Rangers win with target on their backs

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Just moments after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler sat at their lockers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and immediately thought of going back. Young spoke of developing a winning culture and making sure the Rangers weren't one-year wonders. He wanted to do it all again.

"The postseason is contagious," Young said then.

Now he and the Rangers are back. This 2011 team has made that a reality. And they are one of only two teams to repeat as division champions this season (the Philadelphia Phillies are the other). The locker room that was quiet as the Giants celebrated last November was full of plastic and lively on Friday night (and early Saturday morning). Experience, apparently, extends to celebrations. The usual Ginger Ale, beer, champagne and cigars were on display. But so was mustard, ketchup and baby powder. Whatever was around, the players found it.

And they enjoyed celebrating together.

"It's been a total team effort," said Young, who was drenched from head to toe. "Everyone contributes. Some people get a little more publicity and some people's roles are bigger, but everyone has a roll and everyone takes responsibilty for it and everyone does it well. It's a great group to be a part of."

There were some that felt without Cliff Lee the Rangers couldn't repeat as AL West champions. They have a slightly different look this season, relying on youngsters in the rotation all season and some critical additions (see Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli). But the winning attitude and hard-working, blue-collar characteristics led by manager Ron Washington have fully taken hold. This team is tough to play against, never out of a game and plays with aggression.

"It helps that it was basically the same core group of guys," David Murphy said. "You add a guy like Adrian Beltre and some other pieces. We knew what we were capable of. If you look at the first half, we didn't play our greatest baeball. But once we did, we took off. This team is capable of a lot and hopefully we bring our 'A' game [in the postseason]."

Washington preached pitching and defense from the moment he arrived. He wanted to run the bases aggressively and establish a versatile offense -- one that could do more than bash the long ball. It took time for all of that to sink in. And it required some young prospects blossoming into players.

Washington felt at the end of 2009 that his team was getting there. They were ready to take the next step. That's what 2010 was about. But to be considered one of the elite teams in baseball, you have to show staying power. And in 2011, the Rangers have done that. They have 91 wins and have been in first place in the division since May 16. They've been in first by themselves every day since July 6.

"It's not that easy to do," Washington said, wearing his T-shirt that said 'back-to-back AL West champions.' "Once you win it one time and you come out, you've got a target on your back. So you've got to live up to it. And they lived up to it. They knew it wasn't going to be easy. That's why they committed themselves and every single guy in this clubhouse committed themselves and that's what it takes."

The Los Angeles Angels played better this season, making the race closer and crawling as close as 1.5 games in September. But they could never catch Texas. Now the 2011 edition has a chance to see if they can better the 2010 bunch by getting back to the World Series and winning it.

"We have experience, a solid pitching staff and guys that went through it last year," Kinsler said. "Hopefully all of that will help us. We were in first place basically the whole year. We were able to fight off whoever was behind us and just play good baseball. We continued to win games and do what we needed to and hopefully we can carry that into the playoffs and celebrate some more."