Tuesday May 19th, 2009

A funny thing happened in Texas the other day: There was a walkup crowd of 11,000 fans and it wasn't for a high school football spring scrimmage but rather an actual, live Major League Baseball game. The Texas Rangers truly are the hottest team in baseball, having won seven in a row, swept the Los Angeles Angels in their statement series and drawn 105,000 people to The Ballpark in Arlington for those three games.

The Rangers? The same team that only last year finished last in runs allowed and last in defensive efficiency in what was a fourth straight losing season? Actually, no, not those Rangers, but a whole new Texas team that knows how to pitch the ball and catch it. Have no fear, Texas fans: After suffering though eight losing seasons in the past nine years, the Rangers are for real. They are good enough to win the AL West. Let us count the ways:

1. Defense: "We thought the biggest improvement we could make in the offseason was to improve the defense," general manager Jon Daniels said. The Rangers knew they would get a full season from Chris Davis, a very good defensive first baseman otherwise known for his power. To tighten the defensive skills of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, they dispatched former big league catcher Scott Servais to Saltalamacchia's home in Florida over the winter for some defensive tutoring.

Most important, the Rangers installed rookie Elvis Andrus at shortstop while shifting erstwhile shortstop Michael Young to third. "It made us better at two positions," Daniels said.

The Rangers have jumped from last in defensive efficiency to second, similar to the worst-to-first improvement by the 2008 Rays.

2. Pitching: The hiring of pitching coach Mike Maddux away from Milwaukee was an inspired move. Ace Kevin Millwood (4-3, 2.93) not only has set the tone for a rotation that goes deep into games, but "has set the example for everyone else as far as conditioning and work ethic," Daniels said. Matt Harrison, 23, Brandon McCarthy, 25, and Scott Feldman, 26, are 9-3. Closer Frank Francisco had not allowed a run when he went on the disabled list.

"In the past couple of years we had people to pitch the eighth and ninth innings," Daniels said. "We just couldn't get to them. Now, with the starters going deep into games, you're not at risk of overexposing your bullpen and you're able to pitch people in roles they were intended to pitch in."

Only Toronto has received more innings from its starters in the AL than Texas.

3. More pitching: "Our bullpen is a little bit different," Daniel said, "because we have three starters in the bullpen. You could look at it that our sixth, seventh and eighth starters are in the bullpen: Jason Jennings, Derek Holland and Kris Benson."

Texas is breaking in Holland, 22, the way Earl Weaver and the old Orioles team did their young starters: with a low-pressure break-in period out of the bullpen. The added value of such a move is that it allows Texas to manage Holland's innings workload rather than thrusting him into the rotation right away and expecting him to throw almost 200 innings -- a problem the Tigers are going to face with Rick Porcello.

Similarly, hard-throwing right-hander Neftali Feliz is being groomed slowly. He is 20 and pitching in Triple A, where the Rangers can put a governor on his innings more easily than under the pressure to win in the big leagues. Feliz, for instance, was shut down last month when he was fighting a period of arm fatigue. In his most recent minor-league start, he was pulled after five innings in which he gave up one hit and one walk and struck out seven.

"He has a chance to improve our club at some point this year," Daniels said.

In fact, Feliz and Holland could both be pitching in the Texas rotation down the stretch of a pennant race with the Angels.

"It's possible they could be two of the best 12 guys," Daniel said. "So the last thing you want to do is have to shut them down or lighten up on their workload down the stretch. So we'll cut it on the front end."

4. Ben Sheets: It's too soon to know yet if Sheets can make it back this season from surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon. But if he can, the Rangers, the team that had reached an agreement with the free-agent right-hander before his injury was diagnosed, are the clear frontrunners to get him -- especially having established themselves as a contender.

"Winning is the best marketing tool you can have," Daniels said. "And winning is the best recruiting tool, too."

5. Offense: The Rangers can flat out mash, with the best quick-strike ability in the majors. They hit 62 home runs in their first 37 games. Like Tampa Bay, they are loaded with the right recipe for winning in this era; they have young veterans in the sweet spot of their careers: Saltalamacchia, 24, Davis, 23, Ian Kinsler, 27, Andrus, 20, Josh Hamilton, 28, Nelson Cruz, 28, David Murphy, 27 and Hank Blalock, 28. Hamilton may be the most dynamic player in baseball: a 240-pound bomber who can run, make Spiderman catches in center field, gun down base runners with a strong arm and hit the ball 500 feet.

"We hope we're playing meaningful games in September and beyond," Daniels said.

The Rangers aren't quite yet guaranteed to be cutting deep into the Cowboys' season. They are 2-7 against teams with winning records and 21-7 against teams at .500 or worse. The next four weeks might show just how good they are: 19 of their next 26 games are against the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers and Dodgers. Still, only two Rangers teams in franchise history ever began better than 23-14, and those teams (1996 and 1998) won the division. What the Rangers have done over the first quarter of the season is to establish themselves as one of the most exciting teams in baseball and, more important, the one team to challenge the Angles in the AL West.

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