Thursday marked one month since Nelson Cruz received a 50-game suspension for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, a blow that many believed would cripple the Texas Rangers’ offense.
Lost were 27 homers and 76 RBIs, numbers that led the team, and an intimidating presence in the lineup. Alex Rios, acquired days later, has been productive, but he’s not the threat that Cruz is.
“Any time you lose a player of Nelson’s caliber, it’s going to affect you,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.
The Rangers, though, haven’t folded since the Cruz banishment, and their numbers in the 27 games without him, in light of the forecasts of doom-and-gloom, have been eye-opening.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Oh, they have had their hiccups, as they did against Minnesota, for instance. All teams go through droughts, often at the worst conceivable times.
But more often than not the Rangers, 18-9 since the suspension, have found a way, leaning on their speed and their third baseman and their pitching, to outscore opponents and win enough ballgames to remain a viable team in the postseason hunt.
“We’ve got a good offense,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “There’s always moving parts, and it doesn’t matter who you have playing. You have to win the game regardless of who’s playing and how you have to do it. There really isn’t one way to win a baseball game.”
Sometimes that has meant scoring two runs to win by one, as the Rangers did Saturday against the Twins. The Rangers have also had games since Cruz’s exile in which they have scored 10, 15, 16, 11 and 12 runs.
Their loss Wednesday, an 11-4 drubbing at Oakland, was their first since July 26 when scoring at least four runs. It was also the first time since July 30 that that pitching staff had allowed more than five runs.
“It doesn’t matter how you go about it. You’ve got to score runs to win,” said Kinsler, who has batted third since July 29. “You’ve got to pitch well, you’ve got to score runs and you’ve got to play defense.”
These Rangers clearly aren’t the same as potent clubs that advanced to the postseason the past three seasons. Cruz has been gone a month, but Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli bolted in the off-season.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre has been shouldering the load in the middle of the lineup, though Kinsler and No. 5 hitter Pierzynski provided big hits as the Rangers went 20-7 in August.
The key, though, has been the players batting ahead of them. Leonys Martin and Elvis Andrus found their running legs in the first series without Cruz, against Anaheim. The Rangers return to Angel Stadium this weekend for a three-game series.
The Rangers have swiped 39 bases the past 27 games, behind only the baseball-leading 45 taken by Kansas City. They are also tied for first in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in instances of going first to third on a single.
Martin and Andrus have 10 steals apiece, Rios has added seven since his acquisition from the White Sox, and Kinsler has stolen six more.
“We’ve become way more aggressive on the bases, as far as stealing bases and taking the extra base,” Pierzynski said. “Putting pressure on the other teams has definitely been upped. The lineup is better when we can get Leonys and Elvis on base. They’re up there to put pressure on teams.”
Entering Thursday, an off day for the Rangers, Boston was the only major league team to score more runs than the Rangers since Cruz was suspended, and the Red Sox had to score 20 on Wednesday to move ahead by one run, 152-151, in one more game.
The Rangers lead baseball in runs per game, at 5.6 since Aug 4. They are fourth in the league in average (.272), fourth in on-base percentage (.344) and fifth in average with runners in scoring position (.269).
Yet, they continue to play with little margin for error.
In past seasons, the Rangers could win a game 8-7 or 11-9. They are only 15-34 this season when the pitching staff has allowed five runs, and 3-3 since Cruz’s ouster. Two of those wins were against lowly Houston.
The Rangers were in a 1-for-24 funk with runners in scoring position before going 2 for 14 in a 5-1 win Tuesday and 3 for 7 in the loss Wednesday. Beltre and Kinsler are 1 for 12 with two RBIs in those situations the past two series, and the Rangers’ record is 2-4.
But they still have a 94.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. The offense hasn’t always been a well-oiled machine this season or since Cruz’s suspension, but it continues to keep the Rangers in the playoff hunt.
“If Nelson was still here, we still would have played well,” manager Ron Washington said. “We may have scored more runs. Yeah, we miss that. So, we just go out and play and try to do what the game asks us to do every day and see what happens when nine innings are finished.”