Texas Rangers

Leclerc was the best pitcher in Rangers’ walk-off win. Is it time for him to close again?

The Texas Rangers had to endure a delay of 2 hours, 11 minutes Saturday afternoon, to which the kids on the Colleyville Heritage and Mansfield Legacy baseball teams said, “Hold my milk.”

The deciding of their Class 5A Region I quarterfinal best-of-3 series was originally scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, then was bumped to 6 p.m., then was bumped to 8:15 p.m. and finally started at 10:15 p.m. at Dallas Baptist.

Colleyville Heritage, the nation’s third-ranked team according to USA Today, prevailed 7-3 in a game that ended just before 1 a.m. That was long after prom had ended.

That’s right: The Panthers had to miss their prom.

The guess here is that the players weren’t too upset. As for their dates and their parents, well, they will have a heck of a story to tell someday.

Speaking of a story, here’s some Rangers Reaction from a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in 10 innings.

1. Two things happened Sunday at Globe Life Park that might convince the Rangers that Jose Leclerc is ready to again stake his claim as the club’s closer.

One was Leclerc, who struck out five of the six batters in the heart of the Cardinals’ order in the fifth and sixth innings in relief of starter Drew Smyly.

The second is Chris Martin, who allowed the game-tying homer to Dexter Fowler with one out in the ninth and blew the save. Martin has been pitching well of late, too, but he wasn’t expected to have to close games this season.

So, how close is Leclerc to returning to the ninth inning?

“He’s real close,” manager Chris Woodward said.

The Leclerc who pitched Sunday is the Leclerc the Rangers had in mind when they gave him a four-year, $14.75 million contract extension in spring training.

He struck out the first four batters he faced, beginning with native Texan and perennial All-Star Paul Goldschmidt, and ended the outing by striking out Fowler after Yadier Molina flied out.

Leclerc looked like he belongs in the ninth inning again, as he did working the first inning Friday as the opener for Adrian Sampson. He was really good May 12 at Houston.

In his past three appearances covering 4 1/3 innings, Leclerc has retired all 13 hitters. Ten of the outs have been strikeouts.

Woodward, though, wants to see more and more consistency from Leclerc. His pitches need to continue to look the same coming out of his hand, and opposing hitters need to continue to look lost at the plate.

Besides, the role Leclerc can fill now as a use-him-anytime reliever has value. The Rangers don’t get to the ninth inning with a lead if he doesn’t cool off the Cardinals the way he did in the middle innings.

But he will be closing again.

“It’s a really good outing for him, clearly,” Woodward said. “I think that’s a huge step for him moving forward. That’s the guy we saw last year. That’s the closer eventually.”

2. Smyly needed a robust 37 pitches to get three outs in the first inning, and that’s the main reason why the Rangers had to turn to Leclerc in the fifth inning. After allowing two runs in the first, Smyly posted three zeros to end the day.

So, once again, there are both things to work on and things to build on for Smyly. That seems to have been the case in all of his starts this season, in part due to his first-inning woes.

“It’s the story of the season,” he said. “I guess I’ve got to be more aggressive in the first.”

Smyly has allowed more runs (6) and walks (6) in the first than any other, and 20-plus pitches in the first inning have been the norm.

That puts a burden on the bullpen. It forces relievers into action too early, and the bullpen is short in tight situations or if the game goes into extra innings or both.

It was both Sunday, when the Rangers had to turn to Jeanmar Gomez for the 10th after Leclerc and Jesse Chavez worked two scoreless innings ahead of Martin’s blown save.

Gomez surrendered a leadoff double to Harrison Bader, who scored two batters later on a Paul DeJong sacrifice fly.

Brett Martin would have pitched the 11th had the Rangers failed to plate the winning run in the 10th.

The return of Shawn Kelley will add some depth to the back of the bullpen, but so will Smyly once he figures out his first-inning woes.

3. Smyly’s short outing and the late-game troubles for the bullpen weren’t the only culprits in the near-loss. That 1-for-7 showing with runners in scoring position was an eyesore.

But that meager showing is a drastic diversion from how the Rangers have done this season. The Rangers entered the day first in the majors with a .288 average in those situations.

Two of the misses came in the fourth with Hunter Pence at second base after doubling in a run to tie the game at 2-all. Joey Gallo struck out and Asdrubal Cabrera popped out to leave Pence at second base.

Two more came in the sixth, with Shin-Soo Choo at third. Nomar Mazara and Pence both struck out to end the inning.

Calhoun had the one, as his single to right scored Rougned Odor. After Choo walked to load the bases, Logan Forsythe struck out and Marzara had two strikes on him when he lofted a flyball to center field.

Danny Santana, who followed Odor’s leadoff single with a walk, showed no side effects of his sore ankle as he darted home with the winner. He also hit the go-ahead homer as a pinch hitter in the eighth.

“Everybody was going to have a good opportunity to go up there and do something good for us,” Mazara said. “When you’ve got a speed guy like Santana on third base, he makes things a lot easier. Just try to put the ball in play.”

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