NEW YORK -- When the Rangers made their first World Series appearance in 2010, the players popularized celebratory claw-and-antlers hand gestures, unintentionally fitting imagery for what they'd become: the bullseye-wearing favorites everyone else would be tracking.
Texas, however, won the American League pennant again in 2011 and so far in '12 has again proven to be an elite team, with a six-game lead in the AL West and the league's second-best record (trailing the Yankees by a mere .003) after an 8-2 loss to New York Monday night.
"Everyone's been asking us for the longest time [about being] the hunted now," Rangers veteran infielder Michael Young said. "We can still be the hunter. People might be coming after you, but you can still go after them."
Indeed, Texas began the 2012 season with a carnivorous assault on the league with a 17-6 record in April, setting the tone for a year in which the Rangers could become only the fourth franchise to win three straight pennants since the league championship series' were introduced in 1969, joining the Orioles (1969-71), the Athletics (1972-74, 1988-90) and the Yankees (1976-78, 1998-2001).
Even the elite teams will struggle at some point during the course of a long season, and the Rangers are no exception. In fact, their struggles have been neatly confined to the pages of the calendar, making the ups and downs seem more pronounced. They followed that hot April with a 14-14 May, only to burn through June at 19-9, then dip to 9-14 for July and pick back up to 8-4 so far in August.
The Rangers ended June on a five-game winning streak, but started July by losing five straight; they lost four of five to end July but started August with four consecutive wins.
The July swoon, in which Texas went 9-14 and saw its division lead more than halved, was particularly pronounced. That month the club had an offensive line of just .243/.309/.375 with 3.5 runs per game after averaging 5.4 runs per game with a .284/.346/.461 line in April, May and June.
There's no better embodiment of the lineup's ebb and flow than the production of Josh Hamilton, who batted .319/.385/.652 with 25 home runs from April through June, then fell to .177/.253/.354 with four homers in July and so far in August is back up to .320/.382/.580 with three homers in 12 games.
"This year I think we've seen some signs that experience has really helped our guys," general manager Jon Daniels said. "In the month of July we had like a team-wide slump with two or three exceptions. There was a sense of concern around the club -- fans, media, some within -- and I don't think it infiltrated the clubhouse at all."
Daniels noted that the players didn't overhaul their routines and manager Ron Washington didn't overhaul the lineup; the club simply knew it would come around. "Even when we're bad, we can play," said Washington, who points to a specific game as being responsible for the turnaround.
The hard-charging Angels had already won the first two of a four-game set to close within three games of first when they scored six runs in the top of third inning on Aug. 1. Texas came back to tie the game 7-7 with a run in the bottom of the ninth and then, after yielding three runs in the top of the 10th, rallied to score four in the bottom half of that inning for the walkoff win.
"They kicked us in the stomach," Washington said. "Woke us up. It was just a matter of time before the offense came around. Our guys couldn't stay like that forever.
". . . We got challenged. We got embarrassed, really. We fought back. And now, nobody's going to take the fight out of us."
Added leftfielder David Murphy, "It's as resilient of a group as I've seen, going from one day to the next. There are a lot of examples of that in the playoffs, taking some tough losses and we come back the next day and act like it never happened. There's a lot of character."
The other lesson from staying atop the league for as long as Texas has is one gleaned by management.
"It takes a lot of depth," Daniels said. "It takes a lot of pieces. You can never have enough, really, whether it's pitching, depth to withstand an injury, depth in the lineup, coming off the bench. There's always something.
"If you don't start with too much, you're not going to finish with enough."
The Rangers were fortunate to essentially use only five starters last year (except for two others who made a total of just five starts), but this year both Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis suffered season-ending injuries, while Derek Holland also logged a disabled list stint. In total, the Rangers have seven pitchers who have made at least six starts this year, with 11 total pitchers taking the ball to open a game.
Even with such tumult in filling out the rotation, Washington stressed his confidence in the group.
"Very comfortable," he said, "because we don't think any other way in Texas."
The Rangers' biggest trade deadline move was the acquisition of starter Ryan Dempster, though has pitched to an 8.31 ERA in his first three starts since coming over from the Cubs. Texas also traded for catcher Geovany Soto and has tried to improve itself with internal promotions.
Daniels said they explored the market for righthanded hitters and concluded that third base prospect Mike Olt was better than anyone available in a trade. Olt came to the majors on Aug. 2 and delivered a walk-off hit to beat the Tigers last Saturday. Also, Rangers CEO and team president Nolan Ryan told ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM on Monday that 19-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar, the club's top young player and the No. 2 prospect according to
It's all about constantly reloading and remaining on top.
"Obviously we have high expectations of ourselves," Murphy said, "but, it's funny, sometimes out in public in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I'll notice some fans being frustrated with the way we've been playing when we're 15, 20 games above .500 and we're five or six games ahead of whoever's in second place.
"Everybody expects us to win, which is a good thing, but if you look at it relative to 2010, 2011, we're probably right where we are in terms of our record and in terms of our lead at this point in the season."
Indeed, at 67-47 through play on August 13, the Rangers are in a nearly identical position to where they've been the past two years:
With 48 games remaining and the A's and Angels (eight games back) still within striking distance, the Rangers' aren't yet concerned with how everyone will fit on the playoff roster or how they'll win that third straight pennant. For now their focus is only on the here and now.
"One thing we do really well is not get ahead of ourselves, and we haven't come close to thinking about the postseason yet," Young said.
And that may be the truest sign of a great team.