The Notebook goes into the heart of the Lone Star State today, with the Rangers-Angels showdown, some bad blood brewing in the Big 12 and a preview of the Dallas Cowboys.
The first really big series of the year starts in Anaheim tonight when the Angels host the Rangers in the AL West. Texas has nudged out to a four-game lead and these next four nights are huge if LAA is going to keep itself in the race. Let’s look at how these teams match up head-to-head. The pitching matchups go as follows:
Mon: Alexi Ogando vs. Garrett Richards
Tue: Derek Holland vs. Tyler Chatwood
Wed: C.J. Wilson vs. Ervin Santana
Thur: Colby Lewis vs. Jered Weaver
It’s of note that Dan Haren isn’t in the Angel rotation, so Mike Scoscia clearly didn’t structure his pitchers to ensure his best were going in this series. Tonight’s starter, Garrett Richards, has had a “welcome to the big leagues kid”, kind of debut to his major league career. He made his first on Wednesday in Yankee Stadium and now he gets to take on Texas in a must-win game. Ogando has been struggling to re-establish his form after a blazing start. No one in this group of eight starters has been better than Ervin Santana, who has a 1.09 ERA and a no-hitter since the All-Star break. Thursday’s finale points up LAA’s big edge and that’s the presence of a true ace in Weaver. While Lewis, Wilson, Holland and Matt Harrison, who doesn’t start in this series, are all steady, none is really a stopper. So it’s imperative that Texas take two of the first three—and probably the first two—to ensure a split.
The everyday lineups give a big edge to the Rangers. Nelson Cruz is hot right now, with a .389 on-base percentage and .559 slugging since the All-Star break, Michael Young is in a good groove and Josh Hamilton has been steady. This trio right here gives Texas the ability to take pitchers like Richards and Chatwood and blow them away, and I’m frankly expecting to see that tonight and tomorrow. Texas isn’t as consistent at setting the table, and here Elvis Andrus needs to be on the basepaths and setting up RBI opportunities. Also keep an eye on Mitch Moreland as the kind of secondary player who can do a lot of damage.
LAA’s offense isn’t nearly as deep and they have a lot of players in slumps right now, namely Bobby Abreu, the DH who still excels at grinding up pitchers and getting on base. The Angels need his disciplined patience at the plate and steady presence on base if they are going to have success the next four nights. Erick Aybar, a potential table-setter is in a funk, and I would note that Vernon Wells is in a slump too, but even though he’s hitting just .162 since the break, that’s not too far removed from his performance all year long. Howie Kendrick, who was the AL’s top second baseman in the first half, hasn’t played well since the midpoint and the offense has relied on Tori Hunter and Alberto Callaspo in recent weeks. They need more help if they’re going to win a playoff-type series.
Bullpens are basically a wash. Texas got all the ink for the trade deadline acquisitions of Koji Uehara and Mike Adams, and their pen is solid. But the Angels are also getting good work from a setup crew led by Scott Downs. Both Jordan Walden for LAA and Neftali Feliz for Texas are young rising stars at closer, but both are young enough to give fans jitters.
I’m looking for Texas to assert themselves the first two games and threaten to blow the West wide open. Then Santana and Weaver save the Halos’ season on Wednesday and Thursday and we’re back to a four-game margin.
BAD BLOOD IN THE BIG 12
Football has never been just a friendly affair in the state of Texas, but the state of the Big 12 has been even more heated than normal over the last week. Big 12 members are angry over Texas’ Longhorn Network, seeing it as UT’s effort to treat the conference as its personal toy. Texas A&M got mad enough to seek membership in the SEC. That effort failed, but the bad blood lives on and as always, it will take itself out on the football field. Both the Longhorns and Aggies have important seasons ahead of them, albeit in different ways. The Notebook takes a quick overview of how things look in Austin and College Station respectively.
No one expected Texas to repeat its 2009 run to the BCS National Championship Game last year, but the collapse to 5-7 was stunning. Mack Brown’s coaching staff has changed over. Defensive guru Wil Muschamp is now the boss at Florida and on the other side, Bryan Hansen has been brought in from Boise State to run the offense. Garrett Gilbert should be poised for a breakout year at quarterback and there are no obvious weaknesses on this team. But there are no obvious strengths either, save for safety where senior returnees Blake Gideon and Christian Scott will keep the middle under control. It’s hard to see Texas missing a bowl again, as I expect Brown to re-infuse some toughness back into the program that will get them to eight wins. But it’s hard to see the ‘Horns returning to the world of double-digit wins and major bowl games this year.
Texas A&M has a lot of expectations on them, after winning nine games in ’10, beating Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska and going to the Cotton Bowl. Now they need to take that next step to win the Big 12 championship. They have the personnel to do it with 18 returning starters. To underscore how young last year’s team was, not only do all five offensive lineman return, but the same will be the case next year. Ryan Tannehill had a big year at quarterback, and his entire cast of characters at the skill spots is back, not to mention he gets Christine Michael back at running back after an injury knocked him out last year. Michael and Cyrus Gray are perhaps the best 1-2 running back punch in the country. Defense has been in issue for the Aggies, but they stepped up from awful and into the world of merely mediocre a year ago, and were able to win a 9-6 game with Nebraska. With experience at all three levels of the defense, there’s on excuses for not making continued improvement this year.
It promises to be an interesting year in the Big 12—and we haven’t even gotten to Oklahoma, the consensus favorite and a team expected to be in New Orleans to settle the national championship in January.
DALLAS COWBOYS PREVIEW
No team in the NFL failed to meet expectations more than the Dallas Cowboys did last year. In a league that included disappointments in Minnesota and San Diego that’s saying something. But the Cowboys were supposed to roll to the NFC East title and were the favorite to be the first team to ever host a Super Bowl. Instead they lost seven of the first eight, got coach Wade Phillips fired and are now looking to see if promoted offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can harness this team’s talent.
The biggest problems Garrett faces are on the offensive line and in the secondary. While left tackle Doug Free is one of the best in the league, center Andre Gurode is getting up there in years and rookie Tyrone Smith is expected to start at right tackle. They are certainly worse units in the league, but when you’ve gotten used to having good lines and have playoff expectations, this fivesome needs work. The defensive backfield is a substantial issue, with corners Terrence Newman and Mike Jenkins being mediocre and safety a persistent problem in recent years.
Dallas’ defense has been bailed out more often than not by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL in sacks a year ago. Ware leads what is a good front seven that includes steady inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brookings, along with Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears up front. The Cowboys can get pressure on the quarterback and need to be consistent in stopping the run.
Garrett’s offense has long had a solid running game of its own, though Marion Barber is no longer a part of the team. Felix Jones has tremendous explosiveness, but there’s concern about whether he’s durable enough to be an everydown back. Even if he’s not, Tashard Choice can handle some carries and rookie Demarco Murray has solid NFL potential.
That brings us to Tony Romo, who like many quarterbacks, seems emblematic of his team. There’s no denying his talent. There’s no denying he’s had success. But there hasn’t been that deep run into the playoffs that owner Jerry Jones and the fan base demand. Romo has quality targets in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and Free’s got his blind side protected. Romo was knocked out in the season’s sixth game a year ago, but he wasn’t playing well to begin with. More than any player, he needs a big year. And more than any other team, so do the Cowboys.
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