In returning to World Series, Rangers provide pitching blueprint for Nationals

It’s always tempting - and almost always dangerous - to treat a team winning a pennant as a referendum on whatever it was that got them there.Yet the Texas Rangers are back in the World Series for the second consecutive year, becoming the first American League team to win back-to-back pennants in 10 years and the first team in 20 to return to the World Series after losing it the year before. So they must be on to something.

If the Rangers have staked their success on anything, it’s been team president Nolan Ryan’s insistence that his starting pitchers work deep into games in an era where many teams micro-manage their starters’ pitch counts. The Rangers’ starters pitched 994 1/3 innings this season, the ninth-most in baseball, and their five-man rotation stayed intact all season, accounting for 157 of their 162 starts.

In their six-game American League Championship Series victory over the Tigers, the Rangers’ starters struggled - Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison had a 6.59 ERA in 28 2/3 combined innings. But they were the reason the team was there at all, making the results of a dynamic offense count where previous Rangers teams have squandered so many great offensive performances.

And if there’s a commonality between the 2011 playoff teams at all, it’s how deep their starting staffs were. Among the 10 teams in baseball who got the most innings from their starting staffs, five went to the playoffs. The other three playoff teams were all in the top 14 in terms of starting pitcher innings. The Rangers lost Cliff Lee in free agency, but got back to the World Series with a balanced - if not necessarily dominant - group of starters that could pass leads to a deep bullpen on most nights.

What does this mean for the Nationals, the team we talk about most on this blog? Well, they were 28th in innings pitched by starters, ahead of only the Pirates and Orioles. Their starters had a 3.80 ERA, which was the 11th-best in baseball, but there were still too many nights where Jim Riggleman or Davey Johnson had to take a starter out in the fifth or sixth innings to keep a lead intact. They’ve got enough options at the back end of their bullpen to hold leads, but when you’re trusting your middle relievers with more innings than most teams, you’re putting yourself in a bad situation.

The Nationals know it, too, which is why they’ll likely try to add a pitcher to their rotation this winter. As brilliant as Stephen Strasburg was in his return from Tommy John surgery, he’s still going to be on a strict innings limit in 2012. And Jordan Zimmermann probably isn’t going to be a 220-inning starter. In all likelihood, the Nationals don’t have that pitcher on their staff right now, and it figures they’ll try to get one this winter. The more nights they’ve got a solid starting pitcher working into the seventh inning of a game, the better chance they’ll have to win.

In some ways, it’s that simple. And for the Rangers, it’s been the difference between a prolific offense that saw heaps of blown leads on an 83-win team, like Texas did in the 1990s, and one that’s going to its second straight World Series.