Zoom out on the American League standings. Yes, the Rangers are in third in their division, but they are just one game back of the first-place Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros. The Mariners needed a stunning, almost magical 21-6 month to climb that high. The Astros have won five straight to secure their share of the lead. The Rangers, who hit their worst moment of the season when their division rivals hit their best, are anything but doomed. A snapshot of those standings, shown to General Manager Chris Young and Manager Bruce Bochy five months ago, might have looked pretty good.
In fact, after six straight losing seasons, the Rangers’ situation probably would look good through almost any wide-angle lens. Even now, coming off their weakest offensive month of the year and nursing key stars back to health, they have the second-best run differential in the major leagues. Even now, after their starting rotation posted a season-high 4.07 ERA in August, they still look better off than they did a month ago because newly acquired Max Scherzer is settling in and gritty veteran Nathan Eovaldi should return from injury soon.
“Look at where we’re at this year. Look at where the club was last year. Which one do you want?” Bochy said in New York this week. “We’ve got to enjoy this. This is what we play the game for.”
Bochy, who began managing years before key young players such as Jung, Leody Taveras and Ezequiel Durán were born, knows better than anyone a September in contention is a gift. Nothing guarantees a team will have a chance this late in the season, and no season in recent years has illustrated that more clearly: The top three spenders in baseball — otherwise known as the three teams that entered this season with some of the highest expectations — are almost certain to miss the playoffs.
Just three of the eight highest payrolls in baseball would make the playoffs if the season ended today. After two offseasons of splurges that included a half-billion to Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, then another $185 million to Jacob deGrom, the Rangers are tied for the seventh-highest payroll at $214 million, according to Roster Resource. They, at least, have turned spending into wins.
But at the same time, they are just 2½ games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays for the final wild-card spot in the American League. Though they dealt for Aroldis Chapman this summer and added versatile Chris Stratton at the deadline, their bullpen continues to struggle. Veterans Chapman and Will Smith looked strong earlier this season, so they may do so again. But they might not.
Similarly, the Mariners probably cannot go 21-6 again in September. But they might. The Rangers’ offense probably will start hitting again soon. But it might not. One of three teams within a game of each other for the AL West lead could miss the postseason entirely.
“When you look at spring training, all the games you’ve played, down to just under 30 games [left],” Bochy said. “It’s a sprint now.”
Yet even as the sprint begins, the angles can change the perspectives. The Rangers would be running away with the AL Central, which the Twins lead with a 69-65 record. That division is so weak that the Cleveland Guardians, who are five games back, apparently decided they still have a chance. They claimed three players off waivers Thursday afternoon, including former Washington Nationals prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, thereby committing a million or so more in salary to a payroll that is never particularly large. The Los Angeles Angels, who have the same record as the Guardians, discarded those players to shed payroll and drop below the competitive balance tax threshold after giving up on their season.
Here, again, the Rangers can feel good by comparison. And they did show signs of life as they took two of three from the Mets in New York. The biggest jolt came Monday night when the Rangers entered the ninth inning trailing for the 48th time this season.
Bochy said later he knew his team had yet to come back in any of those games. Young said he was well aware of that stat, too. They considered their lack of ninth-inning wins was a good sign for their season: When they were winning, they were winning by a lot. But in another light, the stat looked damning: Would the relatively inexperienced lineup be resilient enough to last the season, to push through tough games down the stretch? The Rangers rallied to win that game Monday night. Their five-month long streak of ninth-inning futility — and any thoughts of “here we go again” and clenched teeth that come with it — ended.
“Now, we’ve done this. We know we can do it. And we can do it again,” Bochy said. He and his Rangers soon will have a clearer picture of how this season really went. They have 30 games left to get the lighting right where they want it.