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Power rankings: No. 3 Rangers

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No. 3 Rangers: 28th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Yankees.

One pitch away from a World Series parade in October. Tens of thousands to go in February, and that doesn't count those thrown on the back fields and in the batting cages.

This is the situation for the Rangers. They have won 204 games that counted the last two seasons — including 18 in the playoffs, when they really count — and all anyone wants to talk about is one they didn't win.

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was a masterpiece of doggedness, clutch performance and an almost divine bit of timing when viewed through the eyes of Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Jason Motte and, especially, David Freese.

It's another brick on the Cardinals' road, one paved by the likes of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Branch Rickey and Whitey Herzog. But deep in the heart, it always will be baseball's version of the Ice Bowl.

Except worse.

The Packers perfectly executed the quarterback sneak that gave Vince Lombardi's Packers the NFL championship in 1967. Jethro Pugh was buried by guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman. There was nothing the Cowboys could have done to keep Bart Starr out of the end zone.

There were dozens of things the Rangers could have done to avoid giving up five leads on that crazy night at Busch Stadium. The most obvious would have been to catch the ball. But Nelson Cruz never has been confused with Willie Mays, so, yes, maybe Ron Washington and the Rangers bench should have had him playing a step or two deeper against Freese.

No one in Nolan Ryan's section of seats would have complained if Neftali Feliz had thrown a few more strikes, either. Nor, at least in hindsight, if the star-crossed Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux had given Feliz enough post-meltdown love to entrust him with another lead in the 10th.

Demons? Yeah, these Rangers have a few.

While few in Texas grumbled when Matt Cain and the Giants steamrolled the Rangers in the 2010 World Series, expectations were higher the second time around. Now the populace is excited and on eggshells as another season approaches.

If the most simplistic trend holds true, the Rangers will be more likely to win 86 games than the 96 they won a year ago, when they captured the American League West by 10 games.

Washington's team is the 10th to lose the World Series in back-to-back seasons. The previous nine saw their victory totals drop by an average of 10 the year after the second Series disappointment, and only the 1923 Yankees were resilient enough to win it all after consecutive losses.

That team truly stayed the course, but why wouldn't it? Babe Ruth was at his peak, Wally Pipp was healthy, the rotation was loaded with 200-game winners and it was a whole lot easier to win an eight-team league and one best-of-seven series than to win three playoff series, no matter how sweet the match is in the four-team AL West.

Jon Daniels, the Rangers' attentive general manager, isn't afraid to make changes. He improved the 2011 team with the additions of Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli — in that order, no matter how large the cult of Napoli has grown — and believes he has done the same by swapping C.J. Wilson for Yu Darvish and signing Joe Nathan to relieve Feliz of his ninth-inning responsibilities.

It's a loaded team, albeit not as loaded as it would have been if Daniels had added Pujols or Prince Fielder rather than paying high tariffs to import Darvish from Japan. There is no way 2012 will be a joy ride given the pain inflicted by some pitches thrown last October.

And furthermore

•Darvish is a good bet for 190-plus innings with an ERA of 3.80 or lower, although it will take a season or two for him to adjust to the summer heat and the hitter-friendly dimensions of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, if he ever does.

•No team ever has had as much pitching depth in its system and its front office. Ryan, the team president, is joined by the brothers Maddux, with Mike recently luring Greg to the Rangers as a special assistant.

•Mike Maddux is considered a manager in waiting, but Washington just signed a contract extension that runs through 2014.

•The Rangers face huge decisions in the next two years. Josh Hamilton, Napoli and Colby Lewis are eligible for free agency after this season; Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young after 2013.

•A deep farm system, highlighted by shortstop Jurickson Profar, left-hander Martin Perez and third baseman Mike Olt, gives Daniels plenty of ammunition to make a major midseason trade. Paul Konerko is a possibility if Mitch Moreland does not lock down first base.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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