Gil LeBreton

Do the math: Rangers are alive and well in AL West

Texas Rangers celebrate the 2-1 defeat of the Oakland Athletics at the end of a baseball game Tuesday, June 9, 2015, in Oakland, Calif.
Texas Rangers celebrate the 2-1 defeat of the Oakland Athletics at the end of a baseball game Tuesday, June 9, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. AP

If you blinked, you might have missed it. But for a few somewhat out-of-the-blue hours last week, the Texas Rangers had their muddy feet intrepidly poked into the wild-card door.

That’s right. If the season had ended last Friday — think of all the wasted nachos — the Rangers would have earned a spot in the American League playoffs.

This, despite a 7-14 record during the month of April.

This, despite a sub-Mendoza team batting average in April that was the worst in baseball.

This, despite that Nolan Ryan thing.

No sport tries as smugly as baseball to calculate its future. Fantasy players swear on the gospel of projected averages. The online standings show projected won-loss records.

Even general managers play the projections game. Baseball contracts are guaranteed — at a rate based on projected future performance.

The algorithms, as it turned out, were all on the Rangers’ side. No team with that array of career past performances could be as bad as the Rangers were in April. They were bound to get better.

When only the Houston Astros seemed to hear the AL West starting gun, the Rangers of May were able to climb over the limp bodies of the Angels, Mariners and Athletics and establish a grip on second place.

General manager Jon Daniels was asked to muse Thursday about his team’s first 60 games.

“The No. 1 thing that stands out to me is that this team has got a lot of fight in it,” Daniels said. “Sure, it has its flaws like everybody else. But we’re in every game. These guys fight back.

“There’s a belief, almost a kind of swagger, developing — a belief that they will get it done.”

Theories abound on how the Rangers have turned their season around. Starting pitching, despite multiple injuries, has to be at the top of any list. Prince Fielder’s MVP-like comeback from a lost 2014 season ranks a close second.

Pencil in first baseman Mitch Moreland near the top as well. In what loomed as maybe his last chance this season to show that he’s an everyday major leaguer, Moreland has been a run-producing force.

At age 29, Moreland has batted .327 against right-handed pitchers this season with a .951 on-base-plus-slugging. He’s also hitting 26 points higher against lefties (.256) than his career average.

True, Moreland has had fast starts before. His career batting average for the months of April and May is .284, but drops off to .237 when the calendar turns to June and beyond.

But he doesn’t appear to be pressing at the plate, trying to pull everything, as he’s done in the past. Some guys just figure it out later than others. The Rangers, for now, have to like Moreland’s timing.

Though manager Jeff Banister’s team ranks third in the league in runs scored, his starting lineup hasn’t been a model of consistency. Rangers left fielders are batting a collective .216 with only a .694 OPS. The second base position has produced only a .193 average. And shortstop Elvis Andrus continues to bat a disappointing .233.

Again, the algorithms — and the medical rehab reports — seem to be in the Rangers’ favor.

Injured Josh Hamilton’s eventual return should boost the production in left field. And the return of second baseman Rougned Odor, batting .372 in Triple-A, is likely in sight.

“While some guys were banged up, others stepped up and made contributions,” Daniels said. “It’s been fun to see, and I give our coaching staff a lot of the credit for creating a great atmosphere and a model for the way we go about our business.

“We were outmanned and out-talented last year. We also didn’t play good baseball. We lost our identity.

“But I think we’ve reestablished that.”

From worst in April, a fight for first now appears a growing possibility.

An intriguing four months of baseball may just be ahead.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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