A closer look at tonight’s opponent with a Texas Rangers beat writer

Here is something to consider about tonight’s game. Some are wondering about the Orioles’ lack of playoff experience coupled with the fact that Texas has plenty of it. The Rangers are 18-15 in playoff games the last two seasons.

But heading into October 2010, Texas was the only major league franchise to never have won a playoff series and it won the AL championship that year.

Gerry Fraley covers the Rangers for the Dallas Morning News. We all know the Rangers struggled down the stretch, losing five of their last six and nine of the last 13 to land in this wild card game and not atop the AL West.

I interviewed Fraley about the Rangers’ poor finish and how they are looking going into tonight’s game.

What went wrong for the Rangers at the end of the season?
“One, they ran into a ridiculously hot Oakland team that went something like 52-25 in the second half. Two, some of the flaws in their offense showed. This team beats up mediocre-to-bad pitching. It has a problem when it faces good pitching and has to scratch out runs. Things like get the guy over, get the guy in from third with less than two outs, it is not a good team at that. They don’t run much anymore or create runs. It kind of caught up to them at the end and their offense really looked stagnant the last few weeks.”

Are the Rangers concerned about some individual players on offense?
“There has to be. There is always focus on Josh Hamilton but the guy I think they are more concerned about is (Ian) Kinsler, their leadoff hitter. He just hasn’t been good for a long time, both at the plate and in the field. This has been a really sub-par season for him. They’ve got a problem there right now and he’s not getting the walks either. He’s giving away a lot of at-bats and I think that is a real problem for this team right now.”

Is the Rangers’ collective psyche and/or confidence damaged a bit by their late-season struggles?
“You know, that is a great question and I don’t know. I dont know what the pulse of this team is right now. It has won (the American League) two years in a row, but it was never challenged down the stretch like it was this year. Ron Washington’s big thing is, ‘Momentum is the next day’s pitcher,’ and they have their best starting pitcher going in Yu Darvish. But I am curious to see how they respond to this.”

Darvish put together better numbers in September than in July or August. What got better for him?
“He sort of started pitching backward, as I understand it, more the way he pitched in Japan. He started throwing his slider more, which can be a devastating pitch. He started throwing more sliders, changeups and split-fingers earlier in the count as opposed to trying to pitch off his fastball. He seems to be more comfortable with that style.

“He took a beating in Boston the second week of August. They sort of had a meeting of the minds after that. Darvish, Ron Washington and the staff. They said this isn’t really working right now, let’s try Plan B. They went to that and so far it has made a big difference.”

How did the O’s selection of Joe Saunders to start play in the Rangers clubhouse?
“I don’t know, the players were given (Thursday) off. But one thing, historically left-handers do better in this park. Left field is deeper and wind knocks balls down that go to left versus carrying to right. I can see pitching the guy.”

That is interesting and Showalter (the Rangers’ manager from 2003-06) would certainly know how the park plays?
“Yeah. The years he was here, left-handers - and I can’t cite the exact numbers - had a decided advantage in this park. Until this year, where it wasn’t quite the same. Kenny Rogers has been the best pitcher ever here, a left-hander and that to me says a lot.”

How is Buck thought of by Rangers fans?
“I think people respect him. He took over a bad situation here. The ‘04 team was a lot like this Orioles team, they never quite knew who would start, but they had a good bullpen. I think people knew Buck was good. (Rangers GM) Jon Daniels admitted today he really agonized over the decision to remove him. You know, maybe sometimes you just need a different voice. They knew he was good and they are seeing it again. What he did in ‘04 here is one of the best managing jobs ever.”

The Rangers were built to win and they have a lot of postseason experience. Now here come the upstart Orioles. Is this a bit of a David vs. Goliath matchup or is that a stretch?
“I think it is a stretch because the Orioles are pretty good. You don’t do what they’ve done this year. I talked to three scouts (Thursday) and they said the guy in center field, (Adam) Jones, they are saying he’s a young Torii Hunter and is the American League’s Matt Kemp, when Kemp was healthy. They’ve got some talent on that team and a tremendous bullpen.

“Yeah, they don’t have the Rangers’ $125 million dollar payroll, so it is a mismatch there, but I don’t want to belittle the players there because there are a lot of good players on that team.”

Coming later today: Plenty of coverage here on MASNsports.com and MASN. Tonight, an expanded hour-long edition of “O’s Xtra” will air beginning at 7 p.m. on MASN HD before the game broadcast on TBS. After the game, at approximately 11:30 p.m., an expanded hour-long postgame edition of “O’s Xtra” will air.

Roch Kubatko is in Arlington, Texas, with all the news and notes on the Orioles live from the ballpark. Later tonight, I will be in our MASN web studio in the Warehouse for special coverage we have planned from there with plenty of interaction with the fans.

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