KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The growing group of baseball folks who believe a team’s best hitter should bat second should be pleased with the Texas Rangers, whose No. 2 hitter is leading them in just about every category since the All-Star Break.Second-half leader in batting average? Elvis Andrus, at .324. Second-half RBI leader? Andrus, with 33. September leader in slugging percentage? Andrus, at .537.That’s only a small portion of what the shortstop has done to rescue a season that was trending toward being the worst of his career in the same year he signed an eight-year, $120 million extension.He homered Thursday and drove in three runs for the second time in the four-game series at Tampa Bay. He lifted his season average to .272 and has established career highs in RBIs (64) and stolen bases (40).“I do feel better,” Andrus said. “Every time you feel you’re swinging good, like I’m doing right now, I’m trying to have a plan. Whenever I know it might be a fastball, I just let my hands go.”Andrus has three of his four homers this month, second to only Alex Rios. The two of them hit back-to-back homers in the third inning Tuesday as the Rangers pulled away from Tampa Bay.The Rangers are 14-4 since 2009 when Andrus has homered.“I’m never looking for homers, but I know that if I hit the ball good, it might go,” he said.Nathan still strongThe game Thursday night had turned into a rout, but closer Joe Nathan had already put the thought into pitching coach Mike Maddux’s head, well in advance of the game, that he was going to pitch.“I said if we have a lead, can I get in there?” said Nathan, who had pitched Tuesday and Wednesday. “He said, ‘We’ll see how big the lead is.’”Nathan wanted to face Tampa Bay and create a positive memory for him and put some doubts in the minds of Rays hitters after they had rallied against him in the 11th inning Wednesday.Doing that was more important than resting. It’s entirely possible that the Rangers and Rays might face each other in the wild-card game or a tiebreaker.“That was best for Joe and the team,” manager Ron Washington said. Despite working on a third consecutive day, Nathan said he was ready for a fourth Friday.The cutoff Thursday was six runs. If the Rangers had scored another run in the ninth, Neftali Feliz would have been the pitcher. Craig Gentry, though, was stranded at third after tripling with no outs, and the score remained 8-2.“[Thursday] felt good to go out there and get some work in,” Nathan said. “It felt like a work day, even though it was my third straight day.”Pierzynski bruisedGeovany Soto was the Rangers’ catcher for a second straight game Friday, and A.J. Pierzynski was the designated hitter after an off day Thursday.Pierzynski is dealing with a bruised left hand, which he suffered Tuesday when he was hit by a pitch that he swung at and hit back to the pitcher. He finished that game behind the plate and caught 12 innings Wednesday.“It’s just swollen,” Washington said. “He can maneuver with it. It wasn’t a factor [in Soto catching]. I’ll get him back in there [Saturday].”Briefly• The Rangers will use Yu Darvish to start the final game of the season if they need a win to make the playoffs or force a tiebreaker, Washington said. Otherwise, Darvish will be held back to start the playoff opener, which mostly likely would be the wild-card game.• David Murphy returned to the Rangers’ lineup for the first time since Sept. 13 after losing playing time to another left-handed hitter, rookie Jim Adduci. The Rangers will face only right-handed pitchers this weekend, and Murphy could start all three games. “It’s not about knocks. It’s about having good at-bats,” Washington said.
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson