The start of the season and the end of its first half couldn't have gone much better for the Texas Rangers, who opened 2011 with six straight home victories and headed into the All-Star break by winning seven in a row at Rangers Ballpark.
Play in the other 69 games was a mixed bag. Five players earned a trip to the Midsummer Classic, even as the team's play was as up and down as the stock market.
But, with 70 games to go, the Rangers (51-41) hold a one-game lead over the Angels in the American League West, and are playing their best baseball of the season as they enter the second half tonight at Safeco Field.
The Rangers' orders for the All-Star break, delivered by Michael Young, were to recharge physically but not check out of the mindset they had during their best stretch of the season.
"We were able to play the type of baseball that we consider to be Texas Rangers baseball," manager Ron Washington said. "You never know what's what until you come back and start playing. But we're very confident that we can come out and play our style of baseball."
Alexi Ogando, RHP: All of the good things Ogando did en route to earning an All-Star berth were 100 percent unexpected. Sure, he was prepared to start at spring training and many thought he could be a good starter in time. But not this good this quickly. If not for Ogando, Matt Harrison would be the top surprise. He started fast and made a two-start relapse look like only a hiccup during a breakout season.
Only a one-game lead: Inconsistent performances prevented the Rangers from taking advantage of some rough times the Angels experienced, and the Rangers' lead in the AL West is one game. No one player is to blame, though several haven't performed up to their full capabilities. Throw in some iffy defense and six weeks without Josh Hamilton, and the Rangers missed a chance for a wider division lead.
Two-team race: The Rangers and Angels have put some distance between the other two AL West teams and appear to be headed toward a tight stretch run. They play 13 more times this season, with 10 of the games at the Big A. The Angels are only 26-22 at home, but have won 11 of their past 13 there. The Rangers are 20-23 on the road, where they hit 35 points lower and have 50 fewer home runs.
Trade-deadline relief: The bullpen, thinned out by an injury to Darren O'Day and the transition of Ogando to the rotation, struggled in the first half. The Rangers are trying to mend the relief holes with internal candidates. O'Day is back and working back into form. Tommy Hunter, also injured in the first half, has been intriguing in four appearances. But a proven relief arm (Heath Bell, perhaps) would be welcomed.
Staying strong: Workload was already broached as an issue with Ogando. At 1032/3 innings, Harrison has surpassed his career-high by 20, though he threw 1672/3 at three levels in 2008. Derek Holland is fewer than 30 innings from his career high and just 40 from his professional high. If one slips, there aren't many options to replace them. There's no Cliff Lee on the trade market this year.
Mending defense: Rangy Rangers infielders get to more balls than others. Their outfielders can cover a lot of ground. The Rangers are capable of playing quality defense, but so far no team in the American League has committed more errors (73) or has a worse fielding percentage (.979). Only last-place Oakland has surrendered more unearned runs. The Rangers can't continue to give teams extra outs.