ANAHEIM, Calif. – As the Texas Rangers stammered to their fourth consecutive loss Saturday night, their manager heard a voice behind and above his dugout. From the direction of a shrill "Mr. Washington!" floated a leaf of standard 8½ by 11 paper.
A woman's game ticket was printed on one side. Her thoughts on the Rangers in flowing script were on the other, and concluded, "Mr. Washington, thank you for doing your job and for the joy you've brought to Texas Rangers fans." The preceding words were not as kind and generally matched Washington's mood.
In the throes of a game that would gnaw at his hardball soul for three hours and then some, Ron Washington didn't immediately read the note. Instead, he folded it, stuffed it into his back pocket, and thought little of it until he reached his office. By then, he'd stood in the clubhouse and reminded his ballclub that it was better than this. Since a 17-6 start that threatened to bury the Los Angeles Angels and prompted breathless – and premature – comparisons to the great teams of the past half-century, the Rangers were 14-16. Their nine-game lead over the Angels had become 3½. Beyond that, the Rangers were just … off. His pitchers weren't as precise. His fielders were making poor decisions. He didn't get it. No one did.
As Washington said in his very Wash way, "Our game is one-fold: pitch and catch."
The Rangers were so good they were fitting two things into a single fold. And then they weren't.
So, with about 10 hours before they were to return to the ballpark Sunday and try it again, he gathered the Rangers and had his say. Gary Pettis, one of his coaches, chimed in. So, too, did players Michael Young and Ian Kinsler.
Savvy managers conduct their team meetings the night before they face their opponent's fifth starter. Or with their own ace going the next day.
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Washington couldn't wait that long.
"The things we've been doing are just not us," he said.
Unlike the details of his last big speech – before Game 7 of the World Series, which was surreptitiously taped and leaked and mocked – these stayed indoors. But you probably could guess the message, even without the particulars.
His shortstop, Elvis Andrus, had held a ball in protest (he believed it had struck Angels baserunner Erick Aybar) rather than take an out. It was a pivotal play in a loss. Or, as the case was, non-play. The night before, his second baseman, Kinsler, mishandled a routine ground ball. It, too, was a pivotal play in a loss. They'd committed four errors in two games that helped make the Angels' season real again. After two boat-race losses at home to the Seattle Mariners – they were outscored, 31-11 – the Rangers were now losing big and small, by a lot and a little, in blowouts and in games so discouraging they brought notes wafting into the dugout.
"I had to bring 'em back to reality," Washington said. "That they gut-check themselves. … You go through the season, things happen. This time just got a little out of control. I just had to step in."
The Rangers beat the Angels on Sunday, 7-3. Washington milked the offense with a couple sacrifice bunts in a game they should have won going away but didn't. He green-lighted Nelson Cruz on a seventh-inning 3-and-0 count, and Cruz hit the next pitch 484 feet, good for two runs and a sonic boom. And the Angels appeared to be the team that was, if not necessarily indifferent, certainly caught between the hops and the choices and on the wrong side of a talent gap.
Nobody settles anything in the first days of June. But, clearly, the Angels possessed an improved carriage as they drew nearer the Rangers. And, just as clearly, the Rangers were at least uncomfortable with how they were playing, and may have been slightly unhappy they'd given the Angels a chance to come back into view. A sweep by the Angels would have pushed that ahead by another game, and a few more days, and who knows where else.
Had the Rangers played their usual game for another month, the Angels likely would have been gone, off hunting a wild-card berth. It didn't go that way, not yet.
"Obviously, yes," Washington said. "But, can you keep that pace all year? No. You can't keep that pace up. We're still 3½ games up. We're not chasing them, they're chasing us."
On the Rangers' way back to 4½ games up, in the quiet of his office, Washington discovered the note he'd received Saturday night. He unfolded it and read the mystery woman's judgment of his ballclub. As he did, he thought, "I just said the same thing."
It was that obvious. So much so, in fact, Washington pulled these temporarily misplaced notions of effort and teamwork and focus straight out of the sky. The Rangers were better than this.
"This lady," Washington said, waving the note in front of him, "she seen reality."
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