SEATTLE -- There's some pep in the step of the Texas Rangers these days. They are playing through the late September grind with their eye toward the postseason, but this is more than just the adrenaline of a pennant race.
This team looks fresher and more energetic than it did at this time last year.
"A lot of guys understand what the grind is now," said manager Ron Washington, whose team leads the AL West by five games with nine to play and has a magic number of five. "Last year was the first time those guys went through that grind. Until you go through it, you don't understand what it is."
Washington stressed in spring training that his team had to learn from the 2010 playoff chase and postseason run. They had to figure out what their bodies could and couldn't do and make adjustments.
The numbers in September show the club is doing that. They are hitting .319 as a team this month, with 31 homers and a .554 slugging percentage. The Rangers have fresh legs, as evidenced by their continued aggression on the bases, whether that's stealing second or third, going from first to third or legging out infield hits.
The club's every-day players are doing what they need to do to stay focused and ready when the games matter the most down the stretch.
"Once you been through it, you understand what it is," Washington said. "It's no big deal to go through 162 games and lose. But if you've never been through 162 games and won, that's different. And I'm not talking about going to the World Series, I'm just talking about winning and a chance to go to the postseason. You understand what it's like. That means you are bringing it every single day."
Perhaps no one has learned more than Elvis Andrus.
Washington went into the season hoping to play Andrus between 135 and 140 games. But the injury to utility infielder Andres Blanco altered those plans. Andrus will end up playing about the same number of games as last season, but the 23-year-old has taken better care of himself.
"I made sure when the season started not to push it as much," Andrus said. "I think I did too much early last season and it hurt me late. I've started sleeping more. Instead of watching TV late, I force myself to turn it off and go to sleep."
Andrus says he's seen a difference and that he has more energy now.
"At 21, you can bounce back," Washington said. "But when you are playing for something, you have to figure out what it important. He's sleeping more. He's eating better. He's learned how to take care of his body better."
He's not the only one. Ian Kinsler has played in 147 games, second only to Michael Young's 151. But Kinsler has played all but a handful of those in the field at second base. That's his career high in games played. He's avoided the disabled list for the first time in his career as a big leaguer. Kinsler is having one of the best seasons of his career, playing tremendous defense and pounding out 29 homers with 25 stolen bases.
"He hasn't been running the bases with reckless abandon, either," Washington said. "He's been picking his spots for stealing bags. That takes a little bit off his body."
Washington said he's been able to manage the off days pretty well, though he feels he hasn't maximized that effort because of Blanco's injury. Still, he's been able to get players off their feet by rotating the designated hitter spot, thanks to Young's versatility. Nelson Cruz has taken advantage of that recently, as he got at-bats without having to run around the outfield on his hamstring.
Washington noted that even the players who were out for extended periods of time with injuries have a little more in the tank right now because of it. Josh Hamilton missed six weeks early in the season. Adrian Beltre was out five weeks.
"We're fresher than we were last year," Washington said. "Guys are smarter and they have had some rest."
It doesn't hurt that the Angels have put more pressure on Texas this year. Last year, the Rangers played most of the second half of the season with a big lead. This year, with a similar record, things aren't quite as comfortable in the AL West.
"That's helped everyone stay focused," Washington said. "I hope it helps us as we finish the season."
And, of course, the playoffs. A healthy and energetic Rangers team would be a dangerous one for the opposition in the postseason.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.