Rangers still a Texas-sized surprise

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

A Look Inside

May 16, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Texas Rangers have so far exceeded early season expectations that it is tempting to predict that the law of averages will catch up with them any day now, but don't be surprised if they stick around for a while.

They are eight games over .500 after losing 91 games last year and losing superstar Alex Rodriguez, which is reason enough to think that their surprising start was an April anomaly, but it's not April anymore and the Rangers are not doing it with mirrors.

Third baseman Hank Blalock has bloomed as a big-time run production guy, shortstop Michael Young is near the top of the American League in hitting, and Alfonso Soriano has better numbers than A-Rod.

Maybe more important, a pitching staff that no one even knew existed until Opening Day was ranked a respectable fifth in the American League in ERA before yesterday's games in spite of some physical setbacks in the bullpen that could limit manager Buck Showalter's flexibility in the middle innings.

The Rangers are not a .600 (winning percentage) team, but they are much better than anyone could have expected and there are a couple of factors that could keep them in the AL West race well into the summer.

They've already battled through the first block of divisional games and their schedule over the next three weeks features 11 of 21 games against teams - the Indians, Royals, Blue Jays and Pirates - that are at or near the bottom of the standings.

There also are three tough series against the Yankees and Chicago White Sox, but the Rangers have played up to their competition so far this season, even without young offensive cornerstone Mark Teixeira.

Teixeira spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list and has yet to join in the offensive festival that has turned The Ballpark in Arlington back into a popular Dallas area entertainment destination.

The Severna Park slugger is in a 4-for-25 slump that dropped his batting average to .213, which only means that the Rangers still have a lot of upside offensive potential.

"It's a long season," Teixeira said. "If anybody knows how it feels to start a season slow, it's me. I'm not worried."

The club also has yet to get much from former Milford Mill star Brian Jordan, who started the season on the disabled list. Instead, former Orioles outfielder David Dellucci stepped in and has contributed five homers and 17 RBIs in his first 24 games.

The Rangers, who lead the league with a .293 team batting average and rank second in the majors to the Anaheim Angels in runs scored, proved last weekend that no lead is safe against them when they set a club record by rebounding from a 10-run deficit in their wild 16-15 victory over the Tigers.

Big frustrated Unit

Randy Johnson has a right to be frustrated. He has returned from an injury-marred 2003 season to pitch very well through the early weeks of this season, but you'd never know it from his won-loss record.

Johnson came out on the wrong end of a 1-0 pitching duel with the Mets' Tom Glavine on Wednesday, which dropped his record to 3-4 in spite of a 2.83 ERA and a league-leading 68 strikeouts.

Already upset because he felt he was removed too early from a game last week, Johnson erupted Thursday, blasting his struggling team and all but telling fans to stay away from the ballpark.

"It's a lot of money to come out to a ballgame," Johnson said, "and lately it's probably better spent going to the movies than coming to watch the Diamondbacks."

Swinging in Detroit

The Tigers have the most improved offensive team in baseball this year, and it figures to get better in the next few weeks. Dmitri Young, who broke his right leg in the second game of the season, has been rehabbing furiously and claims that he'll be back by the end of the month.

New strategy

Reds superstar Ken Griffey has come up with a new way to defense Barry Bonds.

"Stick the infielders in the outfield and stick the outfielders in the seats," he said. "They're always talking about limping the golf course for Tiger Woods; make it fair and stick six guys in the stands and let us go get it."

But seriously, Griffey was once picked by Hank Aaron as the player most likely to break his all-time home run record. Now, no one argues that Bonds has the best chance to do it, not even Griffey, whose assault on the record books has been hampered by injuries.

"He's only got, what, 90-something to go," Griffey said. "The biggest thing is being able to stay healthy. He's done that so far. If he continues to stay healthy, there's no telling what he's going to do."

Hentgen gets even

After former Orioles pitcher Pat Hentgen registered his first victory of the season a couple of weeks ago against Kansas City, an unnamed Royals player told a reporter that he had "Triple-A, maybe Double-A stuff."

Hentgen was understandably miffed, so he used his minor league stuff to pitch 6 1/3 innings and give up just four hits in a return appearance against the Royals on Monday, both getting even and evening his record at 2-2.

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