only two Rangers had gotten as far as second base.

Better get used to it. The home run drought isn’t a slump — it’s a symptom. Runs weren’t coming easily for the Rangers even before Cruz was suspended for 50 games.

Manufactured runs, late rallies, clean fielding and reliable pitching are going to have to carry this team over the final six weeks. They fell short Sunday, however, in all four categories.

Darvish, in particular, fell short. After four quality innings, he put the Seattle leadoff man on base in each of the next four.

Darvish acknowledged the pitch-command issues.

“In many games I can have trouble with my command in any inning that I throw,” he said after the game. “Today it happened to be after the sixth inning.”

After throwing 107 pitches through the first seven innings, though, it was curious to see him return to the mound to begin the eighth. In a 2-2 tie, Darvish walked Kyle Seager and surrendered a single to Kendrys Morales to start the inning, and Seager later came around to score on a single by Dustin Ackley off reliever Robbie Ross.

Manager Ron Washington was asked why he allowed a “tired” Darvish to begin the inning.

“You thought he was tired?” Washington responded. “Thank God you’re not the manager. He wasn’t tired.

“You look at the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, and he led each one of them off with a walk. He still had good stuff. It just didn’t happen.”

Darvish concurred, saying, “I think my velocity was still up there. There wasn’t any fatigue. I felt really good, so I felt I could go out there.”

The kink in the decision to stick with Darvish, though, was compounded by Washington having to go to Ross to face lefty-hitting Michael Saunders and Ackley. Ross has struggled to retire lefties, especially in recent weeks. But Washington’s best left-handed choice, Neal Cotts, was unavailable after having pitched the previous two nights.

The Rangers dearly need Ross to return to his early-season form. The team’s bullpen options from that side are limited.

Washington rolled the dice on him Sunday, though — rolled them on Ross and Darvish — and lost.

That’s what happens when your lineup isn’t consistently scoring enough runs.

You roll the dice. You try to stretch your ace starter for one more inning. You hope it all works out.

Better get used to it. This is going to be Rangers baseball for the regular season’s final six weeks.

Since July 12, second baseman Ian Kinsler is batting .213 with one home run. Since the All-Star break, first baseman Mitch Moreland is batting .173.

Alex Rios figures to be a capable stand-in for Cruz since the trade with the White Sox. But he’s a different player. Since June 10, Rios has hit only one home run.

With the Mariners in town, this was supposed to be another leg in the easy, August part of the schedule. The September stretch, laced with five series against playoff contenders, should be much tougher.

With Sunday’s defeat, the Rangers’ division lead over Oakland dropped to a half-game.

They don’t need to be making it any thinner.

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