The tenure of Bobby Valentine in Texas had been a pretty good, albeit frustrating one. Valentine arrived in 1986 and turned a franchise that rarely contended into one that won 87 games. Then the Rangers slipped back under. 500 for two seasons. Valentine grinded his way back to the right side of .500 with 83-win campaigns in 1989 and 1990. The 1991 Texas Rangers spent half the season looking ready to break that mold before a second-half fade left them out of the postseason money again.
A fatal decision was made in the offseason, when 43-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough was allowed to walk. Hough not only continued to be productive, he did so for a key division rival in the Chicago White Sox (prior to 1994, there were only two divisions per league and the AL West included Chicago, Minnesota and Kansas City, along with Texas, Oakland, California and Seattle).
Meanwhile, Valentine struggled to piece together a consistent rotation. The ageless Nolan Ryan was still good and at age 44 he went 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA. Jose Guzman had a nice year, winning 13 games with a 3.08 ERA. But the only starter to make more than 30 starts was Kevin Brown, and he struggled to a 4.40 ERA.
The rest of the rotation was slapdash, with Valentine having to make it up as he went. Everyone from Bobby Witt to Oil Can Boyd got a shot, but no one emerged. Nor was the bullpen a lot better. The middle relief and setup group was a mess. Jeff Russell was a nice closer, saving 30 games with a 3.29 ERA. But the Rangers still ended up 11th in the 14-team American League for staff ERA.
What this Texas team could do was hit. Juan Gonzalez, the leftfielder with two MVP trophies in his future, was emerging and he hit 27 homers with 109 RBIs. Ruben Sierra was even better in right—a stat line of .357 on-base percentage/.502 slugging percentage, 25 home runs and 116 ribbies.
The theme of strength at the corners continued at first base, where Rafael Palmeiro’s stat line was .389/.532. He hit 26 home runs of his own. Steve Buechele was respectable at third base at .335/.447.
Brian Downing had been picked up as a free agent, snagged away from the Angels. Downing might have been 40-years-old, but he posted a stat line of .377/.455 and held down the DH job. And 32-year-old Julio Franco at second was brilliant. Franco won the batting title with an average of .341 and finished with a .408/.474 stat line.
Have we forgotten anyone? How about Kevin Reimer coming off the bench and popping 20 home runs of his own. No one in the American League scored more runs than Texas did.
The Rangers played mediocre baseball through the first month and a half, and were sitting on a 12-14 record going into the week of May 13. Then they picked up the pace. Home sweeps of mediocre Detroit and contending Boston pushed Texas over .500 and sent them to Minnesota for a series that began on May 21.
Buechele keyed a balanced attack in Tuesday night’s opener. His two-run homer helped Russell inherit a 6-5 lead in the eighth and the closer nailed down the last four outs. On Wednesday, Texas trailed 2-1 in the top of the ninth. Sierra worked a walk, stole second and eventually scored the tying run on a sac fly. The evening went to the 12th inning. Palmeiro’s RBI double broke the 2-2 tie. Gonzalez’s two-out/two-run singled provided the insurance in the 5-2 win.
More extra innings awaited in Thursday afternoon’s getaway finale. In a 5-5 game in the 11th, Sierra came up with the bases loaded. He cleared them with a double. The game ultimately ended 10-6 and Texas had a sweep.
And they kept rolling, going to Seattle and winning three straight. By Memorial Day, the Rangers were 24-14 and on top of the AL West. Oakland, who had won the last three American League pennants, was only a half-game back. California was 2 ½ off the pace and Seattle was 3 ½ back.
Only the division winners could advance to the postseason prior to 1994, so there was no room to stumble. But stumble is what Texas did coming out of the holiday weekend. They lost a home series to Minnesota, who was starting to turn on the juice. That began a 2-10 stretch.
The Rangers rebounded by taking three of four at home from Chicago, another team that was starting to move up the standings. But in an AL West that was baseball’s best division, Texas was now in fifth place, six games out when they went to Oakland on June 25.
Facing the A’s tough ace, Dave Stewart, in Tuesday’s opener, Gonzalez ripped a three-run homer. Guzman went the distance and won 6-1. On Wednesday night it was Brown’s turn to pitch well and benefit from an offensive outburst. Buechele drove in four runs and the Rangers won 8-1. Buechele came through again in the Thursday afternoon series finale. His three-run homer keyed a late-inning offensive surge that led to a 9-6 win.
Texas was back in gear and this sweep started a 9-4 run that took them into the All-Star break. At 44-33, they were tied for the AL West lead with Minnesota. Chicago, Oakland and California were all in hot pursuit.
The Dallas area might be excited for football season, with Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys coming into their own, but there was the prospect of pennant race baseball to at least keep an eye on. Unfortunately for the Rangers, the late summer is often cruel to teams that don’t have pitching. And so it was in 1991.
Texas was swept by eventual AL East champ Toronto out of the break. That began a 3-8 stretch and with the Twins starting a surge that would take them all the way to a World Series title, the Rangers quickly fell five back. They played up-and-down baseball throughout August, the low point coming when Texas lost seven of eight games to mediocre teams in Milwaukee and Baltimore.
By Labor Day, the Rangers’ record was a respectable 68-61. Had they been in the AL East, it would have been within 3 ½ games of the lead and plenty of time to recover. In the competitive AL West, it had them 9 ½ back and in fourth place.
Texas stabilized in September and finished 85-77. It was still the fourth-best record in the American League, meaning that by today’s standards, it was a playoff-caliber team. Perhaps more than any other team in the Valentine era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ’91 Rangers symbolized both being pretty good…and also pretty frustrating.
When 1992 was shaping up as more of the same, with a 45-41 record, Valentine was sent packing. In 1993, Texas contended again, but fell short. It took the realignment of 1994 and the expansion of each league into three divisions for the Rangers to reach the playoffs. They were in first place at the strike in ’94 (albeit ten games under .500). And in 1996, they started a run of three AL West titles in four years.