USA TODAY US Edition
After poor start, team adapts a no-quit policy, and the results have been stunning,
ARLINGTON, TEXAS A few hours before playing a game that catapulted them into first place for the first time since the season’s opening week, about half the players in the Texas Rangers clubhouse sported snazzy shorts with an American-flag print.
The newly arrived shorts were courtesy of Mike Napoli, who rejoined the club Aug. 7 after a 21⁄ year absence, and they bore the Rangers logo as well as the slogan they have lived by all season: Never ever quit.
Napoli has seen that mind-set put into action in his brief time back, and it explains better than any stat why Texas moved a halfgame ahead of the Houston Astros for the American League West lead by breaking a tie in the ninth inning to win 6-5 Tuesday.
Slightly less than a year after Ron Washington — the manager who guided them to back-to-back World Series appearances — quit toward the end of a 67-95 season, the Rangers have overcome yet another rash of injuries to thrust themselves into the race. At 3521, they have the fourth-best record in the majors since the AllStar break to improve to 77-67 overall.
They’re here despite numbers that say they have no business challenging for the playoffs.
The Rangers’ -25 run differential going into Tuesday projects to a 69-74 record, according to Baseball-Reference, and they rank 13th in the AL in ERA, nextto-last in fielding percentage and sixth in runs a game at the league average of just less than 4.4.
“You don’t need to have the best players in the world to win a game,” shortstop Elvis Andrus said. “It’s the team that plays best over nine innings that wins.”
At one point Texas had some of the best players around, including an elite pitcher in three-time All-Star Yu Darvish. But Darvish never made it to the season, as a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery felled him in spring training.
Fellow starter Derek Holland joined him on the disabled list after one outing with a shoulder strain that sidelined him until Aug. 19, throwing into disarray a rotation already missing Matt Harrison and Martin Perez.
Reeling from the injuries, the Rangers went 7-14 in April and, at 91⁄ games out of the division lead by May 20, appeared on the way to another wasted season. Firstyear manager Jeff Banister, who implemented the no-quit slogan in the spring, wouldn’t have it.
“I give Banny a lot of credit,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “He didn’t allow the team, and in some ways the organization, to let that, ‘Woe is me, here we go again’ mentality to seep in.”
The Rangers came back afloat with a 19-11 May, as veterans such as Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Yovani Gallardo combined forces with youngsters such as Delino DeShields and Nick Martinez to propel the team. But Texas was still a sub-.500 also-ran, eight games off the pace, when Daniels pulled off a stunning trade at the July 31 deadline, sending Harrison and five of the club’s top 30 prospects to the Philadelphia Phillies for ace lefthander Cole Hamels and reliever Jake Diekman.
From the outside, it looked like a deal made with the future in mind. Daniels acknowledged it was a way to do early-offseason shopping, acquiring a star pitcher under team control for four more years, but points out the club also had its eyes on the present.
That’s what energized the players, who have responded with a 28-15 run since the big trade.
“It was very exciting and a bit surprising,” Gallardo said. “We realized they had given us the opportunity to compete the last two months and a better chance to accomplish what we wanted to.”
The Rangers have won the last six games started by Hamels, who along with Gallardo and Holland — 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA since his return — give the club a starting trio that could help Texas make noise in the postseason.
The bullpen, which has a 2.18 ERA in September, got stronger with the addition of Diekman and the emergence of closer Shawn Tolleson, whose 32 saves since May 20 lead the league.
And the offense has picked up with the revival of Shin-Soo Choo — who has a league-best .439 onbase percentage since the break — and the energizing impact of Rougned Odor, 21, who has the AL’s top slugging mark among second basemen in that stretch.
Less quantifiable: the impact of Banister, hired in October after 29 years playing and coaching in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Banister, 51, brings the understanding of advanced metrics required of modern-day managers but also realizes the importance of the clubhouse dynamic. And he hasn’t been afraid to experiment, starting catcher-first baseman Napoli in left field to address the club’s difficulties against lefties and going with Rule 5 pick DeShields as his center fielder.
“If you look at our players and numbers, there’s not one that you can say, ‘Man, pow, that’s the guy,’ ” Banister said. “That success every given night gets spread throughout the lineup.”
Banister has leaned on Beltre and Fielder to police the clubhouse and often lauds their leadership skills. Fielder, who missed most of 2014 with a neck injury, went up to Banister in the spring and suggested he install him at DH so better-fielding Mitch Moreland could play first base. That has paid dividends, as Moreland leads the club with 20 home runs.
Fielder has also exemplified the mentality that has made the collective Rangers more than the sum of their parts by settling for being a better hitter — he’s batting .309 with a team-high 77 RBI — despite a decline in home runs.
“It’s a team concept, and we’re winning,” Fielder said. “I could hit 40 and go home in September, or I could hit whatever I’ve got now (19) and go to the playoffs.”
“We realized they had given us the opportunity to compete the last two months.” Rangers pitcher Yovani Gallardo, on the Cole Hamels trade