Texas Rangers

Rangers expected a good glove. Kiner-Falefa also delivering with his bat

Isiah Kiner-Falefa sat on the bench in Low A, didn't play every day at High A and was nudged toward catching. Now, he's an early-season bright spot for the Rangers..
Isiah Kiner-Falefa sat on the bench in Low A, didn't play every day at High A and was nudged toward catching. Now, he's an early-season bright spot for the Rangers.. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

For a fourth-round pick, Isiah Kiner-Falefa sure has been told a lot what he can't do and might never do.

There was a time when the Texas Rangers were flush with middle infielders in their system, and Kiner-Falefa wasn't among the highest regarded. In his draft alone, in 2013, the Rangers selected Travis Demeritte in the first round, and the next year took Ti'Quan Forbes and Josh Morgan in the second and third rounds.

Kiner-Falefa sat on the bench behind Demeritte and Morgan in A ball. He volunteered to play left field just to get at-bats. The Rangers later told him that his quickest route to the majors would be to learn how to catch.

Sure enough, the Rangers opted to protect him from the Rule 5 draft over the off-season by placing him on the 40-man roster. That meant a spot in big-league spring training and at least an outside chance at his MLB debut.

But not as a catcher, not with him still being groomed at the position, and surely not as infielder. What are the chances of Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus being injured at the same time?

Lightning struck, and there was Kiner-Falefa on Monday as the Rangers' starting second baseman. It was his 12th game since Odor strained his left hamstring April 9 and 10th straight start since Andrus' right arm was broken at the elbow April 11.

Make no mistake: Kiner-Falefa is acutely aware of why he is with the Rangers and where he could be headed once Andrus returns to the lineup. But opportunity has struck, and Kiner-Falefa seemingly has elevated his stock with the unexpected production he has given them.

"I know I'm not pushing anyone out," said Kiner-Falefa, who went 1 for 3 with a double in the Rangers' 9-4 loss to Oakland on Monday night.

"I know where I stand. I know what's happening. I know that right now it's just an opportunity for me to put myself out there. I'm happy with what's going on. I'm still soaking everything up. I still have those moments at night where I think about, 'I'm in the big leagues.' Everything happened so fast."

Shortstop Elvis Andrus said on Friday that sitting at home away from the Texas Rangers the past week drove him crazy and that it was difficult to watch them on TV as he dealt with a broken right elbow.

Kiner-Falefa entered the opener of a three-game series against the Oakland A's batting .289 (11 for 38). He got his first career hit and homer out of the way at Houston, and his two-run single in the eighth inning Sunday gave the Rangers some late breathing room in a 7-4 victory over Seattle.

He has a career .276 average in 1,740 minor-league at-bats.

"To come up and perform the way he's performed with the numbers, that's always a huge pleasure," manager Jeff Banister said. "Because that's not the expectation."

Among the platitudes being sent Kiner-Falefa's way is the advanced sense of awareness he has. He notices things that rookies aren't supposed to see, and his heart rate never seems to spike in situations that might sink another rookie.

Credit five seasons in the minors for that. There isn't much Kiner-Falefa hasn't seen.

The Rangers expected Kiner-Falefa to play solid defense, but they weren't sure what they would get offensively. To be blunt, the 23-year-old, a young one at that, has been one of the Rangers' top players the past two weeks.

"I'm kind of surprised," he said. "Everything happened so fast. The opportunity, at first coming up expecting to be a role player, and I'm getting an opportunity [to play every day]. It's not the way I wanted it to all happen. Elvis is a great guy. Roogie's a great guy. They've helped me a lot along the way.

"But when guys go down, just for the team's sake, if feels good to be doing this."

Odor did agility drills on the field Monday afternoon and said that he had no issues with them. He was originally expected to miss three weeks, a timeline that would have him reinstated from the 10-day disabled list next week at Cleveland.

Rangers center fielder Delino DeShields feels ready to return to Rangers' roster after going 3 for 6 in two rehab games in Frisco.

Though he never played with Kiner-Falefa with an affiliate, Odor played with him at spring training before he was promoted to the majors in 2014. Odor has seen what everyone else is seeing, a rookie holding his own, but has also seen how much Kiner-Falefa wants to learn about the game.

"I feel happy for him," Odor said. "He's a great guy, a great person, a great teammate. We talk a lot. I gave him some tips. He asks me all the time, and I just try to help him be better."

Kiner-Falefa isn't letting his early success go to his head. He still remembers his days playing behind others in A ball, and all the times he was told what he can't do.

That's what keeps him driven to be a big-leaguer.

"I remember sitting on the bench in Low A and not playing every day in High A," Kiner-Falefa said. "I just remember all those moments and kept them with me until I got my opportunity."

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