Wednesday should’ve been a time for baseball fans in North Texas to rejoice.
After a recent stretch dropping 16 of 20 games, the Rangers‘ free fall was over. A trip to Toronto provided a welcome reprieve. Dane Dunning outdueled Chris Bassitt on Monday to help Texas jump Seattle for the third wild-card spot. A day later, Max Scherzer’s 5.1 scoreless innings helped the Rangers overtake the Blue Jays for the second wild-card spot in a captivating race. The Rangers were gathering steam.
And then came the latest setback.
Before capturing their third win of the series and their fifth straight victory overall Wednesday — a 10-0 thrashing — the grim news arrived: Scherzer, who departed Tuesday’s game early, is unlikely to return this year.
With one out in the sixth inning, the rotation-headlining acquisition looped a curveball in for a strike. As Jonah Heim prepared to make a return throw, the Rangers catcher paused. A wince and a brief pitter-patter around the mound from Scherzer indicated something was off.
Scherzer assumed it was a triceps spasm. He felt the muscle start to tighten up while warming up for the inning and thought he could manage it. He pushed through a seven-pitch at-bat with George Springer to begin the inning. Then came a more jarring charley-horse sensation after his first pitch to Bo Bichette.
“All of a sudden, it’s in my tricep, back of the shoulder,” Scherzer told reporters. “I’ve had like a cramping sensation before like that, and you kind of work it out, and all of a sudden you kind of go. But when I got onto the mound and was trying to go through my motion, I could just tell it didn’t release.”
When it still hadn’t released by game’s end, it prompted further investigation. Scans later revealed a teres major strain that will keep Scherzer sidelined for the regular season. Further, general manager Chris Young told reporters that the injury will likely hold Scherzer out for the postseason as well, putting a significant damper on this week’s Rangers upswing.
Scherzer wondered if the forearm tightness he felt in recent outings might have added more stress on the triceps area. Whatever the reason, it’s the latest blow for the snakebitten Rangers, who can’t seem to have nice things. They added the three-time Cy Young Award winner at the deadline to give them another ace after losing two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom for the year. Now, they have neither.
They have seen the ups and downs of their high-risk, high-reward veteran offseason expenditures.
After breaking the bank on their middle infield a year ago, they spent more than $200 million this offseason on deGrom, Andrew Heaney and Nathan Eovaldi to revamp their starting pitching. DeGrom made six dazzling starts before needing Tommy John surgery. Heaney had a 3.76 ERA at the end of May but was recently relegated to the bullpen. Eovaldi was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the season’s first half but missed all of August with a forearm strain and is searching for his previous form as he builds back up for the late push. He is one of five Rangers All-Stars to miss time during their second-half decline.
In late July, shortstop Corey Seager went on the injured list with a thumb sprain. Weeks later, third baseman Josh Jung was playing his way toward Rookie of the Year honors when he fractured his thumb. Heim is back from a wrist tendon strain he suffered in late July, but he hasn’t looked the same since. The hits kept coming last week, as the Rangers watched Adolis García, their home run and RBI leader, tear his right patellar tendon trying to make a catch at the wall.
Unwilling to let their financial commitments to the 2023 season and their extraordinary first half go to waste, the Rangers retooled ahead of the deadline by adding Scherzer, Jordan Montgomery and Aroldis Chapman.
The moves instilled optimism. The Rangers started August on an eight-game winning streak and captured 12 of their first 14 games of the month. On Aug. 15, they led the Astros by 3.5 games and held a 7.5-game lead on the third-place Mariners.
Then came the nosedive.
Even with Chapman, the Rangers’ shaky bullpen could not hold a lead. Their revamped rotation began to crumble. Their pitching staff entered Wednesday with a 5.63 ERA over the past 30 days, going 3-for-13 in save chances over that stretch. A devastating end to August bled into a shoddy start to September.
Through the spiral, Scherzer remained a bright spot. He had allowed three runs or fewer in seven of his eight starts as a Ranger, which makes his absence now all the more calamitous for a Texas rotation that has gotten six innings from a starter twice over the past 14 games.
Jon Gray has a 7.13 ERA over his past four starts. Eovaldi, who looked like a Cy Young contender at the break, has pitched 9.2 innings in the season’s second half. Montgomery, who had a 2.30 ERA in August for the Rangers, had allowed 11 runs over his first two starts of September before bouncing back in a major way with seven shutout innings Wednesday.
Now, the loss of Scherzer creates a massive vacancy, one that will likely need to be filled by Heaney, Martín Pérez or Cody Bradford, all of whom have served most recently as relievers. The Rangers might have expected their aces to lead them to their first playoff appearance in seven years. But for their season to be salvaged, the onus now falls on their resurgent offense.
Even shorthanded, the Texas lineup has sparked the recent turnaround, plating 38 runs over the five-game winning streak. García’s absence prompted the addition of top prospect Evan Carter, who looks ready for the opportunity. All-Stars Seager and Marcus Semien each sport an OPS over 1.000 in September, a month that could eventually see the returns of both Jung and García.
The sprint for a playoff spot won’t be getting any easier. One game separates the top three teams in the AL West, while the Rangers, Mariners and Blue Jays are all within 1.5 games of one another for the final two wild-card slots. (The second-place team in the AL East — the Rays and Orioles start a four-game series Thursday on FOX — will almost certainly occupy the top wild-card spot.)
Scherzer’s absence will make that trek, along with navigating the postseason, considerably trickier for the Rangers. This isn’t the roster or rotation they expected to field. But the offense is starting to hum again, the recent performances of Montgomery and Dunning are encouraging, and with 17 games to go, everything the Rangers paid for remains within reach.
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