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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

While Rangers push on, Hamilton aches to play again

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- This should be the best time of year. After putting up Most Valuable Player numbers while carrying his Rangers onto October's doorstep, Josh Hamilton should be standing here today talking clinch dates and playoff matchups.

He should be giddy over what would be the first postseason appearance of his hardscrabble -- and inspirational -- career.

Will Josh Hamilton be ready in October? And will he be 100 percent by then? (US Presswire)  
Will Josh Hamilton be ready in October? And will he be 100 percent by then? (US Presswire)  
Instead, he's talking nerve-blocking injections and flak jackets, the faraway look in his eyes nearly as troublesome as his collision with the Target Field wall in Minnesota earlier this month.

Yes, says the Rangers crusher, he's optimistic he will play again this season.

"I have to be optimistic," Hamilton says. "If not, I'd be moping around here, dragging around, and that's not going to do any good for my teammates."

But optimistic and realistic are two different sides of the plate.

And the tough truth of it is, as the Rangers move closer to snagging their first postseason appearance since 1999, they might be forced to forge ahead without Hamilton.

"Obviously, there's some concern," Hamilton says of the possibility that he will not be healthy enough to play when the postseason starts in two weeks. "At the same time, I've done everything I possibly can do to help this thing heal fast.

"I wouldn't feel bad, or feel like I didn't give it my best shot at recovery, if that happens. Then, it was bound to be."

Cruel as that would be, they don't call it hardball for nothing.

Hamilton revealed Tuesday he actually suffered three fractured ribs in his run-in with the Minnesota wall. The lengthy and detailed tests he underwent in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday -- eight hours on Monday alone -- showed two small stable fractures in the seventh and eighth ribs in his right side. A third rib, Hamilton says, already has healed.

He took six injections on Tuesday. Three in the area of his ribs, three more in his back. Which runs the count to eight injections over the past week, given two cortisone shots several days ago.

In a perfect world, he says, he will return and at least work in a few at-bats in the final "four or five" games of the regular season.

Will that give him enough time to sharpen up for the playoffs?

Will his body tolerate the pain when he returns?

Will his ribs heal enough to even allow him to try?

More on the Rangers

His .361 batting average not only leads the majors, it was tops by 21 points on Tuesday. His .635 slugging percentage led the majors by 18 points. He has crashed 31 homers, scooped up 97 RBI and scored 94 runs in 130 games.

But Tuesday night was the 15th consecutive game he has sat out since the injury.

What the doctors told him as they administered the shots Tuesday -- anti-inflammatories at the site of the discomfort, and an epidural nerve-blocking injection -- was that pain-management is what it's all about now, and that he can play when his body reaches a pain level he can tolerate.

"I think it's something happy," Rangers manager Ron Washington says of the news. "To know that once the residue of the shots wear off, he can start doing activities, and then it's tolerance.

"Hopefully, his tolerance can get him back on the field."

Following the shots, Hamilton said he was feeling some immediate relief. The next 48 to 72 hours are the most telling. He walked around in a flak jacket-type vest the other day and said he did not feel too restricted. If and when he does return, the danger will be in the area getting hit again -- thus, the possibility of playing with the vest.

"Swinging is not going to make it worse," Hamilton says. "Throwing is not going to make it worse. Running is not going to make it worse."

Smacking into another wall while attempting to make a catch? That will make it worse. So, too, would a bang-bang slide into a base in which an infielder's knee clips him.

Thing is, though, as Hamilton is gauging his pain tolerance over these next several days, he'll also be measuring his swing and his game against his pride. The major-league line between being reasonably effective while playing with pain vs. embarrassing yourself can be razor thin.

How much of Josh Hamilton at less than 100 percent is worth its weight in gold on the field?

"I think at 80 percent, he'll do it," Washington says. "I don't think he'll do it at 60 percent. But 80 percent of Josh Hamilton is better than 100 percent of most ballplayers in the American League and in the National League.

"And it's not all about hitting balls out of the ballpark. To us, it's about his presence in the lineup. What he can do defensively, and on the basepaths. I think everybody has an idea of what he can do at the plate."

Without him over the past 14 games into Tuesday, the Rangers have gone 8-6. It's head-above-water stuff, but there certainly are no indications the Rangers are a serious playoff threat without him. Washington thinks Texas already would have clinched the AL West had Hamilton been in the lineup these past two weeks. It's hard to see where he's wrong.

In Hamilton's place, David Murphy has been phenomenal, hitting .397 over his past 17 games.

"Coming into the season, we knew we were a team with a lot of depth," Murphy says. "He's obviously a game-changing player. He can take over and win a game single-handedly. But we're not going to dwell on the fact that he's not here."

With Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus, the Rangers remain a very capable lineup. With Cliff Lee apparently past his back problems, they've got a true No. 1 who can help hoist a club in a short series. In Neftali Feliz, the Rangers have a closer with dominant stuff.

"So far, we've had some guys get hurt. The whole second half, we haven't had our 'A' lineup," Young says, speaking of injuries to, among others, Kinsler (groin), Cruz (hamstring), Hamilton and pitchers Rich Harden (shoulder), Dustin Nippert (head bruise) and Scott Feldman (knee). "We've still managed to win.

"We've played well with Josh in the lineup, and we've played well with him out."

Right now, there is no question that Hamilton is worried.

Right now, there is no question his confidence in what he can do is shaken.

Most important thing for the Rangers over these next several days, as they clinch the AL West and look beyond, is in what's happening off the field.

If Texas wins its first division title in 11 years, but Hamilton is sidelined for the playoffs?

"It would suck," Hamilton says. "At the same time, I'll be right there on the top step of the dugout giving them everything I could give them, everything that I couldn't on the field."

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