Lone Star State Vs. SoCal: The AL West & Texas-UCLA
The cities of Dallas and Los Angeles are going to get familiar with each other over the next two weeks. The Rangers & Angels are fighting to the finish in the AL West, while in college football Texas & UCLA square off on Saturday. The Notebook looks at both, and in keeping with the theme of the day, mixes in some NFL talk about Houston and Dallas.
AL WEST RACE
Coming into Wednesday’s games Texas leads Los Angeles by a clean three games with 14 to play, as both teams point toward a season-ending three-game set in Anaheim. The Rangers have their offense hitting on all cylinders at the right time. Adrian Beltre has returned from the disabled list and hit in 17 straight games. Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli have been the hottest bats of the team, while speedy shortstop Elvis Andrus is playing his most consistent offensive baseball of the season. David Murphy has further stepped it up, showing off the depth of a lineup that is no longer heavily reliant without contributions from Nelson Cruz, and even with Josh Hamilton swinging the bat well he’s not even among the lead offensive threats right now.
It’s that offensive firepower which is giving the Rangers the edge in this race right now, because the Angels just can’t match it. With Tori Hunter has swung the bat very well in the second half of the season and Erick Aybar is hot, there’s not the same depth in Mike Scoscia’s lineup. Howie Kendrick and Vernon Wells are hitting for power, but not getting on base consistently and while first baseman Mark Trumbo isn’t bad, it’s clear this team’s offense has never really recovered from the loss of Kendry Morales over most of the last two seasons.
Starting pitching was supposed to be the LAA trump card as we got into the crunch, but thus far the only pitcher on either team’s staff that’s looked like an ace is Texas lefty C.J. Wilson, with a 1.94 ERA in his last six starts. The presence of Dan Haren and Jered Weaver at the top should give the Angels a big edge in what’s become an extended short series situation in the stretch, but while neither ace has been bad, their ERAs are in the neighborhood of the 3s and 4s respectively. For Scoscia’s team to make one final push they need their 1-2 punch to dominate these next two and a half weeks.
Bullpens and schedule are mostly a wash. Each team has a reliable closer (Neftali Feliz for Texas, Jordan Walden for LAA) and a reliable setup man (Mike Adams and Scott Downs). But the Rangers’ efforts to add depth at the deadline haven’t panned out and this same area has been a trouble spot for the Angels all year. For the schedule, Texas has two more games with Cleveland in a series that continues tonight, while the Angels have to go to Toronto to close out their current 10-game road trip. Otherwise, the teams play a mix of Seattle, Oakland and Baltimore to build up to their final battle with each other from September 26-28.
TEXAS & UCLA POINT TO SATURDAY SHOWDOWN
Texas is on a mission for redemption this season after winning only five games a year ago. UCLA is on a mission to return to relevance under Rick Neuheisel. Both teams face each other in Pasadena on Saturday, as the Longhorns try and prove their early start is for real, while the Bruins hope to show something better than what we’ve seen so far.
Running the ball is at the heart of the discussion about this game. The Texas run defense was embarrassingly soft a year ago and that includes a game in Austin against this same UCLA team, when the Bruins ran over and around the ‘Horns on their way to a surprise win. While UCLA hasn’t looked impressive so far this year in a loss to Houston and a narrow win over San Jose State, we can’t blame the running game. They’ve muscled up for over 200 rushing yards each game and have a 1-2 punch of Jonathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman that will test the Longhorn defense.
The Texas defense, playing without longtime coordinator Wil Muschamp, now the head coach at Florida, struggled against the run in their opener against Rice. The lowly Owls put together 130 rush yards, but Texas re-established control of the line of scrimmage in a must-win spot against BYU last Saturday. While a narrow one-point win at home doesn’t suggest Texas is championship material, it had to be a big sigh of relief for the program to hold the BYU running game and quality running back J.J. Luigi to just 43 yards. If they summon that same type of effort on Saturday, they’ll grab another non-conference win and keep the heat off of Mack Brown. Meanwhile, UCLA has to strengthen all other facets of its game to avoid Neuheisel’s seat from getting a lot warmer.
NFL LONE STAR REVIEW: DALLAS & HOUSTON
The Dallas Cowboys were less than a quarter away from making last Sunday a clean sweep for the state of Texas. After Houston annihilated Manning-less Indianapolis to start the day, Dallas was poised to beat the Jets on the road in prime-time. Then the Cowboys gave up a blocked punt, Tony Romo threw an interception and the team turned a 14-point lead into a three-point loss.
One school of thought regarding this game is that Dallas played so well on the road against a recognized elite team that it must win they’re pretty close to being in that group of teams themselves. I see the logic in this position, but there are issues that have to be brought up. The running game, long a staple of the best Cowboy teams, was non-existent and we have to wonder if Felix Jones can really be an everydown back, or if he’s better suited to be a change-of-pace speedburner. Defensively, Dallas got a good game from Demarcus Ware, who had two sacks, but still couldn’t stop a team who’s primary calling card is defense. And ultimately, playing close without winning might be the sign of a moral victory at the college level, but there’s too much parity in the NFL to give credit for a loss. This league is about consistency and making plays at the right times and Dallas did anything but on Sunday night. So that talent is there in Dallas, but the execution has to improve. Same story, different year. The next three games will tell a lot—a road trip at San Francisco followed by home games with Washington and Detroit. If Jason Garrett’s team is ready to rejoin the contenders, they’ll sweep these three.
It’s hard to find anything bad to say about Houston’s 34-7 win over Indianapolis, a game the Texans led 34-zip in the first half. Even without Arian Foster, they just installed Ben Tate at running back and he rolled up 116 yards. Mario Williams got to the quarterback twice and eased concerns the Notebook had over how the defensive ends would adjust to Wade Phillips’ linebacker-oriented schemes. And it’s impossible to come up with any reasonable argument for why Houston shouldn’t be the heavy favorite to win the AFC South and make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. But we do have to at least pick a few nits and here they are—Matt Schaub was not very efficient, throwing two interceptions against a shaky defense. Actually I guess that’s the only nit I can think of. Consecutive road games at Miami and New Orleans, followed by a visit from Pittsburgh will tell us if Houston is really playoff-caliber or will simply back in through what’s suddenly become a very weak division in the absence of Peyton Manning.
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