Don't mess with Texas

Baseball: After finishing 71-91 in 2003, the Rangers are now sitting atop the AL West heading into their four-game series against the Orioles.

August 06, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - Almost 90 minutes had passed since the Texas Rangers finished dismantling the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night, and the group inside Buck Showalter's office was having too much fun to leave.

Showalter and his coaching staff were sitting around in their T-shirts and shorts, eating hot dogs and talking smart, as they watched their division rivals from Oakland play the New York Yankees on ESPN.

As a manager, Showalter has gained a reputation for being a buttoned-down control freak, but there were few signs of it here.

The Rangers' team bus was long gone. In 14 short hours, they had another game against Detroit to ponder, followed by a flight to Baltimore, where they begin a four-game series against the Orioles tonight. But at that moment, everyone in the office seemed perfectly content basking in the glow of a remarkable season.

"It's just so great," Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser said, "to be playing some games that matter in August."

Studying the muted television, Showalter and the coaches quizzed each other about strategy while the Oakland Athletics failed to score in their half of the 11th inning. The A's had taken three of four from the Rangers last weekend to bump them from first place in the American League West.

And then it happened.

Alex Rodriguez, the player the Rangers traded to the Yankees in a daring move right before spring training, ended the game with a two-run homer. That gave New York a win, but it also helped Texas reassume its stunning place atop the AL West yesterday.

So forgive Showalter if he's feeling a little giddy these days.

It's not often a team loses three players the caliber of Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez - not to mention Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez the year before - and comes back to have this kind of season.

"I don't think that's fair to those guys," Showalter said. "We would have loved to have them back, but with the financial restrictions we had, to go forward, we had to go in that direction."

The Rangers finished 71-91 last season, just as the Orioles did.

It was Showalter's first year, and with a talented crop of young players emerging - including Hank Blalock, Michael Young and Baltimore-area native Mark Teixeira - general manager John Hart began shaping the team in the mold of his Cleveland Indians teams of the 1990s.

Texas let Palmeiro and Gonzalez walk as free agents, with Palmeiro returning to the Orioles, and Gonzalez signing with the Kansas City Royals. Then the Rangers made the move no one thought they could make, trading Alex Rodriguez and his $25 million-a-year salary to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano.

"I told John [Hart] when he made that move," Showalter said, "just from a guts standpoint, he should be GM of the year."

The whole thing would make for a good story if Blalock, Young and Soriano had all made the All-Star team (which they did), and Teixeira had started winning AL Player of the Month honors (which he did last month). But the Rangers' rise to the top is all the more staggering considering the issues surrounding their pitching staff.

When former Orioles sinkerball specialist Scott Erickson takes the mound at Camden Yards tomorrow, he will become the 15th pitcher to start a game for Texas this season.

Kenny Rogers, 39, has become the savior, as he returned to the team this winter to go 13-4 with a 4.29 ERA. It has also received a huge boost with the emergence of closer Francisco Cordero, who has converted 33 of 35 save opportunities and posted a 1.94 ERA.

"I think we have great leadership with Buck and John Hart, and I think the rest of the staff and players take their cue from those two guys," Hershiser said. "They're grinders. They don't look at it as, `The mountain is really high and we just had this difficulty crop up.' They just keep looking for solutions."

Offensively, the lineup is a compilation of young and old. Instead of having the proud bastions of Rodriguez, Palmeiro and Gonzalez, it's a group of players with something to prove.

The Rangers imported hungry free agents such as Rogers, Eric Young, Gary Matthews, David Dellucci and Brian Jordan - another Baltimore native - to help keep their young stars in check.

Right before the season's first game, those veterans called a players-only meeting to remind everyone that this team shouldn't use age as an excuse.

"It was an emotional meeting for us all," Eric Young said. "And I think they've really responded. After that first month, when we played well against all the teams in our division, we felt like we could compete. That attitude was turned over, and we just had this confidence."

The infield has become one of the most imposing in baseball, with Teixeira at first base, Soriano at second, Michael Young at shortstop and Blalock at third. They could become the first team since the 1940 Boston Red Sox to have four infielders hit at least 20 home runs.

And the oldest player in that group is Soriano, at 28.

Teixeira, 24, is the only one who didn't make the All-Star team, but the former Mount St. Joseph star battled a neck injury early in the season, and then went on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle. It wasn't until June 1 that his swing started feeling right.

Then in July, he went on a tear, hitting .300 with 13 home runs and 30 RBIs.

"It's a lot of fun playing with guys who are young and around your same age," Teixeira said, "so that we know we're going to be Rangers for a long time."

Again, no wonder Showalter's so giddy.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Texas Rangers

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Rangers' Nick Regilio (0-2, 4.80) vs. Orioles' Erik Bedard (4-6, 4.67)

ORIOLES

Today RANGERS 7:35 CSN

Sat. RANGERS 4:35 Chs. 13, 20

Sun. RANGERS 1:35 Chs. 13, 20

Mon. RANGERS 12:35 No TV

Tue. @ ANGELS 10:05 CSN

Wed. @ ANGELS 10:05 CSN

Thu. @ ANGELS 4:05 CSN

Radio: All games on WBAL (1090 AM)

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