|Just like the previous two years, the Rangers will need Josh Hamilton's bat to reach the World Series. (AP)|
Third straight summer, October just around the bend, the Rangers are earning all A's.
Now if they can just hold off the A's.
Had you told them when spring training broke that with 16 games left to play that the Athletics would be their closest competitors in the AL West? Even given the Albert Pujols Angels?
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"I would not have expected it at the time," Texas outfielder David Murphy said as the Rangers opened a series with the third-place Angels on Tuesday. "But when you have talented young pitchers like they have, I'm not going to say it's a surprise, but it's not what you expect.
"What you expect on September 18, when a team has four rookie starting pitchers in the rotation, is that they would be unpolished enough to be inconsistent. But they haven't been inconsistent. And they've got a little of everything."
The Rangers have a little (and in places, a lot) more of everything, especially with relievers Joe Nathan and Mike Adams back on active duty after a weekend hiatus designed to give them a blow. Pacing is no small part of running the 162-game gauntlet, and the Rangers do this, as well as just about everything else, as well as anyone.
Manager Ron Washington's bullpen was back to full-strength (at least, until Tanner Scheppers suffered a bruised knee in a play at the plate Wednesday). The Rangers survived a major scare with Adrian Beltre's shoulder last week. Michael Young hit in 12 of 14 games heading into Tuesday (.346 during the stretch) and is showing signs of snapping out of a season-long funk. And slugger Josh Hamilton is back online after mysteriously becoming Mario Mendoza in June and July.
"Seems like I play four out of six months every season, whether it's because of injuries or going into slumps," Hamilton said in what might not be the best motto to carry with him into free agency this winter. "It's cool. I still have numbers that match up with anybody else's."
Even with Miguel Cabrera's monster night Tuesday as the Tigers knocked off the A's 12-2 in the opener of another enormous AL series, Hamilton remains safely atop the AL home run leaderboard with 42 (though Cabrera dumped Hamilton into second in the league in RBI).
Hamilton, into Tuesday, was hitting .287 with 42 home runs and 123 RBI. As has been the case during the past two Octobers, a significant portion of the Rangers' postseason hopes are attached to Hamilton's potent bat. And, to his fragile body (he left Tuesday night in the bottom of the fourth inning with "sinus issues").
"Seems like he's put June and July behind him," Murphy, Texas' extra outfielder, said of Hamilton's .223 June and .177 July (8 home runs total). "It's funny about him. Some people talk about his year with disappointment.
"During those first two months [during which he crushed 21 homers], it seemed like we were going to witness some kind of historical season. It's maybe not ending the way it's started off, but I think a lot of teams would take .285, 45 and 125."
Asked for his MVP if he had a vote, Rangers manager Ron Washington wasted no time.
"Three guys, man," he said, citing Hamilton, Beltre and the Angels' Mike Trout.
Which was sort of comical, given that Detroit's Cabrera is threatening to become baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and was in the midst of popping for two home runs and six RBI against Oakland as Washington spoke.
So someone mentioned Cabrera.
"Yeah, Cabrera, too," Washington quickly agreed. "Four."
Hard to blame him for not stretching his mind all the way to Detroit in the moment. Washington has enough on his desk just trying to drive these Rangers to the finish line.
They've held at least a share of first place for 163 of 165 days this season. They've been alone in first for 138 of the past 154 days dating back to April 17.
Want one more testament to how hard-charging Oakland is the furthest thing from a fluke? The Rangers' 87-59 record into Tuesday equals their best in club history through 146 games, and they have not lost back-to-back games since losing three straight Aug. 13-15. Even at this, Oakland had chopped their lead to two games this past Saturday, and three going into Tuesday.
Yet Washington did not want to talk Oakland. The Rangers and A's will face each other seven times in the season's final 10 games, and if Oakland remains within striking distance, Washington will get to them then.
"My concern totally is with the Angels," the manager said. "We'll play Oakland when we play 'em. They're certainly playing good baseball.
"Anaheim is not out of this thing. Not with the pitching they have, and with the players over there. They may not have been as consistent as they would have liked this year, but they can beat you on any night."
Few would have dreamed, back in March, that Texas would be warning folks against counting out the Angels.
Fewer still would have guessed that the A's would be standing between the Angels and Rangers for first place in the AL West.
"Anything's possible," Hamilton said. "The game is so unpredictable."
So onward they push, finish line two weeks away, third consecutive AL title and first-ever World Series triumph remaining within reach.
"We've had prolonged periods where our offense has struggled that we haven't had in years past," Murphy said. "But in spring training if you asked me whether I'd be content being 87-59 on Sept. 18, I'd probably have been pretty happy with that."
Now, it's all about the A's -- earning them, and fending them off.