ARLINGTON, Texas — As the American League playoff picture tightens even more, the Texas Rangers enter a four-game set against the Toronto Blue Jays while sitting just a half-game back for the third Wild Card slot -- a position currently held by a suddenly-slumping Seattle Mariners.
The trip up north represents a golden opportunity for the Rangers to recover from their recent downturn, as the Blue Jays stand 1.5 games ahead of the Rangers for the league’s second Wild Card spot.
Quite obviously, the stakes are high.
This series could be the difference between Texas rising in the standings with three weeks remaining on the schedule or falling further behind the AL’s top teams.
Toronto down the stretch
From the get-go of the season, everything in the American League East ran through the Tampa Bay Rays. But, before the season started, the Blue Jays were predicted to be one of the top teams in the American League as a whole.
Then the Baltimore Orioles came on as a surprise and overtook even the Rays for first place in the tough division.
Barring a late run at Baltimore, Toronto is now reliant on a Wild Card spot -- one of three that seems likely to be shared with Tampa Bay.
With Boston six games back, the third spot, as it stands entering this series, appears to be welcoming a team from the AL West.
The Mariners are currently one game behind Toronto for the second Wild Card slot, and half a game ahead of the Rangers.
At the trade deadline, Toronto made a move to shore up their bullpen, acquiring former St. Louis Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks to supplement closer Jordan Romano as a high-leverage arm. They also got middle infield insurance for shortstop Bo Bichette, who was recently activated for the series sweep against the Kansas City Royals.
Bichette, who was sidelined with a right quad strain at the end of August, was also on the injured list at the trade deadline with right knee patellar tendonitis. With the All-Star’s health sketchy, Toronto needed a backup plan, and opted for former Cardinal Paul DeJong, whom they’ve recently released.
In the second half, Toronto holds a 30-22 record, including the sweep of the Royals that was completed over the weekend.
Overall, Toronto has played their way into the playoff race in the toughest division in the league -- but they still haven’t been able to beat Baltimore, holding a 3-10 record against their division leaders.
After this series with the Rangers, Toronto faces nothing but AL East opponents down the stretch, which could make their road a difficult one.
They finish up this homestand with a three-game matchup against Boston, and then play two three-game sets each against the last-place Yankees and second-place Rays.
Toronto has lost just twice so far in the month of September -- one game against the Rockies and one game against the Athletics.
- Game 143: 6:07 PM CT - RHP Dane Dunning (9-6, 3.88 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Bassitt (14-7, 3.69 ERA)
- Game 144: 6:07 PM CT - RHP Max Scherzer (12-6, 3.91 ERA) vs. LHP Hyun Jin Ryu (3-2, 2.65 ERA)
- Game 145: 6:07 PM CT - LHP Jordan Montgomery (8-11, 3.62 ERA) vs. LHP Yusei Kikuchi (9-6, 3.57 ERA)
- Game 146: 6:07 PM CT - RHP Nathan Eovaldi (11-4, 2.90 ERA) vs. RHP Kevin Gausman (11-8, 3.28 ERA)
Texas has solidified its rotation for the rest of the way, naming Dane Dunning as its pick for the last spot in the rotation. He follows Max Scherzer, Jordan Montgomery, Nathan Eovaldi and Jon Gray.
Gray is the only Rangers rotation fixture that won’t throw in Toronto, having pitched in the finale against Oakland on Sunday.
Dunning will start the series opener against righty Chris Bassitt. Bassitt has been on quite the run lately, going eight innings in each of his last two starts, and allowing just one run against Oakland in his most recent outing. The 34-year-old faced Texas when the Blue Jays were in Arlington in June, but only lasted 3 ⅔ innings while giving up five runs, although only three were earned.
In that June contest, the combination of Ezequiel Duran and Leody Taveras went a combined 7-for-10, scoring five runs, while Corey Seager went 4-for-5 with three RBI. Dunning is making his first start in two outings. He came on in relief of Eovaldi in his return from the injured list and absorbed 5 ⅓ innings of relief work, while allowing nine runs on 11 hits.
In his most recent start, Dunning faced the Mets and only completed four innings, allowing three runs on five hits. Dunning also faced the Blue Jays back in June. In that start, Dunning went six innings and allowed just two runs on six hits in a Rangers’ win.
Max Scherzer will take the hill on Tuesday night after getting roughed up just as much as any other Texas starter in the series against Houston. That was the game that was billed as the much anticipated duel between Scherzer and fellow former Met Justin Verlander.
Scherzer, however, only lasted three innings and gave up seven earned runs, including three home runs. It was by far the worst outing of his tenure with the Rangers, but the third time he’s given up that many homers in a game this season.
Opposing Scherzer is the first of two lefties Texas will see, with Hyun Jin Ryu the first up on Tuesday. The 36-year old didn’t pitch at all in the first half of the season as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery that was performed last year. After his first start back, Ryu has been outstanding for Toronto, pitching to a 1.86 ERA over six games, striking out 25, and walking just seven batters. Opponents have been hitting just .178 off him.
On Wednesday, lefty Jordan Montgomery will try to get back on track for Texas after allowing 11 runs over his last two outings. That includes five against Oakland, where he went 5 ⅔ innings in the only game of the series that Texas lost. Montgomery twice was unable to hold the leads that the Rangers’ bats gave him in that contest.
Toronto, meanwhile, will send lefty Yusei Kikuchi to the hill to match up against Montgomery. Kikuchi has also been excellent for the Blue Jays in the second half. In his most recent start, the former veteran hurler gave up just one earned run in five innings against the Royals.
The finale will see Eovaldi making his third start since coming off the injured list. In his two previous starts combined, Eovaldi lasted a total of 3 ⅔ innings, and while he didn’t allow any runs against Oakland, he found himself in deep counts and ended up with 47 pitches through his 2.1 innings of work.
Thursday could very well be about the time that former rotation mates Andrew Heaney and Martin Perez are well rested after their multi-inning performances over the weekend, and it’s likely that one of them will piggyback with Eovaldi, assuming that they aren’t needed for the earlier games of the series.
Toronto will go with their ace righty Kevin Gausman in the finale. Gausman, who threw eight innings of one-run ball against Kansas City last time out. The 2023 All-Star also pitched in the one game that Toronto won against the Rangers back in June, going six innings and allowing just one run via a Taveras home run.
Expect this series to be a tough test for the Rangers. The nine runs that Texas scored against Oakland in the finale on Sunday are the closest that they’ve come to a double-digit outcome since they scored 12 against the Angels back on August 14th.
While the nine runs were certainly an encouraging sign, they head into Rogers Centre against a Blue Jays pitching staff that has the lowest ERA in the majors and the second fewest runs scored against them overall. Meanwhile, the Rangers’ staff in the last month has been the fourth worst in the American League, and they’ve also allowed the most home runs in that time frame.
But the Rangers were, at one point, one of the league’s best teams, and a team that could be expected to compete against the likes of Toronto.
They still can be that team.
Teams that take advantage of opportunities to reach the postseason find ways to win despite apparent shortcomings. Whether that’s manufacturing runs, taking advantage of mistakes or, hopefully, simply outplaying the opponent.
With this series, and upcoming tilts against Seattle, Texas is still in control of their own playoff destiny.
But it will take a return to their previous stature for them to stay in the race.
Do you think the Rangers will come out triumphant in Toronto? Share your predictions with Matt on Twitter @FisherWritesMLB.