NEW YORK — Marcus Semien remembers what it was like to be a Giants fan back in 2010.
“I think it was called, like, ‘torture,’” he said recently.
The Bay Area native was in college at the University of California-Berkeley when Bruce Bochy first brought championship baseball back to San Francisco. Semien rooted for that Giants team, which managed to eke out just enough offense to win close games, putting fans through agony every night in the process.
“So it’s definitely been better on the offensive side than what he’s used to,” Semien said of his new manager’s new team when he spoke to Yahoo Sports a couple of weeks ago in Arlington, Texas.
Bochy came out of a short retirement to manage the Texas Rangers — who have scored the second-most runs in MLB this season (the 2010 Giants were 17th in the league). And even after winning three rings with San Francisco, Bochy has to admit it.
“Obviously, this team's got more power and put more runs on the board,” he said during that same Arlington series. “We don't play as many torturous games as we did in San Francisco.”
For most of the season, that has been to the Rangers’ credit. Their team slugging percentage is third in baseball, which they pair with the lowest starting pitching ERA. Even more importantly, until this week, they’d had at least a partial share of first place in the AL West every day since Opening Day. One year after losing 94 games, the Rangers were playoff-bound for the first time since 2016 and crushing opponents along the way.
“You can get a little spoiled,” Bochy said earlier this week in New York. “‘Well, we don’t need to execute. We’re doing damage, hitting the ball out of the ballpark and doubles — whatever.’
“Now, it’s going to be important that we do it.”
"Now" means after an eight-game losing streak that saw the Rangers fall out of first to the surging Seattle Mariners. Between when I saw them host the Angels in Texas and their arrival in New York, the Rangers won just one game and lost nine. Suddenly, issues that had been masked by their overall success — their record in one-run games (9-18 before they got to New York), their record in extra-innings games (2-6), the number of walk-offs they’ve been part of (three wins and eight losses) — looked suspect.
When the Rangers beat the Mets 4-3 on Monday after scoring the tying and go-ahead runs with two outs in the ninth inning, it marked the first time all season that they won a game in which they trailed after the eighth inning. Before that, they were 0-47 in such situations.
“Well, first of all, I knew that we hadn’t done it,” Bochy said the next day of that ignominious distinction. “You look at last night, get second and third, get two strikeouts. That’s what’s impressive, too. We all go, ‘Here we go again.’ But Nate [Lowe] came through with a hit. So now, you know, all right, we’ve done this. We know we can do it again.
“Because we’re going to be in this situation again.”
Nathaniel Lowe — who was not one of the Rangers’ franchise-record six All-Stars this season, despite a quietly productive season — did not know the Rangers were 0-47 when trailing in the ninth inning before he smacked the single to snap that streak.
“And that’s crazy, right? For a team that’s on pace to win 90 games and not having come back in the ninth, that’s crazy,” he said a few days later. “I also didn’t know we had more blown saves than saves converted. So that's a really awful recipe, you know?”
It’s definitely not great, Nate.
The Rangers win in a way that is perfect for Texas: big.
They’ve spent more money in free agency than any other team over the past two offseasons combined. When the starting shortstop market was full of stars, they got two. They built a rotation out of frontline starters and then rebuilt it where it broke. This year, they stormed to a 40-20 record to start the season, never lost more than four in a row before this August swoon and have gone 30-16 in games decided by five or more runs.
When I wrote about the Rangers just over a week ago, I led with how much Max Scherzer, newly acquired at the trade deadline, appreciates a team that allows him to frequently pitch with a large lead.
The issues arise when the margin is smaller — or not in the Rangers’ favor at all.
On the whole, the Rangers’ lineup has the second-highest batting average in baseball at .268. But when they’re trailing, that drops to .252, 15th in baseball. When they’re trailing after the sixth, it’s .213, 26th in baseball. The team slugging percentage — third-best overall — drops to third-worst.
Even more frustrating for Bochy, those close games expose the Rangers’ struggles after they get out of the batter’s box. According to Statcast, the team has cost itself on the basepaths. The Rangers are 24th — lowest of any contending team — in baserunning runs.
Those flaws manifested and festered during the losing streak. Sometimes the Rangers lost big, but other times, a missed opportunity to advance or drive in a run proved to be the difference.
“It's all about, as we say, dominating the fundamentals,” Bochy said. “And when you're scoring 10, 12 runs, you don’t worry about dominating the fundamentals.”
By the time the team got to Minnesota — after sweeps at the hands of Milwaukee and Arizona — Bochy had seen enough. For the first time since a stirring first speech in spring training, the manager addressed his team last week before the first game against the Twins.
“At no point when Boch addressed the team was it like, ‘Hey, guys, we need to do this. We need to do that. We should have done this, or you need to do better,’” Lowe said. “It was all uplifting, typical Boch style. He manages a room really well. He crushed it.
“And we went out and lost that night, in fitting fashion.”
“It felt like we were just trying to swing our way out of a slow offensive stretch and just hit the ball so far that all of a sudden we could round the bases twice,” Lowe said. “Two hits in one at-bat is something a lot of guys struggle with — and people don't admit it — because you want to fix your whole season in one swing.”
Alternatively, you could skip all that and just say the Rangers’ real problem is their bullpen. Their starters have given up the fewest home runs per nine innings; the relievers are responsible for the second-most. Their bullpen ERA for the year is 4.70, seventh worst in baseball. Since the losing streak began, it’s 6.13.
A bad bullpen is a terrible Achilles heel for a team to take into the postseason. But the Rangers can out-run that weakness if they learn to hit from behind, learn to value every 90-foot increment closer to home. In New York, they won the first two games of the series by one run each — nail-biters that were ultimately decided in the ninth. It looked like progress.
Then, on the final night of the three-city road trip that will prove to be either a turning point or the nadir of their season, the Rangers lost in 10 — another blown save, another one-run, extra-inning, walk-off loss.
It was torture — and not the good kind. That’s the thing about losing close games; the fact that you almost won makes it feel even worse.
The Rangers’ recent struggles have been like a slap in the face for a team that was riding high through the first four months — whether it proves to be the kind that wakes them up or just the kind that really stings is yet to be seen.