Pitching has carried them this far. Now it’s time for the Texas Rangers to wake up their allegedly mighty bats.You know those bats. They’re the ones that the national print and TV pundits say form the backbone of the Texas franchise.“Well,” the baseball literati say, often with a dismissive shrug, “We all know that the Rangers can hit — especially in that ball park.”But the line has outlived its shelf life. That portrayal of the Rangers has become trite.Two seasons ago, when the Rangers last went to the World Series, three players combined to hit 66 homers and drive in 275 runs. Those three — Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young — are no longer with the club.Yet, the typecasting persists.Rangers pitchers began play Sunday with the third-lowest earned run average in the major leagues (2.72). At the same time, before their 11-3 victory over the Seattle Mariners, the Rangers’ offense ranked 10th in the American League in batting average and 11th — fourth from last — in hits.Cold weather? Maybe a little. But it’s been more like chilly bats.“We still have some guys who are trying to get it together,” manager Ron Washington said. “Maybe today was a good sign.”The Rangers managed to dodge ace Felix Hernandez on this Seattle visit. Instead, Sunday’s 11-hit, four-homer uprising came mostly at the expense of Aaron Harang, whose ERA now sits at a bloated 10.24.The retooling Mariners have an identity crisis of their own. They began the day with a .218 team batting average, worst in the American League.The Rangers, admittedly, can expect to be more accurately judged in two weeks, after series against the Angels, Twins, White Sox and Red Sox, in that order. But the team’s personality has already started to emerge.“Pitching and defense,” Washington said, when asked what has carried the Rangers to the top of the AL West.Pitching and defense. The Rangers have turned the American League upside-down.“People are starting to click,” said pitcher Derek Holland, who will start Monday against the Angels in Anaheim. “Hitting is all about being contagious. A few guys start to hit, and it just goes from there.“It’s the same thing with pitching. It becomes contagious.”If Yu Darvish pitches a great game, in other words, Holland wants to take the ball next time and do Yu one better.“You want to compete,” Holland explained.Clearly, something has been fueling the Rangers pitchers. Take away Matt Harrison’s two shaky, injury-handicapped starts, and Rangers pitchers have allowed opponents only a .214 batting average through Sunday’s game.And that eternal scapegoat, the hitter-helping Arlington ball park? Texas pitchers allowed only a .214 average to opponents in their first nine games at home.A small sample, yes. But it flies in the face of the media pundits.“It’s tough to keep pitching this way, sure,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “But they’ve thrown the ball great, from top to bottom.”Against the Mariners on Sunday, it was Justin Grimm’s turn. On a day when the Rangers bullpen ranks were thin because of Saturday’s early-inning injury to starter Nick Tepesch, Grimm did his part with six innings and struck out nine.He’ll get another start, said Washington, who seemed to take mild offense to the suggestion that Grimm was starting on a trial basis.“As far as I’m concerned, he’s taking the ball again,” Wash said. “You know something that I don’t?”With the Astros, Mariners and Cubs behind them and games with would-be contenders ahead, it seems time for the Rangers’ bats to pick up their end.The encouraging sign Sunday for Washington’s team was the bottom third of the batting order serving as the catalyst for three run-producing innings. The Rangers attack has been missing that.Pitching and defense will always be essential, as the manager said. But 2-1 and 3-0 games can only take a contending team so far.The national media is waiting. Trite or not, it’s time for the Rangers to wake up the bats.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton