Rangers hope being in first will last

SEATTLE -- Ron Washington swears his team's recent turnaround started in the fifth inning at Yankee Stadium on a sunny Sunday two weeks ago.

In that game, the Texas Rangers didn't execute in the early going and fell 5-2. And though it had blown leads in Boston and fell in two one-run games, Washington sensed his team was finding itself.

Maybe the manager knew something most of us didn't. That loss in New York was No. 4 in what would become a six-game losing streak. But since that skid ended, the Rangers have won eight of 11 to go from last to first in the AL West.

The Rangers got the big hits when they needed them, a boost in their lineup from Ian Kinsler's return, solid innings from their starting pitchers and quality performances from the bullpen late in games. The result was a three-game sweep in chilly and overcast Seattle that puts them a half-game up on the Oakland A's. It was Texas' first sweep in Seattle since April 1999, and it ended with Neftali Feliz getting an eight-pitch save on his 22nd birthday.

"That was a good sweep," Washington said. "They're gamers. We're a pretty good team, and we went out there against a team that has pretty darn good pitching and we played with them and we won."

The Rangers moved a game over .500. In a division in which nobody has taken hold of things early, that's good enough to lead.

First-place stays in May aren't new to this team. They were tops in the AL West on May 6 last season and stayed there until late June.

"Being on first place on May 2 is not really extremely significant," said David Murphy, the offensive hero of Sunday's 3-1 win that vaulted the Rangers to the No. 1 spot in standings. Murphy drove in the tying run in the ninth and the winning run in the 11th.

Murphy and his teammates are more focused on playing well and getting in position to be in first by the end of the season. To do that, they must follow the formula that Washington has preached: timely hitting, good pitching and defense.

It was the kind of baseball that eluded the Rangers during losses on the road in New York and Boston. Then, the starters lost their way (outside of C.J. Wilson, they didn't go six innings for an entire turn through the rotation) and the offense couldn't collect a big hit when it counted. Texas also had defensive breakdowns that cost it late leads, leading to disappointing, momentum-killing defeats.

But the better play that Washington saw as the club exited New York began with the starting pitchers, who have gone at least six innings in each of the past eight games.

Already solid, the starting pitching has stepped it up another level so far on this road trip. Cliff Lee looked like his Cy Young self Friday and lost, thanks to Colby Lewis' 10-strikeout, nine-inning gem that sent a scoreless game into extra innings. And the team that wasn't pulling those games out a few weeks ago found a way to make key plays and take advantage of Seattle's mistakes to get a 2-0 win in 12 innings.

On Saturday, Matt Harrison threw a bunch of pitches in the first three innings and appeared to be on his way to a short outing. But he was able to grind out six innings, throwing a team season-high 127 pitches, and ended his outing with a big out of Ichiro Suzuki. The Rangers held on for a 6-3 win after the bullpen did its job and the offense did enough to end Felix Hernandez's consecutive quality start streak at 18. Hernandez, one of the AL's top pitchers, lasted just 4 1/3 innings and got the loss after giving up five runs.

For more than five innings Sunday, Seattle starter Doug Fister was perfect. He had dynamite location and kept hitters off-balance with his off-speed and breaking stuff. In other words, he showed the Rangers why he has the second-lowest ERA of any AL starter.

Max Ramirez finally broke up the perfect game with a one-out single in the sixth, but Texas couldn't score off Fister in eight innings. Despite that, the Rangers were right in the game because Wilson displayed his talent for getting out of jams.

He gave up two singles and a double to start the fourth, giving the Mariners a 1-0 lead. With the bases loaded and one out, Wilson struck out Eric Byrnes on three straight pitches and got Rob Johnson to fly to deep center field, where Julio Borbon made a nice catch.

Wilson ended up going seven-plus innings and allowing one run for his fifth consecutive quality start to begin the season. He'll go after Kevin Brown's team record of six (1993) Friday against the Royals.

Speed has also served the Rangers well during this improved stretch. Not only was that evident in the field, with the range of Elvis Andrus and Borbon, but also on the bases. It caused the Mariners problems late Sunday.

Andrus started things with his best at-bat of the season. He made closer David Aardsma throw nine pitches and eventually walked on a 3-2 pitch.

"I knew when it was 2-2 that he was probably going to throw fastballs," Andrus said. "So I fouled some off and when it got to 3-2, I was looking at my zone. He threw one high."

Andrus was already thinking about stealing a base before he arrived at first. He waited for a high leg kick from Aardsma and swiped second. He then scored on a single by Murphy.

In the 11th with the score still 11, Borbon led off with a single. He went to second on a passed ball and to third on Andrus' bunt single. Borbon scored the go-ahead run on Murphy's sacrifice fly.

"The only pressure in that situation is the pressure that you put on yourself," said Murphy, the primary starter in right field while Nelson Cruz is on the disabled list. "What made it challenging was the guy out there throwing 97. But if you let him supply the power and take an easy swing, which I tried to do, it works."

Things seem to be working all the way around for this team right now.

For example, Kinsler didn't score a run Sunday, but his presence clearly had an impact. He was one of the few hitters that made Fister work, going to three-ball counts on all three of his plate appearances against him. And he had an infield single and a walk in extra innings. Kinsler's ankle might not feel 100 percent, but he doesn't look like a player dealing with rust. He's batting .333 (4-for-12) with three walks, showing a knack for getting on base.

"We're playing well right now," Murphy said. "Pitching has been our backbone all year, and they did a great job all series. Our offense is starting to come around consistently.

"If you look at what their pitchers did this weekend, they have the best 1-2 combo in baseball and Fister is among the league leaders in ERA, and to squeak out some games shows we're fighting up there. Our pitchers are holding them down, and the few runs we get are standing."

If it keeps up, maybe the Rangers can make this an extended stay on top of the AL West.