The playoff chase is on for Major League Baseball. It’s the stretch run, the final few weeks of play. It’s the point of the season where a single game is no longer just one out of 162, but it’s one out of 16. Wins and losses are magnified in light of the condensed remainder of the schedule, and the drama, excitement, and intensity get ramped up correspondingly. At the forefront of the MLB playoff chase stories are the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, who are beating all odds and each day moving closer to turning the dream of making the playoffs into a reality. The accomplishments of those two teams compared to the expectations placed on them is unmatched.
While it is the Orioles and the A’s absorbing the headline space for the playoff chase, it is the Texas Rangers who are leading the way. Even though the Orioles and A’s are surpassing expectations, the Rangers are simply doing what they were expected to do all along. The back-to-back American League champions weren’t the unanimous favorites in the AL entering the season, but after jumping to a 16-5 record, observers and pundits alike joined in applying the “best team in the AL” label on them.
Since that 16-5 start, the Rangers have actually been just the fourth-best team in the AL, but that doesn’t really matter. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Rangers’ playoff odds on Opening Day were 73%. By the time that hot April run was over, those odds had jumped to 97%. After that, the rest of the season has been the completion of an eventuality, as the Rangers playoff odds never dipped below 80% (reached on July 31st), and their division lead never shrunk to a smaller margin than three games.
Now, the Rangers playoff odds stand at 99.8%, prior to a 9-3 drubbing of the Seattle Mariners in Arlington on Friday night. While the collapses of the 2011 Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have taught us that nothing is certain, it would seemingly take an act of God for the 2012 Rangers to lose the AL West, much less miss the playoffs.
With just three weeks remaining in the season, the stranglehold on the division affords the Rangers opportunities that other teams in the thick of the playoff hunt do not have the luxury of pursuing. The Rangers players and coaches will take the field every day looking to secure each precious victory, but they do so with a broader perspective in mind. If you listen to Ian Kinsler or Michael Young talk this year, you can hear that they have learned from two consecutive losses in the World Series. They know that winning games in September isn’t what the whole season is about, but that instead the goal is to still play their best baseball of the season when it truly counts, in October.
Kinsler and Young are two of the key leaders on the team. They set the example for all others to follow. It may not show in their performances day by day, but this isn’t a club that is worried about September; they’re focused on October.
This means that Ron Washington has the ability to flex his lineup and starting rotation as he sees fit to ensure the entire club is operating at full steam once Game 163 begins. That may take the form of resting players, or continuing to get them regular action. It could also mean that the nagging injuries that come with the territory of a long season that Adrian Beltre and Kinsler and Josh Hamilton are aching from can be rested without being forcibly played through.
Just as the Rangers spent all of Spring Training gearing up for the start of the regular season, they have these three weeks to prepare for the start of the postseason. Just as the team knew how to prepare to jump to a 16-5 start, they know how to prepare to play in October. The 2012 roster may not look like the most formidable that the Rangers have taken to the postseason in the last three years, and it certainly doesn’t look like a prototypical team that is built for playoff success. Yet, if Texas truly does still have its best baseball yet to play in October, that may not make a difference.
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