The most unheralded off-season signing the Texas Rangers made over the winter was a simple minor league deal with utility man Jeff Baker.
But Baker is the kind of player manager Ron Washington has long coveted, a veteran bench player who knows his role and can perform capably without much notice.
Baker has been doing that all season, though he is playing regularly of late with Mitch Moreland on the bench, and he did it again Monday night.
The more ballyhooed off-season acquisition did OK, too.
Baker hit the game-tying two-run homer in the fourth inning, and Lance Berkman delivered the game-winning two-run shot in the seventh as the Rangers opened their 11-game homestand with a 6-3 victory over Cleveland.
“It’s meant a lot,” Washington said. “He’s given us some big home runs. He’s gotten us some big hits. He’s been playing extremely well. Let’s hope he keeps it up for the rest of the year.”
The Berkman homer, which came after an unorthodox double play that saw the potential go-ahead run cut down at third, was his fifth of the year and first since May 24. Baker’s homer was his first since Saturday and his ninth of the year.
He has hit as many homers in 36 games as Josh Hamilton has hit in 62 games.
Baker knows his role, which is to hit left-handed pitchers. That doesn’t always result in steady playing time, but he knows how to keep his swing tuned for his opportunities.
“I just try to stay with my preparation and my role,” Baker said. “It’s just understanding your role and embracing it and trying to have fun with it. You can go seven or 10 days without seeing a lefty, but you still have to be prepared.”
How valuable has Baker been? He’s not interested in grading his performance to date.
“I don’t look into that stuff,” he said. “I just try to do my job. I just try to keep it simple.”
But his job isn’t simple. He earned regular playing time in April against left-handed pitchers and has responded with a .386 average against port-siders with eight home runs.
Many of them have come when the Rangers’ injury-plagued lineup needed a lift.
“He’s been great,” Berkman said. “He’s given us a huge shot in the arm, especially from a power standpoint. In some pretty limited playing time, he’s generated a tremendous amount of run production.”
The Rangers needed something from Berkman, who entered the game slumping. He was only 2 for 26 before an infield single in the third inning and 9 for 57 over his last 15 games.
Josh Lindblom, pitching in place of the injured Alexi Ogando, allowed three runs in six innings in his second big-league start. All three runs came on a two-out double by Carlos Santana in the third shortly after the Rangers had taken a 1-0 lead on a Craig Gentry single.
Lindblom needed 64 pitches to work the first three innings, but he retired the final 10 batters he faced on only 37 pitches.
Robbie Ross (3-1), Tanner Scheppers and Joe Nathan (20 saves) each worked a scoreless inning in relief of Lindblom, who — unlike his last start — wasn’t optioned back to Triple A Round Rock.
“After Santana hit the ball up the gap, he really locked in and kept us around and gave us a chance,” Washington said. “He pitched well tonight, if you take that one pitch back.”
Jurickson Profar doubled off Scott Kazmir (3-4) to open the seventh, and Elvis Andrus followed with an infield single. Nick Hagadone entered to face David Murphy, who hit a hard grounder to Santana at first base. He tagged the bag, then got Andrus in a rundown.
Profar would stray too far off third base and be thrown out by shortstop Mike Aviles for a double play. Berkman, though, saved the day with his fifth homer of the season and first since May 24.
“I was a little shocked,” Berkman said. “For me, it’s just a matter of the situation changed and you know what the job is. I’m not trying to hit a fly ball. I’m trying to get a hit.
“The biggest thing for me is just helping this team win games, and lately I haven’t been doing that.”