Michael E. Keating
July 16, 2015

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Prince Fielder is back to hitting, Josh Hamilton is back and the Texas Rangers are closer to first place than expected after a miserable April coming off the season-ending elbow injury to ace Yu Darvish in spring training.

As for where they're headed when they return from the All-Star break Friday night in Houston, it's tough to say. Texas (42-46) has lost eight of nine and is six games behind the Los Angeles Angels, who overtook the Astros by half a game in the AL West on the final day before the break.

''We haven't played our best baseball yet,'' said shortstop Elvis Andrus, among those struggling in a spotty offense with a .242 batting average. ''We did for like a month. Second half is always exciting, especially when you're fighting for spot.''

Fielder was the biggest question going into the season after neck problems limited him to 42 games and a career-worst .247 average in his Texas debut last year after the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Ian Kinsler to Detroit.

The burly slugger answered by hitting for average early, then cranking up the power to finish with 14 homers before the break. He's second in the AL with a .339 average and leads the Rangers with 54 RBIs, earning an All-Star appearance that included a single to put the AL ahead for good in a 6-3 victory Tuesday.

Among the problems for the hit-or-miss offense is another big-money player in right fielder Shin-Soo Choo. He's hitting .221 in the second year of a seven-year, $130 million contract. Andrus, making $15 million this year, hasn't been much better and is third in the AL with 15 errors.

Hamilton was basically a bonus when he returned to the Rangers in a trade, with Texas responsible for just $6 million from the five-year, $125 million deal the 2010 AL MVP signed with Los Angeles in December 2012. The Angels were anxious to dump Hamilton after two disappointing seasons and a substance abuse relapse.

The slugger who was an All-Star all five previous seasons in Texas homered twice in his fifth game back before a hamstring injury sidelined him for a month. Hamilton eased his way back into the lineup the final two weeks before the break, hoping four days off would get him closer to full strength.

Adrian Beltre, who missed three weeks with a thumb injury, has just seven homers. And with Leonys Martin struggling offensively again and unable to secure the everyday job in center field, rookie Delino DeShields has become another option as a leadoff hitter.

''We've been through a lot this year,'' said Mitch Moreland, the team leader with 16 home runs. ''Had some big ups and downs. But I feel like for the most part we overcame that.''

Darvish had right elbow surgery after experiencing tightness in his first outing of the spring. Left-hander Derek Holland only made it through one inning of his start in the home opener, and will be sidelined into August with a left shoulder strain.

Nick Martinez gave the rotation an unexpected lift early in the season, and rookie Chi Chi Gonzalez dazzled for a few starts before fading. Both are in the minor leagues for now. Yovani Gallardo started slowly as the de facto ace with Darvish out, but had a scoreless streak of 33 1-3 innings that ended not long before the break.

The Rangers went 7-14 in April before bouncing back at 19-11 in May. The surge peaked in mid-June, when they pulled within a game and a half of first place before losing ground again.

''As simple as it sounds, you've just got to stay positive,'' Gallardo said. ''When things are going well, it's fun to go out there and win ballgames. But when you get yourself into a week when things aren't going your way, I think that's when a lot of things show up.''

Left-hander Martin Perez starts the series opener against the Astros, his first major league appearance in more than a year coming off elbow surgery. The Rangers could benefit from in-house reinforcements if the 24-year-old pitches the way he did to start last season, and Holland can return and pitch the way he did at the end of 2014.

''There is some anticipation there,'' first-year manager Jeff Banister said. ''It's for the fact that both of them have done some significant things. And have pitched very well here. But there's still an element of the unknown.''

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