Rangers At The All-Star Break

At the All-Star break in 2010, the Texas Rangers had a 50-38 record after dropping their previous four games yet led the American League West division by 4.5 games on their way to losing the World Series in five games.

Last year the team entered the second half at 51-41 thanks to seven straight wins that put it one game on top of the division. Texas went back to the Fall Classic where it fell in seven games.

This season, the Rangers stand at 52-34, four games ahead of the arch-rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Their .604 winning percentage is the highest at this stage in team history and reflects a consistency that should make the 29 other teams jealous.

“You have to credit the coaching staff for the way they have worked with us,” said starting pitcher Derek Holland. “And the players for the way we go out and play.”

As they finish the All-Star break and prepare for the second half of 2012, here’s a look at what the Rangers have accomplished and what they need to do to finally win the ultimate prize.

Talent, results net top ranking
With perhaps the most feared offensive lineup in baseball, it’s no wonder the Rangers are again among the best teams in the game. They lead the major leagues with a .280 average, 443 runs scored and 430 runs batted in.

They were the first team to win 50 games and despite a five-game losing streak last week, they have the second-best record in the major leagues. Such success netted the Rangers the No. 1 spot in the ESPN Power Rankings for the weeks ending June 24 and July and earned them eight players on the AL All-Star team.

“This team is everything I expected plus more,” said closer Joe Nathan, an All-Star himself who joined Texas after eight years with the Minnesota Twins. “I admired what they did from the other side and seeing how they operate here, it’s first class in every way.”

The unquestioned offensive leader has been Josh Hamilton with 27 home runs (tied for first in the league), 75 runs batted in (No. 1), a .308 batting average (No. 11), .635 slugging percentage (No. 1) and 1.016 on-base/slugging percentage (No. 1). If he keeps up that pace, he’ll finish with around 50 homers and 140 RBI, numbers that likely would net him another most valuable player award and a huge contract somewhere in 2013.

But Hamilton hasn’t provided the offensive spark alone. All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre hit .326, tied for fourth best in the league. All-Star reserve second baseman Ian Kinsler tops the league with 63 runs scored and is tied for third with 26 doubles. All-Star reserve shortstop Elvis Andrus shares the lead for triples with five while hitting .293.

Injuries have taken a big toll on the pitching staff (see more detail below) but thanks to starters Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish and Nathan and some other relievers, the team has held its own.

What is needed by trade deadline?
Most important, get back to full strength, which could happen this month. The Rangers have had eight players on the disabled list including three of their five opening-day starters, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz.

The pitchers taking their place – Scott Feldman, Justin Grimm and Roy Oswalt – have been inconsistent. Feldman failed to get past six innings and won just two of his 10 starts overall and two of eight after taking over for Feliz, but pitched well his final two games, earning the win Sunday in relief. Grimm gave up three earned run in six innings with no walks and seven strikeouts in his debut but yielded six runs in one inning with a walk and no strikeouts nine days later. Oswalt is 2-1 with a 6.26 ERA in four starts, two good, two
not so good.

Fortunately Harrison and Darvish have been outstanding throughout to earn All-Star berths with Harrison winning all five of his June starts to be named AL Pitcher of the Month.

The bullpen has fared respectively despite injuries to Alexi Ogando, Koji Uehara, Yoshinori Tateyama and Mark Lowe. One major reason is rookie left-hander Robbie Ross, who has a 6-0 record with a 0.96 ERA, the latter the lowest through the All-Star break in the history of the All-Star Game.

“He’s done a great job for us,” said Manager Ron Washington. “He has so much poise and keeps pounding the strike zone.” Meanwhile right-hander Mike Adams is 1-3, 3.07 and Nathan is 1-2, 1.73 and hasn’t blown a save since April 11.

“Even though we lost some starters and relievers, the guys called up have been doing a good job,” said outfielder Nelson Cruz.

“After everything we’ve had to endure with the injuries being able to carry ourselves the way we have has been huge,” Holland said. “We seem to find ways to get a win.”

First baseman Mitch Moreland has been the only offensive player to miss more than a few games but his absence has forced the Rangers to go with one less left-handed batter against right-handed pitchers. They are 8-6 in the 14 games he’s missed so far.

“It’s a different team but the same concept,” said Moreland. “I can’t say enough about the personnel on this team. We have a common goal every day of playing as hard as we can and enjoyed some success.”

Are Rangers better than last year?
Yes. Their 52 wins equals a team best at the All-Star break set in 1979 and statistically, this year’s Rangers are near or better than any previous group in several other categories. Their 670 strikeouts is tops and 3.72 earned run average the best at the break since the club-record 3.10 in 1983.

Another place the Rangers have improved over 2011 is in the field. Where they were near the bottom in AL fielding a year ago, they are in the middle so far in 2012.

The Rangers also are a huge hit at home. They already have drawn nearly two million fans to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, second to Philadelphia in the majors. They have played before a record 27 full houses and are on pace to draw three million for the first time.

“What can you say negatively about this place? Nothing,” Nathan said. “The fans come out in the heat, in the rain, whatever they throw at you. There’s 40,000 every night who really support us.”

West Coast trip ahead
After four straight weekends at home and following two more days off for the All-Star break, the Rangers return to action Friday in Seattle with the first of an eight-game West Coast trip. Following the three weekend games, they move to Oakland for two games against the A’s and three at the Angels.

“We think we’re in good shape,” Cruz said. “We have to get our energy from the break and start fresh.”

“I feel pretty good about my team,” Washington said. “Yes, we’ve sputtered a bit lately but I feel pretty good about the team.”

By Mark Miller – mmiller@blitzweekly.com