OAKLAND -- The Rangers' late-season surge is starting to sputter and their hopes for a third-place finish are taking a beating. The reality of last place is looming again. The Oakland Athletics, who normally are fighting for a playoff spot this time of year, don't have much experience fending off challenges for third place, but they have proven worthy of the task this time.
On a spectacular Saturday afternoon in the Bay Area, the Rangers found themselves trailing 3-0 before they could get their first hit and ended up suffering their fifth straight loss by falling to the Athletics, 7-3, at McAfee Coliseum. The Rangers, who are back to 10 games under .500, are also now four games behind the Athletics with 14 left to play. "This is not the way I pictured it," outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "I thought we'd win three in a row. This is not the Rangers of the past month and a half. We've got to pick it up. It's too close to the end not to be more focused." Dan Johnson hit two home runs and Nick Swisher hit one, his third in the last three games. He also took a pitch in his rib in the seventh inning and he responded by glaring at pitcher Bill White, before cooler heads prevailed. Home plate umpire Alfonzo Marquez, trying to keep something from getting started, warned both benches. "I was trying to overthrow it," White said. "He's a good hitter and I wanted to make sure I got it inside. They told me I could still pitch inside, but I better not hit anyone." He did not and the Rangers, who didn't get a hit off of Oakland starter Joe Blanton until the fifth inning, went quietly the rest of the way. Shortstop Michael Young was 0-for-4 to snap a season-high 14-game hitting streak. The Rangers now get back to the task of evaluating what they have and what they can use for next year. Brandon McCarthy is high on the list of players who need to be better next year and he was better on Saturday than he was in his first start since coming off the disabled list. In fact, McCarthy was so giddy about his three innings of work that he said it's the best he's felt in two years. "It's the first time in the last two years that I've felt in control mechanically and my body did what I wanted it to do," McCarthy said. "I figured out what I was doing with my curveball and I was able to throw it for strikes. My changeup was better and my fastball was down." McCarthy, who didn't get out of the first inning in his start against the Tigers on Tuesday, made it through three innings and 52 pitches on Saturday. He allowed two runs on three hits and a walk while striking out three. Thirty five of his 52 pitches were strikes. "His command was better and his pace was better," manager Ron Washington said. "I thought he did a good job for us." McCarthy still took the loss and is 5-10 with a 5.07 ERA on the season. He hasn't won a game since July 31 and he is 1-6 with a 4.47 ERA going back to May 20. That was before he developed the blister on his right middle finger and the stress fracture in his right shoulder blade, the two maladies that pretty much wrecked his season. The Rangers now salvage what they can and get him ready for next season. He likely has two more starts before the end of the season to see if he can still feel this good and throws this good. His next one is Thursday in Arlington against the Baltimore Orioles and the Rangers are hoping for 65 pitches in that one. "He's healthy," Washington said. "We're just going to try every opportunity the rest of the way to build up his pitch count so by the end of the year we can get him up to a full ballgame. That will help him with his confidence going into the winter." This is an important winter for him. The Rangers would like him to get bigger, stronger and more durable to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season. There is still a suspicion that he might be more suited to the bullpen rather than the workload of a starter. The Rangers don't want to go there, not after giving up three pitchers for him in a trade with the Chicago White Sox last offseason. McCarthy doesn't want to go there either, not after the way he felt on Saturday. "On the mound I felt as strong as ever," McCarthy said. "My core and my legs have gotten stronger since I went on the disabled list. We've been working on strengthening them. This winter we just want to make sure we work on getting stronger and staying in pitching shape." The Rangers need it. He goes into next season as one of the front five. "He's sitting in the rotation so he's going to be huge," Washington said. "It's important that he stay in his offseason program and stay healthy for a whole season so we can see what he can do over the long haul."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.