They were sailing along, if you’ll pardon the nautical reference.
The Rangers had a four-run lead, Carlos Gomez had an RBI single, and left-hander Cole Hamels, as certain as the Texas sunrise, had thrown only 27 pitches in the first three innings against the Seattle Mariners.
And suddenly, Alex Claudio was pitching for the home team.
Reliever Claudio, if you’ve been following the season’s narrative, usually only pitches in low-leverage scenarios and, certainly, seldom on the same night as staff ace Hamels.
There were lessons, therefore, to be learned at the ballpark Tuesday night. Among others, the AL West race has yet to be won. Hamels can be mortal on occasion. And the only safe way for Rougned Odor to navigate the base paths is by hitting a game-winning home run.
Rangers 8, Mariners 7, and Seattle is now 10 1/2 games behind.
It’s hard to say, though, what happened to Hamels in the fourth inning. After one of his best starts to a game this season, Hamels suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone and he walked in two runs, something he hasn’t done twice in a season — let alone a single game — in six years.
Another walk and four more singles in the next inning sent Hamels to the shower and left the audience of 26,950 shifting in their seats.
This was supposed to be the night they buried the Mariners. This was supposed to be the night when they showed the American League how decisive the one-two pitching punch of Yu Darvish and Hamels will be.
Instead, Hamels finished with his worst outing in nearly two months, Gomez coughed up a run with an error in right field, and Odor made two outs running the bases, giving him 18 for the season.
It was an untidy performance, after five days of mostly flexing their AL West muscle.
When you win on a subpar night like Tuesday, however, you discourage your pursuers. The Houston Astros, winners of nine of their last 11, are closer to the white-flagged Yankees than they are to the first-place Rangers.
Manager Jeff Banister’s team has thrown in an occasional clunker — the 12-1 loss to Cleveland, the 3-0 shutout at Cincinnati. But they clearly are now built for the long haul.
For one thing, there are no more hitless pits in the lineup. Run producers and patient batsmen populate the lineup.
Banister described it thusly:
“A multi-dimensional skill-set team that can grind out at-bats against tough pitchers.”
Banister showed it Tuesday by going with a predominantly right-handed batting lineup against Seattle lefty James Paxton. The outfield, as a result, was like the start of a relay team — an athletic mix of Delino DeShields in left, Ian Desmond in center and Gomez in right field.
Gomez justified the manager’s faith with a run-scoring single in the second inning. And Odor made amends for his base running blunders by reaching the center field lawn in the ninth.
When you can learn a few lessons and increase your division lead, life is good. The Rangers will try for a series sweep Wednesday against the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez.
No chance, right?
So haven’t we learned anything?