The first two batters for the home team Tuesday afternoon were no different than the first two hitters manager Ron Washington has penciled onto his lineup card each of the past two seasons.
In Ian Kinsler’s case, he has batted first the three of the past four years, and Elvis Andrus has stuck in the No. 2 hole after leading off much of the 2010 season.
Those two won’t be going anywhere this season, said Washington ahead of the first intrasquad game of spring training.
The duo remains the best combination the Rangers have to kick-start the offense, even after a sluggish 2012 season for Kinsler. But the expectation, beginning with the players themselves and their manager, is that Kinsler and Andrus will ignite the offense and play havoc on the bases.
“We set the table,” said Andrus, the starting shortstop. “You can see a difference every time me and Ian are on base. We put pressure on the pitchers, we put pressure on the defense, and that’s what the power guys are looking for.”
Kinsler can start a game as easily with a home run as he can a walk. Andrus’ roles isn’t the most glamorous, as oftentimes he gives himself up at the plate to move Kinsler 90 feet closer to a run.
If that’s what it takes, that’s what he will do.
Kinsler doesn’t need any reminders that his 2012 season didn’t meet his standards. He followed up his second career 30-30 season by hitting only 19 homers and stealing 21 bases. His on-base percentage fell from .355 to .326.
But he had an off-season that he hadn’t experienced since 2010, one where he was free of pain from a lingering ankle injury. He’s leaner, stronger and motivated to return to the form that made him one of the best second baseman in the game.
Kinsler isn’t doing anything differently this spring. Just being healthy will take him out of the funk he fell into last season. He said he started “cheating” to compensate for his lack of speed, and wasn’t a good enough cheater at times.
“Once you start to feel like you have to cheat, that feeling never goes away,” I didn’t feel like I was strong enough or fast enough to steal a base the way I wanted to steal it. This year is a fresh start.”
He understands the argument that he’s not a prototypical leadoff hitter, a wiry speedster with little power, and might be better suited for a spot in the lineup where he could drive in more runs.
Not on this team, though.
“That’s the best spot for me in this lineup,” Kinsler said. “Every year you want to progress, and I think I’ve gotten better.”
The Rangers are at their best offensively when they are aggressive on the bases, and it starts with Kinsler and Andrus. That doesn’t mean they are going to be running wild this year.
They have learned from a tough 2012 season in which teams altered their looks and timing to the plate to slow the Rangers down. Kinsler and Andrus combined for 42 steals, down from 67 in 2012, and they were caught 19 times.
Andrus said that the key is to be aggressive but to have better awareness on the bases.
“If the pitchers are doing too much, we’re going to shut it down and let the hitters hit,” said Andrus, who hit a career-best .286 last season.
But Washington doesn’t want to rob his table-setters of their aggression, and indeed he has informed them and the rest of the team that the base-running shackles are off.
Washington knows that Kinsler and Andrus make the Rangers go. They know it, too.
“I tend to hit balls in the gaps more often, and he’s a bat-handler who can move me around the bases pretty easily,” Kinsler said. “It works out pretty well.”