Rangers setting the bar high

DETROIT -- When the Texas Rangers welcome the New York Yankees to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Monday night, the best team in the American League will be on the field.

And it will be wearing Rangers uniforms.

It was only a few years ago that a visit by the annual contenders from the Big Apple meant the Rangers had to get out their tape measures and figure out how far the gap was between them to the elite in the AL.

Not anymore. It's the rest of the AL that is busy wondering how they stack up to the two-time defending AL champions, who have the deepest lineup in the game and a pitching staff performing at a consistently high level. Measuring up to the Rangers these days isn't easy.

That's not to say this upcoming homestand won't provide a test. It will. The Yankees come in with plenty of momentum and have been crushing the ball. Even the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, not to mention a 9-0 deficit the next day, couldn't stop them from beating up on the Red Sox. And Tampa Bay's starting pitching can keep the Rays in any game.

But these Rangers seem to relish challenges. That makes them very formidable. Just ask Minnesota, Boston and Detroit. Texas went through each of those cities and swept the Twins in three games, took both from the struggling Red Sox and then three of four from the Tigers, one of the top contenders in the AL.

"We're playing good baseball," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Even when we lose, we're playing good baseball."

They aren't losing often. When they do, it's close; all three losses are by one run. Texas is 13-3 -- 8-1 on the road -- and sits on top of the AL West by 5 1/2 games.

"Usually you like to play .500 on the road," said catcher Mike Napoli, who had a stretch of five consecutive games with a home run (six total) during the just-completed nine-game road trip. "But we just try to win series. It happens that we've put a pretty good streak together. We're just playing good baseball. We've got good pitching and swinging the bat pretty well. It's a good combination."

Don't discount the importance of a good start. Imagine how the Los Angeles Angels feel just a few weeks into the season. Sure, they have time to make up the deficit in the division. But they already are looking up at the Rangers from a considerable distance -- seven games after Sunday -- knowing the task of catching them won't be easy.

"The way the game works, there will be a period when things don't go right," Washington said. "At least if you get off good, when things don't go right you've got something to fall on. If you get off bad, you've got a lot of work ahead of you. I'd certainly rather be in the position I'm in rather than the other position."

Injuries could alter things. Adrian Beltre is the first victim, though he doesn't believe his left hamstring strain will keep him out of the lineup for long.

"If I can keep my core healthy, something magical can happen in 2012," Washington said.

It sure seems like it.

These Rangers can beat teams in so many different ways.

They can crush the ball, as evidenced by their 26 homers, second most in the league.

They can play small ball, moving runners over when necessary or taking the extra base by force (they are third in the league with 11 stolen bases).

They can win low-scoring games. They have three one-run wins, including a 1-0 victory against Seattle.

They can blow teams out. They have scored at least 10 runs four times and won those games by a combined score of 49-16.

Heck, the Rangers can even win with Academy Award-worthy performances by supporting actors. Alberto Gonzalez executed a suicide squeeze in the 11th inning of Sunday's 3-2 win over the Tigers, but the ball hit him in the right knee. He never hesitated, sprinting toward first and acting as if he had just made a great play. The umpires didn't see the ball hit Gonzalez and the play stood.
Again, it's the Rangers doing whatever it takes to win games.

If the opposing team makes a mistake, the Rangers have a habit of taking advantage. Many times they actually force the other team to mess up.

On Sunday, the Rangers' aggressiveness created an unearned run in the eighth inning to force extra innings.

Elvis Andrus sprinted to second as soon as he saw a pitch from left-handed reliever Phil Coke hit the dirt. The ball didn't get that far away from catcher Alex Avila, but with Andrus' speed, he only needed a small opening. Avila rushed the throw to second, sailing it into center field, and Andrus went over to third base.

Just like that, the Rangers had a runner at third with one out and Josh Hamilton at the plate. Hamilton did what the game asked and lofted a sacrifice fly to right to tie the score.

Three innings later, Gonzalez, who had never executed a suicide squeeze in the majors before, scored Nelson Cruz from third on the attempt with the bases loaded and no outs. It was another example of Washington's guts and his trust in his players.

"He's one of the guys in our lineup that should be able to bunt," Washington said. "When the executing has to be done and we're in [the] right part of the lineup, they're the guys that are supposed to be able to execute. I was just happy that we got it."

Take a glance at the major statistical categories (the minor ones too, for that matter) and you'll see the Rangers on top. They are scoring 5.875 runs per game and holding opponents to an average of 2.625. They are a ridiculous plus-52 in run differential.

The club leads the AL in batting average at .303 thanks in large part to the fact that Hamilton is the league MVP through the first 16 games, leading the AL with seven homers. He also has a team-high 17 RBIs. Michael Young was 16-for-34 on the road trip, boosting his average above .400. After a slow first homestand, Napoli found his swing away from Arlington with six homers and 12 RBIs on the trip.

But it hasn't just been a productive and relentless offense. The pitching staff has taken control of games. Texas leads the league in ERA by more than half a run. Much of that is the performance of the starting rotation. All five starters have at least one quality start and a win. They have 13 quality starts in 16 games and an ERA hovering around 2.50, good enough for third lowest in the majors. In Saturday's day-night doubleheader, the club had to use just one reliever in 18 innings.

And when the bullpen is needed, it has done the job. Even a few hiccups from closer Joe Nathan on the first homestand hasn't stopped Texas from posting solid relief numbers. And Nathan now has four saves.

Add it up and you have a team that is clicking. Yes, it's early. But this team already looks better than the 2011 version that twice came within a strike of a world championship. Oh, and it's clear the players aren't thinking about that anymore. Their focus is on winning the division and trying to make another postseason run. They aren't getting ahead of themselves.

"It's nice to get off to a good start, but at the same time we all have a great idea of what it takes to have a successful season," Young said. "We're very happy to get out of the gate pretty quickly, but we definitely want to make sure we're getting better as the season progresses.

"That's been the goal the last few years. It's worked out well for us and that's what we're going to try to continue to do. We want to be a better team at the All-Star break than we are right now. And by the time we hit that stretch drive, we want to be a better team than we were at the break."

That's a scary thought for the rest of the American League.