Major league baseball came to Texas in 1972 when the Washington Senators relocated and changed their name to the Rangers. Success took a lot longer. Coming into 1986, this franchise had yet to win the AL West. There were only two seasons (1974 & 1977) that had been playoff-caliber by the more lenient standards of today. Set against this backdrop, the 1986 Texas Rangers were a noteworthy success in franchise history.
Texas made two big trades prior to the 1986 season and both paid off. They got a young starting pitcher in Ed Correa and a good shortstop in Scott Fletcher from the Chicago White Sox at low cost. Correa became a rotation regular at the age of 20. Fletcher batted over .300.
An even better deal came at the expense of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals). The Rangers gave up a couple no-names and got Pete Incaviglia back in return. Incaviglia hit 30 home runs in 1986 and began a good run as one of baseball’s respected power hitters.
Power was the key to the Ranger offense. In addition to Incaviglia, first baseman Pete O’Brien hit 23 homers. Larry Parrish, the veteran DH, went deep 28 times. Ruben Sierra, a young outfielder with a bright future started getting playing time and posted a .476 slugging percentage. The sparkplug of the lineup was Oddibe McDowell. The center fielder stole 33 bags and scored 105 runs. Gary Ward played left field and finished with a .372 on-base percentage.
Overall, a lack of depth and a weakness at taking walks prevented this offense from being great. But the power hitters kept Texas in the middle of the American League, at seventh in runs scored.
Pitching was about the same, ranking eighth in the AL for staff ERA. The strength was reliability. The top five starters—veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough, Correa, Jose Guzman, 22-year-old flamethrower Bobby Witt and Mike Mason—combined to make 144 starts.
None of them were standouts—Hough’s 17 wins and 3.79 ERA was the best of the group—but the consistency made life easier on a pretty decent bullpen. Greg Harris saved 20 games and worked 111 innings to lead up the relief corps. Jeff Russell, Dale Mohoric, Mickey Mahler and a young Mitch Williams rounded out the pen.
Texas played .500 baseball for the first couple months of the season. There was no streak longer than three games, either winning or losing. But there were a couple of series that suggested this team could be interesting.
The Rangers went to Toronto in late April, where the Blue Jays had just come within one game of the World Series the previous October. Texas lost Monday night’s opener, coughing up a 6-3 lead in the eighth inning and losing 7-6. But they turned it around the next two nights. The power unloaded on Tuesday. Incaviglia, Ward, O’Brien and third baseman Steve Buechele all homered in a 10-1 rout. On Wednesday afternoon’s getaway finale, Parrish homered and drove in five runs to key a 9-8 win.
In early May, Texas played two series against the New York Yankees, who were off to the hottest start in the American League. The Rangers won two of three in the Bronx and then welcomed the Yanks down to Arlington a week later. Again, they dropped the opener, losing 4-3 in spite of two Parrish homers. But again, they bounced back and won the series. Fletcher and McDowell scored two runs apiece in a 6-3 win. In the finale, a 13-hit attack was led by another Parrish long ball and a 9-1 win.
By Memorial Day, the Texas record was only 21-21. But in the AL West, that was good enough for first place by a ½ game.
Prior to 1994, the leagues had just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place finisher could go to the playoffs. That meant the Rangers not only shared a division with current AL West members in the Angels, A’s and Mariners (the Astros were in the National League until 2013), but also the Royals, White Sox and Twins. For a 21-21 record to be good enough to lead up a group of seven teams underscores how imbalanced the American League was, at least in the early going.
Texas’ play began to heat up along with the summer weather. They beat Chicago six straight times, won four consecutive games against Seattle and then went 5-2 in seven games against Oakland. There was only one fly in the ointment—the California Angels. In six games against the Angels, the Rangers lost all six times and scored just ten runs in the process.
Even so, by the All-Star break, Texas stood at 47-41. They were in second place and only 1 ½ games back of California. There was reason for the sports fans of the Lone Star to stay interested in baseball as the calendar shifted toward to the opening of NFL training camps.
But the Rangers stumbled badly out of the break, losing all seven games on a road trip to Detroit and New York. The Angels didn’t take full advantage, so Texas stayed within 3 ½ games of the lead. They recovered by winning 14 of 20 against AL East opponents and chipped back to within 1 ½ games. A mid-August weekend in Toronto went poorly. After losing the first two games by a combined score of 20-2, the Rangers blew a 5-0 lead in the Sunday finale and lost in 11 innings.
So it wasn’t a particularly great late summer. But the Rangers still had a record of 69-62. Their AL West deficit to the Angels was still a manageable 5 ½ games. And Texas and California would still play seven games head-to-head over the final two weekends of the season. The opportunity was there.
But the opportunity was not taken advantage of. The Rangers went to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were surging and breaking open the AL East race. Texas lost three straight. A week later, the Rangers lost series to mediocre teams in the Twins and Mariners.
By the time the first series with California started, Texas was nine games back and the race was virtually over. When they lost the first head-to-head game, the Angels clinched the AL West. Even though the Rangers won five of the remaining six, it meant nothing in the pennant race.
It was a disappointing second half of the season and a particularly disappointing first two weeks of September. The positive is that Texas did finish the season with an 87-75 record. Only five teams in the majors won 90 more games. The Rangers were part of a group of five others that was sitting on 86-87 wins. By the standards of today, this would have been just enough to get in the playoffs. And by the standards of Texas Rangers baseball prior to the realignment of 1994, that was a success.