Last week, we ran a preview series called Playoff X Factors, about the key people and things that could swing the fortunes of each of the eight teams in the divisional round. Baseball is played on the largest scale in American sports, but is decided on some of the smallest margins, and if the outcome of the World Series doesn’t rest on one of those margins, it could rest on something balanced just as tenuously.
But sometimes it’s not even close.
The Rangers, who went 36–11 in one-run games this season and outperformed their run differential by more than any other team in the past 100 years, surfed those margins as well as any team in recent history. But the Rangers weren’t betrayed by the fates or clutchness, as Toronto needed only three games to put them to the sword.
They didn’t lose because Colby Lewis got shelled in the decisive game, or because manager Jeff Banister twice left sinker-balling closer Sam Dyson in the bullpen when a double play could’ve saved his team’s season. They didn’t lose because Rougned Odor’s errant throw pulled Mitch Moreland off the bag, allowing Josh Donaldson — who’s spent most of the past 24 months prone, airborne, and bound for home plate — to dash home from second to score the clinching run with characteristically suicidal abandon. The Rangers didn’t lose because Jonathan Lucroy allowed a passed ball with the bases loaded to let the tying run score in the sixth, or because Matt Bush, who for two innings turned bats to mush, tired in his career-high third inning of work and allowed the winning run. I’m not even convinced they lost because Toronto’s Marco Estrada pitched the game of his life in the series opener, or because the Rangers went 3-for-23 with runners in scoring position for the series.
Any scenario for a Texas ALDS win, close or otherwise, relied on significant contributions from the two best starting pitchers in the series, Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, and they got absolutely smoked. Hamels gave up seven runs in 3.1 innings in Game 1, his second-worst start of the year by Game Score. Darvish allowed four home runs in five innings in Game 2, including one each to Ezequiel Carrera and Kevin Pillar, who tomahawked a pitch that was up around his neck into the left-field seats. By the time Edwin Encarnación closed Toronto’s scoring with a solo shot in the fifth, Darvish looked more incredulous than upset.
Incredulity, by that point, was really the only appropriate response. Darvish sighed and tossed his head back like someone who’d meticulously mapped out a six-day road trip across the country and locked his keys in the car before ever leaving his own driveway. The Rangers bullpen, which seemed capable of inducing enough ground balls to keep Toronto’s power hitters in check and eating enough innings to reduce the damage lesser starters like Lewis could do, was excellent in relief of Darvish on Friday. The bullpen was (a Jake Diekman mistake to José Bautista notwithstanding) excellent in relief of Hamels on Thursday, and it was excellent in relief of Lewis on Sunday. But it didn’t matter, because in two of those cases, the game was out of hand already.
Carlos Gómez started off Game 3 doing little things right, drawing a leadoff walk and stealing second to set up the game’s first run. But it didn’t matter, because Ian Desmond, Lucroy, Carlos Beltrán, and Adrián Beltré combined to go 8-for-48 with only two extra-base hits, both doubles, throughout the three-game series.
Toronto, meanwhile, got the two best starting pitching performances of the series from Estrada and J.A. Happ, both of which were rewarded with victory. Toronto got eight home runs from seven different players in the series, and Donaldson, one of only four Blue Jays position players to start a game and not belt a home run, hit .538/.571/.846 and created the series-winning run with his legs. Closer Roberto Osuna notched a five-out save in Game 2 and took the win in Game 3, allowing only one base runner in 3.2 innings.
The little things, in other words, don’t matter if you can’t do the big things. X factors don’t matter if you can’t do factors A through W. Game 3 crackled with the intensity of last year’s ALDS, a series that made every pitch feel like a matter of life and death. But Game 3 always felt more like a last stand than a counteroffensive, because the Rangers didn’t just go 0–2 at home with Hamels and Darvish; they went 0–2 in such a way that undermined the aura of the very foundation of the team. They got crushed, and by the time Donaldson got on base in the 10th inning of Game 3, they were already as good as beaten.
It’d be convenient to call it ironic that the Rangers’ season ended on a one-run loss, that they were undone by the very little things that got them to 95 wins in the first place. But whether by lack of skill or cosmic irony or sheer bad luck, the Rangers couldn’t get the big things done, and they’ll have a long offseason to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.