Time spent wisely has Rangers’ Ian Kinsler on upswing

Don’t expect to see any Texas Rangers players launch a campaign for a repeat of the longest spring training in club history.

As nice as it is in February and March in Surprise, Ariz., nothing there can make a player want to push back the start of the regular season.

The players, though, knew that they needed to try to make the most of the seemingly endless Cactus League schedule, which was stretched out because of the World Baseball Classic.

The extra time gave Lance Berkman time to build strength in his achy right knee and Adrian Beltre time to take it easy on what has become a curiously timed calf strain each spring.

Also count Ian Kinsler among those who took advantage of the schedule, though he didn’t have anything ailing him physically. His swing, though, was suffering some.

He had kinks he wanted to iron out of it, kinks he doesn’t like to discuss but kinks nonetheless, and he knew the additional time could have his swing where he wanted it by Opening Day.

Through the six weeks of the 2013 season, the extra work is paying off.

Kinsler enters the opener of a three-game weekend series at Houston as the Rangers’ leading hitter among everyday players, and he has been their best offensive player. The goal now is for Kinsler to maintain his hot start over the rest of the season.

“Routine has a lot to do with it, but a lot of it is mentality,” Kinsler said. “You have to keep the same mentality every day. You can’t let your guard down at any point, and that’s the tough part because we play every day.”

Kinsler had hit in 11 straight games before going hitless on the first two of the Rangers’ nine-game road trip, but he went 3 for 5 on Wednesday to lift his average to .324 ahead of the opener Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

The .300 plateau shouldn’t come as a shock from a player who finished at .319 during an injury-shortened 2008 season and at .286 in 2010, which was also injury-plagued.

But Kinsler hit .255 and .256 the past two seasons. He was and is a dead pull hitter, and it seems as though no hitter in the American League produced more pop-ups than the three-time All-Star.

That doesn’t mean that Kinsler wasn’t productive. He had his second 30-30 season in 2011 (32 HR, 30 SB), and he swatted 51 homers and scored 226 runs over those two campaigns.

But he knows he can be better, especially after the worst season of his career in 2012.

“There were some flaws in my swing the last couple years,” said Kinsler, who has seven homers and 20 RBIs. “I was a productive player, but I just wasn’t the player I think I’m capable of being. The player you saw in 2008 was more of the type of player I want to be.”

A noticeable change this season is that he is trying to use the opposite field more, and he is 5 for 16 when he goes to right field. That .313 average is over a small sample, but it’s 80 points better than his career mark entering the season.

He’s also finding more hits on balls up the middle, with a .303 average compared with the .271 career clip he had after last season.

“It’s hard to hit for a high average in this league when you’re just using 25 percent of the field,” hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “He’s gotten some big hits the other way. He can still go there more. He’s buying into it, but when the situation calls for it, he goes up there trying to put the ball where it’s pitched.

“The runs count when you hit it the other way, too. It’s not like we’re trying to make him an opposite-field hitter, but it’s certainly got to be available to him.”

The goal now is to stay consistent over the course of a 162-game schedule, something Kinsler has never done. His two best averages were posted in seasons in which he played 121 and 103 games in 2008 and 2010.

But he’s already 20 percent of the way to 162 this season. It might feel like more based on the longest of spring camps, but Kinsler isn’t complaining.

“I’ve just continued to work on stuff that we did in spring,” Kinsler said. “The goal is to become as consistent as possible. So far, so good, but it’s a long season and I need to make sure I continue doing the things I’ve done.”

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