As stretch run begins, Rangers put away thoughts of last season’s late collapse

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.

Best bets for playoffs

AL division leaders

Detroit (Central): The defending AL champions are poised for another run, assuming Miguel Cabrera and his strained abdomen don’t require a prolonged stint on the bench. Victor Martinez is heating up offensively, and the best lineup in baseball still features Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter. The pitching staff is impressive, too, behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Detroit also got a gift from the scheduling gods with its last four series against Seattle, the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota and Miami.

Boston (East): Unlike Detroit, Boston did not get any favors with its remaining schedule. But the Red Sox have made a remarkable turnaround from last season. Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli have been solid additions, and David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury all have returned to form. The pitching staff also has held together despite losing Clay Buchholz for an extended period of time.

Texas (West): The Rangers fell apart down the stretch last season but have a stronger pitching staff this time around. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Garza lead the rotation, and Martin Perez is having a breakout season. The bullpen is also deep with talent and power arms. The offense remains the concern, but four runs generally puts the team in the win column.

AL wild card

Oakland: The A’s — tied for the West lead with Texas, which also means both teams are tied for the top wild card spot — won the division last year, and it’s well within reach for them to repeat. Oakland has a favorable schedule outside of its two series against the Rangers. Pitching, as always, is a strong suit for the A’s, and Jarrod Parker is coming off a great August. But the offense can be inconsistent as the team entered Monday with a combined .247 average.

Tampa Bay: The Rays were swept by the A’s last weekend but would still be in the playoffs if they started today. They have a proven pitching staff that gets Matt Moore back on Tuesday, and David Price and Alex Cobb are pitching well. The offense is looking to get a boost from newly acquired players such as David DeJesus and Delmon Young.

In the hunt

Baltimore: The Orioles have talent all over the field — Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones — but have gone through a couple of rough stretches, and their rotation is suspect. Can they find a way to recapture their magic from last season?

Cleveland: The Indians have a favorable schedule the final month and are eyeing a return to the postseason for the first time since 2007. Jason Kipnis is in the midst of a breakout season, but the pitching staff went into Monday ranked 20th in ERA (3.98).

New York Yankees: You can never count them out even if their team is filled with aging stars. They have been playing well of late, including Alex Rodriguez, who was batting .280 with four homers in his first 22 games back. Ivan Nova is also coming off an August in which he went 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA.

Kansas City: The Royals, a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 1985, are in it? Yes, but it might not be for too much longer. The Royals have the lowest ERA among AL teams but have a shaky offense and tough schedule ahead that could take them out of the race quickly.

NL division leaders

Atlanta (East): The Braves couldn’t ask for a better schedule to finish off the season, getting to go against a bevy of sub-.500 teams, and that’s not to mention a more comfortable lead in their division. Led by first baseman Freddie Freeman, they have the fourth-highest scoring team in the NL. Atlanta also could get a boost for the playoffs if Jason Heyward (broken jaw) is ready by then. The pitching staff has been just as good, too, posting the second-best ERA (3.18) in the league going into Monday.

Los Angeles Dodgers (West): They might be the most complete team in all of baseball, going a combined 42-12 in July and August. They have a stellar pitching staff led by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Yasiel Puig has given the offense a jolt, and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford have been consistent. And adding postseason veterans such as Michael Young and Brian Wilson can only help.

Pittsburgh (Central): The Pirates collapsed in the second half last season but haven’t shown signs of doing that for a second straight year. They are poised to make the postseason for the first time since 1992 behind a strong pitching staff that includes Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke and A.J. Burnett leading the rotation and Mark Melancon in the bullpen. Closer Jason Grilli (right forearm strain) is also close to returning. The offense has been inconsistent, but the Pirates are hoping Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau help stabilize it.

NL wild card

St. Louis: The NL’s best offensive team is in a tight race to win its first division title since 2009. Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran and TCU product Matt Carpenter are all batting .300 or better. Adam Wainwright has led the pitching staff, going into his Monday start at 15-8 with a 2.96 ERA. Brownwood’s Shelby Miller is having a terrific rookie season, going 12-9 with a 3.13 ERA so far, and Texas A&M product Michael Wacha is looking to hold down the fifth spot the final month.

Cincinnati: Yes, the NL Central could have three teams in the postseason. It’s the tightest and most competitive division in baseball. The Reds won 97 games last season to take the division title, but it won’t be easy to repeat. They do have a heavy schedule of home games down the stretch, which helps, and players such as Brandon Phillips and Mat Latos put together strong months in August.

In the hunt

Arizona: It’s near impossible for the D’backs to catch the Dodgers in the division, but they could make a run at one of the wild cards. It won’t be easy, of course, but they have players such as Aaron Hill and Martin Prado getting hot at the right time and have an MVP candidate in Paul Goldschmidt. It’ll come down to how well their pitching staff does down the stretch, though.

Washington: The Nationals won the most games last season but have played sluggishly most of this year and find themselves needing a remarkable run to get back to the postseason. They have the talent to do it, though, and a favorable schedule to start the month could put them in the mix the final two weeks.

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