It’s hard not to notice. The vibes coming from both places are palpable.
The baseball tides in Texas appear to be turning. The Houston Astros, a six-year doormat, have the best record in the American League.
The Texas Rangers, back-to-back American League champions just three years ago, have the worst record in the AL, even after Monday’s win against the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
Yes, momentum seems to have swung south where the Astros are the hottest team in baseball. They had won 10 consecutive games until the Rangers snapped the streak with a 2-1 win come-from-behind win in the series opener. The Astros lead the AL West at 18-8.
Conversely, the Rangers limped down Interstate 45, losers of 10 of their last 13 games, including a debilitating 1-5 homestand.
Although you couldn’t tell it from Monday night’s attendance (less than 15,000 appeared in the house), Houston is starting to get excited about its baseball team again. Even with the Rockets still alive in the NBA playoffs a few blocks away in downtown, the Astros’ early success has high hopes that the club has finally turned it around.
No team in baseball had lost more games than the Astros the past four seasons, a stretch of futility that included three seasons of 106 or more losses. Although they finished 70-92 a year ago, the Astros moved out of the AL West cellar by taking 11 of the 19 games against the Rangers, who finished in last place for the first time since 2007.
“It’s more than one thing,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said during a teleconference with beat reporters Monday. “If it was one thing that was easily identified and fixed we’d have addressed it already. I don’t think it’s on any one individual. I think it’s across the board starting with myself. We took the approach the first few weeks of patience and I’m glad we did, let things play out a little bit, give guys a chance to get their feet under them.”
But as Daniels pointed out, that patience hasn’t been rewarded so far. In fact, the club has backslid the past week, going 1-5 at Globe Life Park while losing in particularly vexing ways.
The organization, including Daniels, manager Jeff Banister and the players, think they’re just underperforming through the first month of the season.
“I think so. Definitely,” said designated hitter/first baseman Prince Fielder. “Obviously, we have a good lineup; it just hasn’t worked out for us yet. There are some games that we should’ve won, there are games that we could’ve played better; everything is just not clicking at the same time. Once everything kind of clicks at the same time it should get a little better.”
But a little better won’t be good enough to catch up with the Astros, if they continue on their pace. They were seven games ahead of the second-place Angels before Tuesday’s game. They’ve done it with outstanding pitching, including a 2.13 bullpen ERA, and a major league-leading 40 homers. They’ve also played great defense, including tied for fifth-fewest errors (13) in the majors. The Rangers are tied for the most errors in the league (24) and are near the bottom with 17 homers and their bullpen has an MLB-high six blown saves.
Banister, who grew up south of Houston and played baseball at the University of Houston, cautioned that it’s still too early to put too much stock into either club’s direction.
“Not much in how teams play at this time of the year surprises,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really gets surprised. Coming out of spring training you have thoughts and expectations [then] you see teams play well and then kind of settle in to who they are. And then you see some teams that struggled early and then start [to play better]. They’ve got a nice mix of young players who can play. So it’s not surprising.”
The Rangers also have talented young players, but so far in 2015 none are overachieving, much less playing to their potential, Daniels said.
“It’s not panic, it’s nothing like that, it’s just a reality,” he said. “We want to see guys turn the corner, see the results of the hard work pay off. We’ve had too many lapses in focus and a lack of execution at certain times and I think that’s cost us. Some of it you can chalk up to inexperience.”
Daniels and Banister plan to take a more critical eye during the Rangers’ seven-game road trip, which takes them to Tampa Bay on Thursday.
“We need to start seeing some production. We need to see focus and preparation and a little more attention to detail and I expect we will,” Daniels said. “If not we’ll make some other changes but that’s always the last resort. I’d rather err on the side of patience and I do believe in these guys.”
Said Banister: “We’re at a point in time now where we need production out of other guys. Not that we didn’t need it earlier, but it’s time to start doing some things in the game that will lead to Ws for us.”
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760
Comparing the AL West rivals’ statistics through the first month of the season entering Tuesday: