Dunning rebounds, but Texas stands pat in AL West race

Bullpen labors in decisive eighth inning as Rangers remain half-game back of first place

September 17th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- If you ask manager Bruce Bochy, it felt like the Rangers were playing on the edge all night on Saturday.

From pitchers getting into jams, then getting themselves out of them, to the offense hanging on by a thread with a one-run lead after the top of the fifth inning, it was a balancing act for Texas in the middle game of the weekend series at Progressive Field.

But in the thick of division and postseason races, the Rangers can’t afford to consistently be teetering over the edge. They have needed to play every game like a postseason matchup. But the past two games against Cleveland have looked like anything but for Texas.

Rangers starter , who posted an 8.84 ERA over his previous four appearances, rebounded for five scoreless innings against the Guardians, but another late-inning bullpen implosion resulted in a 2-1 defeat and a series loss for the Rangers.

  • Games remaining (14): at CLE (1); vs. BOS (3); vs. SEA (3); at LAA (3); at SEA (4)
  • Standings update: The Rangers (82-66) are a half-game up on the Blue Jays (82-67) and one game ahead of the Mariners (81-67), following their 6-2 loss in 11 innings to the Dodgers on Saturday night, for the second spot in the AL Wild Card race. Texas is still a half-game behind Houston (83-66), which dropped a 10-8 decision to Kansas City, for the AL West lead.
  • Tiebreakers: Lose vs. Houston; win vs. Toronto; lead vs. Seattle.

“Again, we really were playing on the edge all night,” Bochy said. “They left a lot of guys on base and it finally caught up with us there at the end. It's a shame, two strikes, a little blooper. This is a tough one, no getting around it.”

Relief pitching has been the weak link in many of the Rangers’ losses all season, and in a game when the offense uncharacteristically struggles, it becomes even more apparent.

Dunning said Bochy “hit the nail on the head” by saying they were living on the edge all game long.

Though the right-hander logged five scoreless innings for his best start since he tossed seven one-run innings on Aug. 13 in San Francisco, Dunning was fighting through traffic all along in his outing.

Dunning worked with runners on first and second with one out in the first before retiring the next two to end the inning. He then struck out José Ramírez to escape a bases-loaded jam the following frame. Dunning also induced an inning-ending double play in the fifth to neutralize a Cleveland threat and provide a shutdown inning after Texas took a 1-0 lead in the top half.

“I worked myself into some trouble, but fortunately enough, I was able to work myself out of that trouble,” Dunning said. “I thought [catcher Jonah Heim] had a really good game plan with the pitches he called, and I was fortunate enough to make pitches when I needed to.”

Unfortunately, Rangers relievers couldn’t say the same.

Will Smith allowed a one-out double and then a walk in the eighth before he was replaced by José Leclerc. Leclerc induced a popout, but then allowed a bloop single into left field from Tyler Freeman that tied the game. Cleveland took the lead and secured the win on another single in the next at-bat, this time from Steven Kwan, in the left-center gap.

“It's a shame, I mean two strikes, a little blooper, we're a foot away from catching that ball and the inning’s over,” Bochy said. “It's a game of inches.”

Rookie outfielder Evan Carter was one of the few bright spots. The 21-year-old -- who won a Minor League Gold Glove in center field in 2022 -- made a diving catch in left field to rob Bo Naylor of a base hit in the sixth inning. And just one inning before that, Carter singled and scored the Rangers’ lone run, going first to home on a Marcus Semien double to continue his hot start on the offensive end.

But offense was tough to come by across the board. The Rangers knocked six hits, but only two went for extra bases -- a two-out double from Nathaniel Lowe in the first inning and the RBI double from Semien.

“I wish I could explain it,” Bochy said of the offensive struggles in this series. “I mean, if I could, we'd fix it. [Cleveland starter Tanner Bibee] pitched well, but we just couldn't get much more offensively. We got a big hit there by Marcus to get us on the board, but couldn't tack on. … But hey, we got to come out here and be ready to go tomorrow.”