(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.) By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer
After going to two consecutive World Series without a title, the Texas Rangers are better than they ever have been.
At least based on their record and all the teammates who will join Texas slugger Josh Hamilton at the All-Star game.
Halfway through the schedule – they play game No. 81 of 162 on Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox – the Rangers have the best record in the majors and are the only team with 50 wins. That is already eight more than they had at the same point last year.
”We have a talented group, both talented and popular,” general manager Jon Daniels said. ”Kind of the irony of it is, outside of the couple of weeks at the beginning of the year (a 12-2 start), I’m not sure we’ve really clicked on all cylinders. It’s a credit to these guys that they found ways to win even without that.”
All-Star left-hander Matt Harrison (11-3) and Japanese ace Yu Darvish (10-5) are the only starters from the opening-day rotation not on the disabled list.
Colby Lewis (right forearm tendinitis) and Derek Holland (left shoulder fatigue) are both expected back after the All-Star break. Converted closer Neftali Feliz (right elbow inflammation) is eligible to return July 18, but may not have a starting spot after the addition of Roy Oswalt (2-0), who is set for his third start for the team Tuesday night.
The Rangers made it through the 2011 season with the same five pitchers in the rotation. There have already been 10 different starters this year, including two making their major league debuts.
”This game is always a mental test, but these guys have always handled adversity well. They don’t let what’s not here affect what they have to do,” manager Ron Washington said. ”I think that’s why we’ve been able to hold on, because we just play with what we’ve got.’
Hamilton struggled in June, even though he has already matched his homer total of last season with 25 and leads the majors with 73 RBIs. And there have been prolonged slumps for Mike Napoli and slugger Nelson Cruz, despite two hits for the outfielder on his 32nd birthday Sunday.
Yet, somehow the Rangers are rolling.
A record seven Rangers, and very possibly an eighth in Darvish, will join Washington in Kansas City for the All-Star game. That means Texas players and their manager can have a big impact on the outcome of the exhibition game that determines home-field advantage for the World Series – something they didn’t have the last two Octobers.
”We know what it’s like to be on the other side of that, so we’re going to go out there and try to win and get home field for the AL,” said Napoli, voted the AL All-Star starting catcher by the fans though he has started only 43 games behind the plate for Texas.
Hamilton, Napoli and third baseman Adrian Beltre give Texas a trio of All-Star starters. Second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus are going as reserves, while Harrison and closer Joe Nathan are part of the pitching staff.
The internationally popular Darvish is one of five AL pitchers who are candidates for the final roster spot through an online fan vote this week.
”I’m going to say he’s going to be in, he’s going to go,” said Hamilton, who got more than 11 million fan votes. ”I don’t see it being a problem. … He’s done well this year, he’s deserving of going.”
Last October, the Rangers were twice within a strike of a World Series-clinching victory before losing Game 6 in extra innings at St. Louis. They jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 7 before losing that game as well.
Washington is quick to say that playing the final two games in St. Louis wasn’t the reason for the Rangers losing.
”You’re in a World Series, if you can’t play through that, you shouldn’t be there,” he said.
If Texas makes it again this fall, Washington sure wouldn’t mind having home-field advantage. He plans to utilize his full AL roster in the All-Star game.
”My intention is to get all those guys out on the field,” Washington said. ”We’ll just see if we can get some runs on the board and take a lead, then I might change and become selfish and try to win the game.”
After the All-Star break, the Rangers open with an eight-game trip when they play all three of their AL West rivals. Then comes a 10-game homestand that includes a series against the Los Angeles Angels.
”We’ve got to be happy where we’re at,” Daniels said. ”Both looking at some of the guys individually, looking at more important the team as a whole, as well as we’ve performed as a club, I do think there’s room for improvement. And that’s hopefully what’s going to be exciting in the second half.”
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