Mac Engel

Return of Beltre means Rangers are nearly out of excuses

One-third of the season is gone and we have yet to see the 2017 Texas Rangers, which includes Monday night. The badly-needed return of local hero Adrian Beltre to the lineup does not mean we have seen what is supposed to be the real team.

We still must see Cole Hamels on the mound surrounded by the expected cast of regulars before we will know if this team is good enough. It would help if center fielder Carlos Gomez is back by the time Hamels returns, too.

With a payroll of $178 million, neither manager Jeff Banister nor his players should expect yet another increase from owners Ray Davis and Bob Simpson at the trade deadline to make this team better.

Beltre had to go through all of the necessary/normal pregame workouts on Monday night before being inserted into the Rangers’ lineup for their game against the Rays. In the 54th game of the Rangers’ regular season he was in his normal spot at third base, and batting cleanup.

After receiving a standing ovation from the adoring Ballpark crowd at 7:27 p.m., Beltre smacked a single to right field on a 1-2 pitch. At-bat No. 2 was a fielder’s choice, although it could have been a hit were it not for a nice play made by Rays pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.

Beltre flew out to right field in the fifth in his third plate appearance.

We are two months away from MLB’s trade deadline, but Beltre’s return is the Rangers’ “key” acquisition to a putrid lineup in desperate need of a reliable, bigger bat. Hamels, who will be out roughly eight weeks with an oblique issue, will be the addition to a rotation that, statistically speaking, has been one of baseball’s best.

It’s an indictment on the rest of his teammates, but the only way the Rangers are going to compete for the wild card is if the 38-year-old Beltre returns to his Hall of Fame form immediately, and retains it for the remainder of the season.

The Rangers are not the bumbling bunch of boobs who started the season 13-20, nor are they the 1927 Yankees who won 10 consecutive games.

Beltre’s return will give us a better indication of where the Rangers precisely reside in the middle of their recent polar extremes.

My preseason prediction remains unchanged: Best case: this is an 85-win team capable of challenging for the wild card. The Houston Astros are more talented, and while they can’t be expected to maintain their .680 winning percentage it’s going to require a potato famine combined with a Houstonian-type gag for the Astros to give away the American League West.

But, despite a double-digit lead in the AL West, never forget that word the word “Houston” rhymes with “Choke.”

The only way the Rangers can be the best version of themselves, and actually threaten for that wild card spot, is with Beltre in the lineup every day. The everyday part is not a given, and neither is his production.

He is Adrian Beltre, and he will eclipse 3,000 hits this season, but he is also 38. It’s going to fall apart on him eventually, and we have never seen the 38-year-old version of this brilliant player.

The Rangers are praying Beltre ages the way David Ortiz did with Boston, rather than to mature like the most expensive opened bottle of Boone’s Farm.

To extend and protect their favorite player, expect Banister to use him as a designated hitter. Those are the days when Banister can actually convince Beltre to actually do it. Beltre is not a guy who likes to take days off or to not play the field.

“If you look at the schedule this seems to be as good a time as any for a guy who has been out for a while,” Banister said of Beltre’s return.

Between June 1 and 15, the Rangers will have three off days. To put that in perspective, the Olympics happen with greater frequency than an MLB team enjoying three off days in the same month.

“The optimum mindset is to find the best way to keep him on the field for the long haul and not just the short term,” Banister said.

It’s the only way the 2017 Texas Rangers are going to work.

Without Beltre, the team batting average was an embarrassing .238, and consistent run production was not a given. His replacement at third, Joseph Gallo, can hit it to Big Bend — and create a small tornado when he misses.

The evolution of outfielder Nomar Mazara has been impressive as much as it is necessary.

But no one can either inspire, push or carry this lineup the way Beltre can. It does not mean he will. He’s just the only one who can.

Four months remain of the regular season, and for the first time the Rangers’ best offensive player was in the lineup. Once their best pitcher is back, then we’ll know if this team can be as good as their payroll suggests.

When Beltre and Hamels are back, they will be out of excuses.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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