Just two-and-a-half games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West entering Monday's action, the Texas Rangers are preparing to launch their full focus on finding a way to make the playoffs.
Texas just took two of three games from Oakland over the weekend after completing a sweep of division rival Los Angeles on Wednesday night, earning walk-off wins over the Angels in three straight games. According to Elias Sports Bureau and reported by ESPN's Stats & Info on Twitter, only one other team in MLB history has accomplished that feat:
Making history has allowed the Rangers to pick up some much-needed momentum heading into the final two calendar months of the regular season. To make the playoffs, the Rangers need to either overtake Oakland in the AL West or outlast the other clubs in pursuit of the league's two wild-card spots.
Outfielder Nelson Cruz's suspension could derail Texas' playoff hopes.
Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal is reporting that Cruz has accepted a 50-game ban from the league.
Cruz has had a strong season for the Rangers so far, and it means that Texas will be without one of its biggest bats for the rest of the season.
Let's examine how Texas' playoff hopes will be impacted now that Cruz will be out for the foreseeable future..
For starters, Cruz has been the team's second-best hitter this year.
With apologies to Ian Kinsler and Leonys Martin, only Adrian Beltre has shouldered more of a load for Ron Washington's offense than Cruz during the 2013 season.
Never was that more evident than Wednesday night against the Angels.
In the 2-1, walk-off win, Cruz opened the scoring with a home run to left field in the second inning. After former Ranger Josh Hamilton tied the score at one with a homer of his own later in the game, Beltre shut the door on L.A. with the winning jack in the bottom of the ninth.
Although that example is a small sample size, the stats also say that Cruz has been a strong contributor for the club this year.
With 27 home runs, 76 RBI and a .269 batting average in 104 games after Sunday's action, Cruz has proven his worth to Washington and the Rangers over and over again.
He's moved around in the lineup this year, batting third at times and dropping to sixth or seventh in other games. No matter his place in the lineup, Cruz is responsible for driving in runs and giving the team something to cheer about when the ball is left out over the plate.
If he's not an option the rest of the way, other Rangers will have to step up in his absence. The non-waiver deadline has come and gone, making it extremely unlikely that an outsider will be acquired via trade. Candidates to replace Cruz's production will have to come from within the organization.
As you can see, the big names have just not gotten it done. Murphy and Moreland have underperformed, to say the least. Manny Ramirez has impressed as a 40-something player at Triple-A Round Rock, but according to Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, Texas isn't planning on bringing him to the majors anytime soon.
As it is, no one player figures to take on the role that Cruz provides. It would be unfair to ask any player to do so at this point in the season. Murphy and Moreland have the talent, but they need to string some hits together before burdening responsibility to carry the team.
The one player who will receive the greatest chance to shine in the event that Cruz is suspended appears to be Jeff Baker.
He has the second-highest batting average on the team—at .310 in just 44 games—but has been buried on the bench behind the team's current starters. A weird high-five injury also kept Baker out of the lineup earlier this year—another reason why the team was searching for help on the trade market.
Without Cruz, Wash could install Baker in left field full time and move Murphy to right field for the final two months of the regular season. There's a good chance he would be an everyday player, especially against left-handed pitchers.
Even with Baker, Moreland and Murphy picking up the slack, the Rangers lineup will undoubtedly suffer without Cruz. Elvis Andrus and Kinsler have also struggled at the plate, while Beltre and Martin remain the most consistent hitters on a nightly basis.
Using A.J. Pierzynski as the designated hitter has also allowed Washington to keep his strongest hitters in the lineup every day. Without Lance Berkman, Pierzynski and Geovany Soto have both stepped up over the past week to try to get the Rangers out of their current slump.
That being said, there's no way to spin it without facing facts: Losing Cruz would hurt.
Luckily, there are factors at play that don't completely make the Rangers a team planning for next year if Cruz gets suspended. One is the remaining schedule, and the other is the litany of pitchers Texas can dispatch against opponents the rest of the way.
As mentioned above, the Rangers did not pursue another bat at the deadline on Wednesday. Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News had Texas general manager Jon Daniels' comments after the club's latest win over the Angels, and his reasoning behind that decision was fairly simple.
"We feel like we added the most impactful guy on the market," said Daniels, per Grant's report. "Pitching is the strength of this club. That is how we are built."
The guy he's referring to is Matt Garza, who has given up just three earned runs in 14.1 innings during his first two starts with the Rangers. In addition to the newest Rangers starter, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez have all had strong starts to the second half of the season.
By placing an emphasis on accumulating strong pitching, the Rangers are banking on the "defense wins championships" mentality. Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis also have ties to the rotation, while Joe Nathan and the bullpen have the seventh-best bullpen ERA (3.08) in the majors.
Texas is clearly banking on pitching making up for the lack of offensive production, with or without Cruz.
Another positive for the club, regardless of Cruz's status, is the remaining schedule. Beginning today, the Rangers will start a 24-game stretch against teams currently under .500.
Other than that brutal stretch, 34 of the team's last 54 games will be against teams under .500. To ensure they don't fall behind Oakland and play their way out of the wild-card picture, I would say that the Rangers need to go 26-8 (or better) in those games to make the playoffs.
Nine head-to-head games with Oakland will also be huge.
With or without Cruz, the Rangers have a tough road ahead of them. The pitching and schedule will be nice breaks afforded the rest of the way, but the bats need to improve for the team to have a legitimate claim to the AL pennant.
If Cruz appeals his suspension and the process keeps him in the lineup the rest of the way, I would wager that Texas' pitching staff and "Big 3" of Cruz, Beltre and Kinsler will do enough to help Texas gain a wild-card spot.
Without him, I can't see Tampa Bay/Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland or New York struggling enough to keep the Rangers' playoff hopes alive, especially if they are scoring less than two or three runs per game. Since the All-Star break, the team has only scored four runs or more four times in 13 games.
There were signs of life against the Angels this week, but I'm not sure the lineup can withstand dropping a player who provides protection to hitters in front of him and a lift to the entire team with just one swing of the bat.
The other hitters on the team have the talent to take this team to the promised land, but the results of this season do not side with that happening. Then again, I'd be happy to eat crow if Murphy, Moreland and the rest of the lineup start hitting closer to their preseason projection.
If that happens, consider the Rangers in the mix.
Follow B/R's Ethan Grant (@DowntownEG) on Twitter.