This Rangers team went into the 2010 season knowing that failing to pitch at a high level, be it at its hitter-friendly home or any other venue across the Majors, was not going to be acceptable -- not to club president and Hall of Fame hurler Nolan Ryan, general manager Jon Daniels or anyone on down the line. In order to take what was a strong 2009 season to the next step, the Rangers were going to have to pitch the ball, not just whack the ball.
"The perception nationally might be that we're still just a juggernaut offense and that's all, but really that's not the case," said Daniels, the architect of this AL West championship club. "The strength of this team has been the strength of the pitching staff, and really the depth of it."
There were a few personnel changes, such as C.J. Wilson jumping with both feet full time into the rotation and Neftali Feliz taking his rightful place as a Major League closer as a rookie, setting records along the way. The talent is there throughout the staff, and it was taken up a notch with the midseason acquisition of Cliff Lee.
But what really changed?
"Expectations, for one," pitching coach Mike Maddux said this weekend as the Rangers closed in on their title. "We expected a lot out of ourselves this year."
Mission accomplished. Expectations met, and then some.
Consider the Rangers transformed from the team that struggled on the mound over the last decade or so. This one ranks fifth in the AL with a 3.90 ERA, which would be their lowest mark since 1990, and ranks first in the Junior Circuit and fourth in the Majors overall with a 3.25 relief ERA.
"Ron [Washington], Mike and the staff have been really influential as far as raising expectations," Daniels said, "and our scouts have really done a great job of identifying guys who fit what we're trying to do."
It hasn't gone unnoticed in the league or in the division that saw the other three teams each take the title in the interim between the Rangers' last one and this one. Their opponents know this isn't the same staff that finished 30th in the Majors in ERA as recently as 2008 and three other times the previous decade. This is a staff that has evolved from last year's rebound to 18th overall and eighth in the AL in ERA.
Pitching has arrived in Texas, and a title has followed.
"The last couple years is the best they've pitched in a long time," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said this week. "There has to be some correlation when you look at what Nolan's brought and Mike Maddux's philosophies pushing the team in the right direction from that side."
What's perhaps even more impressive is how they've done a lot of it with younger players, inexperienced on the Major League level but loaded with talent.
You can put Feliz, a leading candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, at the top of that list. All he has done is set a Major League record for most saves by a rookie, surpassing the mark previously held by Kazuhiro Sasaki of the Mariners -- who incidentally was 32 years old and had pitched in Japan for 10 years.
"He's a special breed," Maddux said. "He's unique. Not everybody can step in and do what he's done."
Throw in Alexi Ogando, whose 1.36 ERA is the second lowest in the Majors among pitchers with at least 35 innings of work, and would rank as one of the lowest by a rookie in decades. And starters Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland are 24 and 23 years old, respectively -- pitching beyond their years, particularly down the stretch.
With Wilson, brilliant throughout the season, and Colby Lewis, whose losing record means little next to his 3.79 ERA, providing stability in the rotation, and veteran Darren Oliver as part of a tight bullpen as there is in the game, pitching has made a difference in Texas.
It has made the difference.
"I think every team out there that wins has to rely on pitching and defense to do it," Maddux said. "Offense is nice, but pitching and defense is the foundation to any good team, and the cornerstone is the bullpen."
Just like that -- with a pitching staff as strong as it has been in Texas in two decades -- the Rangers went and built themselves an AL West title.
Pitching wins. Just ask the Texas Rangers.