Even as they rocked to the practice field beat of their freshly installed Bluetooth speaker system — the one whose volume kept getting turned up to “11” — a cloud hovered over the spring training preparations of the Texas Rangers.
The cloud was April and the scars that first month left behind in 2015.
A rotten April and an 8-16 start nearly scuttled manager Jeff Banister’s first season in Texas before it ever really got started.
A 7-1 loss at home to the Oakland Athletics on May 3 last season dropped the Rangers’ record to 8-16. They were 9 1/2 games behind American League West-leading Houston.
The would-be first two pitchers in Banister’s starting rotation already were injured and gone. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was batting .141, third baseman Adrian Beltre was hitting .216, and second baseman Rougned Odor was tickling the baseball at a .148 clip and about to be sent down to the minor leagues.
This spring’s cloud?
Though they politely answered questions about it while in Arizona, the Rangers refused to believe that there would be an April hangover.
Saturday night’s victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as it turned out, was the 2016 Rangers’ 14th. They began Sunday in first place.
Not even a homestand-ending 9-6 loss to the diablos could dent their confidence. They are convinced they have the makings of another division champion.
“Yes, no doubt,” Beltre said Sunday. “Obviously we have to improve, but [April] was not a bad month this time.
“We just need to be consistent now and try to win series.”
The season is still cradle young. The Rangers have faced only six opponents.
A year ago, however, they looked at the feeble starts and injury losses as April turned to May and they wondered how and whether they could recover from them.
This time the more popular public debate has been about what the Rangers are going to do with all these outfielders. And whose rotation spot is Yu Darvish going to reclaim?
“Something will work out,” said Choo, whose strained right calf has improved. He is said to be “about a week” away from going on a rehab assignment.
Choo himself started poorly in 2015. In his absence this time, however, rookie Nomar Mazara began Sunday with a .333 average and was the fifth-leading hitter in the American League.
Staff ace Darvish, who missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery, began his rehab assignment Sunday in Frisco. Which means that one of the team’s starting pitchers — who collectively have the lowest ERA (3.08 before Sunday) in the league — is going to have to soon surrender his spot to accommodate Darvish.
The lone bad news from the disabled list was a reported setback from Josh Hamilton after one rehab game in Frisco.
No problem. Mazara is keeping the lineup place warm.
Beltre is right. The Rangers were inconsistent in this season’s first month. An encouraging sweep over the Astros was immediately followed by a three-game sweep at the lava-hot hands of the White Sox.
The Rangers U-turned their season in May of 2015, posting a 19-11 record. The road just ahead this year, though, appears wedged with potholes and nails. The next two weeks will be played against the Blue Jays, Tigers and White Sox.
When Banister was asked Sunday, though, whether it was a critical stretch for his team, he half-winced.
“It’s a fair question,” he said, “but it’s too early to put ‘critical’ on any stretch right now.
“It’s May. We want to play well in May. We want to play well in every series.”
As the Rangers learned last season, every game won in April and May is one less that they have to win in late September and October. After the 8-16 start, they clinched the AL West last year on the season’s final day.
“We’ve been streaky,” Beltre said. “Streaky winning and streaky losing. We just need to be more consistent.”
There would seem to be no better time, no better place, than this week in Toronto.