Wolf, a rookie 30-year-old right-hander who has pitched in professional baseball for 12 years but appeared in only 25 major-league games (all in relief) before May 22, made an emergency start for the Rangers against Oakland and pitched brilliantly. In five-plus innings, Wolf allowed just one run, three hits, and two walks and earned his first major-league win as the Rangers salvaged the series finale against Oakland 3-1.
The Rangers staked Wolf to an early 3-0 lead on homers by Adrian Beltre and David Murphy, and he was able to hold it for five innings. Reliever Neal Cotts, making his first appearance as a Ranger and his first appearance in the major leagues in four years, took over in the sixth and threw two scoreless innings. Robbie Ross and Joe Nathan combined to shut out the A's in the eighth and ninth, respectively. What made Wolf's pitching line all the more amazing is that he had allowed 22 earned runs in 25 major-league innings heading into May 22.
If the Rangers do win the AL West this year, they can look back on this game as a turning point. This was probably as important as a game will be in May. Had the A's won, they would have completed a three-game sweep in the Rangers' park and headed back to Oakland only 3 1/2 games out of first. As it is, Wolf and company fought off the A's to stay 5 1/2 games ahead.
Considering how hard the Rangers' rotation has been hit by injuries, the performance by Wolf was a godsend. Only two members of the current rotation, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, were even on the team at the beginning of the season. Wolf started against the A's only because one of the replacement starters, Nick Tepesch, could not go due to a blister on his finger.
Injuries to the rotation last year were a big reason for the team's late-season swoon and eventual second-place finish after holding on to first place for almost all season. They lost starters Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz to injury, and the trio of Scott Feldman, Martin Perez, and deadline pickup Ryan Dempster pitched poorly in their place down the stretch.
To avoid another collapse like last year, these guys who are getting their shot need to perform like Wolf. Tepesch (3.98 ERA) and Justin Grimm (4.02 ERA), both 24-year-old rookies, have pitched adequately since stepping into the rotation for injured starters Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando. Tepesch, Grimm, and Wolf, if he can even come close to pitching the way he did May 22, combined with Darvish and Holland, will give the Rangers a solid rotation -- even with three rookies. It is possible that Lewis could return in July but after missing a year due to elbow surgery, there's no telling how effective he will be.
If the Rangers learned anything from last year, it should be that a hot two or even three months to start the season guarantees nothing. At the end of June last season, the Rangers had 50 wins and the best record in baseball and were 13 games ahead of Oakland. The A's won the division on the last day of the season -- after sweeping the Rangers.
Right now, the Rangers have 30 wins, which ties them with St. Louis for the most in baseball. They are in first place in the AL West by 5 1/2 games. But no lead in May is safe -- things can always turn around, sometimes quickly, especially in that brutal summer Texas heat. If the Rangers are to avoid repeating last year's collapse, the starting pitching will need to continue to come up big the way Wolf did.
Brian Honea is a Dallas, Texas-based freelance writer who is a lifelong Texas Rangers follower.
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