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Pitching and defense? Yep, the rebuilt Rangers are for real

Yes, the Rangers were a major league best 21-6 in June were tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball through the season's first three months and are in first place in the AL West with the biggest divisional lead in the game. Yes, they have been blowing people out of the water lately: they hit a major league best .311 and scored 178 runs, with Nelson Cruz missing significant time and Ian Kinsler hitting with the pop of Ian McEwan. And yes, Josh Hamilton (who hit an otherworldly .454 with nine home runs in June) is amazing again and Vladimir Guerrero, who single-handedly took down his own team on Wednesday night in Anaheim, is raking like it's 2004.

But the big story deep in the heart of Texas -- aside from GM Jon Daniels' new coif, of course -- is the pitching staff. Last year, the Rangers saw their runs allowed drop by a rather staggering 224 runs, from 964 in 2008 to 740 in 2009. This year, with a rotation that has been anchored by a pitcher who spent the last two seasons in Japan (Colby Lewis) and an ex-reliever who entered this season with six career starts (C.J. Wilson), the Rangers were on pace to allow their fewest runs since 1983. In June, only the Padres allowed fewer runs than Texas. For so long they have been all hit and no pitch, but the Rangers now have a pitching staff that is not only respectable but one of the top units in baseball, even with Scott Feldman, a 17-game winner last year, and Rich Harden, who began the season as the team's presumptive ace, struggling to stay afloat.

The two men most responsible for the pitching renaissance are Daniels, who has done a masterful job of collecting talent, and team president Nolan Ryan, who has raised expectations and changed the mindset of Rangers pitchers.

Ryan still remembers the moment he realized there was problem in Texas. It was April 1995, the Rangers were getting torched in their home opener against the Indians, and the most famous pitcher in franchise history was sitting in a box with then-general manager Doug Melvin. "There was seven home runs hit in the ballgame, and we went to the bullpen about every two innings," Ryan recalled one evening last month, before a game in Arlington. "I looked over at Doug and said, 'You know, Doug, I don't think I've ever seen seven home runs hit in one game. And I haven't seen anybody knocked down. I haven't seen anyone moved off the plate. These guys are pitching like they're pitching in an exhibition game, just getting their work in, not worrying about anything.'" Ryan shook his head, leaned in, and said, "I told Doug, 'There's something wrong here.'"

Since taking over the club in 2008, Ryan's mission has been to reverse the mentality of a pitching staff that for so long had been resigned to failure. "The mindset here was you couldn't pitch in this ballpark, and that's baloney," he said of the launching pad that is the Ballpark in Arlington. "You can pitch in this ballpark. If this organization is going to win, it has to have pitching. We're not a ball club that's just going to blow people out of the water like we used to. You can't win that way."

An improved defense has been a big reason for the quick turnaround. The Mariners have been the poster children for baseball's recent defensive revolution, but the Rangers been as smart as anyone in using defense to turn into a winner. "As everyone talks about the Texas hitting and the pitching that's coming around, it's been the defense that's been steadfast," said pitching coach Mike Maddux. "The groundballs are outs. That's one thing we really try to stress with the pitchers. You find the bottom of the zone, you keep the ball on the ground, and the guys behind you are going to make plays, because our team strength is defense."

The biggest problem with the pitching in Texas, though, was not the defense or the oppressive summer heat or the ballpark (and the jet stream in right field). The problem was the talent. As Wilson says, "It's not like we had Pedro Martinez out there giving up bombs." The last few years the Rangers have been focused on loading up on young talent ---- in particular, young pitching talent. "When I took over [in 2005], the biggest mistake was that we didn't put a real comprehensive strategic plan in right away," said Daniels. "We started building up our Latin America program, we started doing things differently from a scouting and development side, but at the same time, we didn't go full commitment into a long term program. Not until 2007. We dove in head first, from ownership to A-ball, and we said, Here's what we're going to do: we're going to develop our own players; we're going to invest in infrastructure; we're going to hire the best scouts, treat them well, and give them best tools they need; we're going to be patient with our players. That's paying dividends now."

Added Daniels, "We had to collect talent first, that was stage one. When Nolan got here, it was, 'Okay we have talent here, now we're going to focus on fine tuning our development process and our pitching program with stuff like more long toss, live BP during the spring, and expecting guys to go deeper into games.'"

What make the Rangers truly dangerous -- not just this year but for years to come as well -- is the depth of their pitching talent. Tanner Scheppers, 23, and Martin Perez, 19, are the jewels of a minor league organization that many consider the most talent-rich in baseball. Scheppers, who seems to be past his shoulder problems (58 K's in 45 2/3 innings in Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma City this year) will bolster the Rangers bullpen down the stretch this season. Perez, the best left-handed prospect in the game, is not far behind. Alexi Ogando, a 26-year-old power arm from the Dominican, arrived in The Show in mid-June and is 3-0 and has yet to give up a run in 8 1/3 relief innings. Neftali Feliz, 22, has been one of the game's top closers this season but could be a future 20-game winner if the Rangers eventually decide to slot him in the rotation.

Says a scout, "What's really interesting about Texas is that they still have that scary offense there. But now they have the defense and the pitching, too. And they have lots of it."

In other words, the Rangers are for real. And they're not going away anytime soon.

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