In the American League wild card race, conventional wisdom and consensus number-crunching have pointed to the same conclusion: The West's second-place team -- the A's or Rangers -- will claim one bid. The Rays, Orioles, Indians and Yankees should decide the other.
After watching the Rangers' 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday night, I'm not so sure. Unless Texas halts a second consecutive September somersault, both wild cards will be in play.
Reason says the Rangers will be fine. They entered Tuesday with a 91.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to the most recent Baseball Prospectus odds. Even now, they are four games clear of Baltimore and Cleveland for a playoff spot.
But Texas is only 2-7 this month, with a lineup that barely resembles the version that carried the team to pennants in 2010 and 2011. The Rangers have since remade themselves into an organization more reliant on pitching. It's a noble objective, one the San Francisco Giants have validated with championships in two of the last three years. It also (indirectly) led to 27-year-old rookie Joey Butler serving as the Rangers' designated hitter Tuesday in the fifth game of his major-league career. (He went 0-for-1 and walked twice.)
Butler is the 11th Ranger to start as the DH for manager Ron Washington this year. The job was supposed to belong to veteran Lance Berkman, signed to a one-year, $11 million contract last offseason. But Berkman has only six at-bats in the second half of the season because of hip and knee injuries. His most recent extra-base hit came June 19. He can't help the Rangers right now.
All-Star outfielder Nelson Cruz is serving a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Catalysts Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are performing below their career norms -- Andrus far below, after signing a $120 million contract extension. Jurickson Profar, one of the most hyped prospects in the game, has underwhelmed.
The end result: The Rangers are averaging 4.47 runs per game. That is their worst output since moving to hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark in 1994. Tuesday's loss must have looked familiar for one of the 36,313 spectators on hand: Former President George W. Bush, who sat with his friend Nolan Ryan in the first row, was one of the team's owners in '94.
It's all enough for Rangers fans to long for the swing-from-the-heels days of Kevin Mench, Hank Blalock and Brad Fullmer.
"We've done OK all year, I think," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who's providing his usual production in his first season as a Ranger. "We just need to do what we do -- and that's be super-aggressive. This team is built on aggression, especially aggression on the bases. We make mistakes here and there, but we shouldn't slow down. That's the biggest thing. We need to go out and try to take it to the other team and put pressure on the other team. That will help.
"Obviously it helps if you get the leadoff guy and Elvis on base -- then things start rolling. They can steal bases, things like that. Not putting any pressure on those guys at all, but that's what their job is. That's what they're supposed to do, and they've done a great job for us all year."
Still, it's not the same. In the Rangers' postseason opener two seasons ago, Mike Napoli batted sixth and Cruz hit seventh. They were in the bottom half of the batting order despite combining for 59 home runs during the regular season. By contrast, the nine players comprising Tuesday's lineup have hit only 94 homers this season; 28 belong to Adrian Beltre, who's currently mired in a 7-for-35 slump.
Beltre, in fact, struck out on three pitches to end Tuesday's defeat with the tying run on third base. Meanwhile, the surging Yankees -- powered by ex-Ranger Alfonso Soriano -- have won the most games of any AL club over the past month. The Indians have a favorable schedule and rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez. If there's any consolation for the Rangers, it's that the wild-card contender immediately behind them -- Tampa Bay -- is foundering, too.
In truth, the mood in the Texas clubhouse should be less dour than it is. Cruz is eligible to return in the postseason, and his presence would lessen Beltre's burden as the primary right-handed power threat. The rotation, at its best, is capable of humbling any AL lineup in a playoff series -- even Detroit's. The Rangers' bullpen is among the deepest in baseball, with the successful injury recoveries of Alexi Ogando, Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria.
The Rangers should be OK. I probably would have said the same when they held a five-game lead in the AL West with 10 to play last year -- and they couldn't hold it. For their fans and for themselves, the Rangers need desperately to get back to the playoffs and expunge the nightmares of David Freese and St. Louis two years ago. That was forever ago, and a ticket to this October remains far away -- no matter how promising the standings seem.