Rangers avoid hitting panic button

Well, Texas Rangers fans, are you a little less panicked now than you were a few weeks ago?

There was a sense among many Rangers supporters that things were crumbling. A team that looked unbeatable the first six weeks of the season had become mediocre. The Rangers were hovering around .500 since the middle of May, couldn't get anything going with their bats, weren't playing crisp defense and were dealing with injuries to their pitching staff.

The Los Angeles Angels, a team many expected to contend with the Rangers for the AL West title, started playing like we all figured they would and slowly chipped away at the early-season deficit in the division. They closed the gap to 2½ games last week.

The Rangers were playing so poorly that manager Ron Washington called a team meeting in Anaheim a few weeks ago to address the concerns. The organization signed free-agent Roy Oswalt to add pitching depth. The Rangers even called up a Double-A pitcher to help plug holes that seemed to be popping up all over the place.

Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland, two-fifths of the starting rotation, are on the disabled list. One of the club's best substitute options, Alexi Ogando, pitched three perfect innings before straining his groin trying to beat out a bunt hit. Just like that, the pitching depth was thinned to an alarming level.

Josh Hamilton missed four games with an intestinal virus. Nelson Cruz missed a few games because of illness and Achilles pain, and Mitch Moreland just strained a hamstring.

Yet the Rangers return home for a 10-game stay at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington still atop the AL West by five games and playing better baseball than they have in a while. Why? Good pitching and a favorable schedule collided at just the right time.

For more than a month now, the Rangers' offense has sputtered and stammered, unable to come up with enough clutch hits to establish the kind of momentum that helped them crush opponents during the first five weeks of the season.

Despite the sluggish bats, the Rangers have done what contending teams do: They've avoided a huge collapse that could hurt their postseason chances. And in the past 10 days, they've started to show more signs of the team that was winning series with regularity early in 2012.

Most of the credit should go to the pitching staff. Nothing cures an ailing offense like solid starting pitching. The past 10 games, Rangers starters -- even some who were thrust into unexpected roles because of injuries -- have done the job.

Yu Darvish bounced back from a few shaky outings with a solid, long effort against the Houston Astros last week and baffled the lackluster San Diego Padres on Wednesday, going eight innings and allowing just two runs on five hits with eight strikeouts. Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison continue to pile up innings and wins, avoiding big mistakes. Harrison even made a 2-1 lead after the first inning lead hold up the other night in San Diego.

Justin Grimm came up from Double-A Frisco to pitch a quality start Saturday and earned the chance to stay in the rotation for now. Scott Feldman has been the exception, struggling through rough luck and an inability to limit mistakes, though he joined the run of good starts Tuesday by pitching well in San Diego.

From May 14 to June 7, the Rangers' starting pitchers had a 4.91 ERA and an 8-12 record. The weren't getting much help from their offense when they needed it, too. But since June 8, the beginning of a series in San Francisco, the starting staff is 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA, a dramatic and noticeable difference.

More help is on the way. Roy Oswalt put together his best minor league start since being signed Sunday and joins the rotation Friday. That allows the club to move Feldman back into his long relief role.

It helps, too, that Houston and Arizona came to Arlington and the Rangers got to visit San Diego. Those three teams are nowhere near contention status at this point, and Texas took advantage of that part of the schedule.

Still, for the Rangers to show they are ready to return to the World Series for a third straight season, the bats must get going. It has improved a little, though it's tough not to when the club average was .261 from mid-May to June 7. Texas averaged 4.5 runs per game in that stretch and had 10-13 record. But since then, the Rangers have hit .275 and and scored 5.08 runs per game while going 10-2.

The Rangers have now won six straight games and their past four series, the longest streak since winning six consecutive series to start the season. They play 13 of their next 16 at home before the All-Star break. And all four teams they play at home are at or below .500, including the disappointing Detroit Tigers.

Texas is playing better and has a great opportunity to build on that AL West lead before getting those four days off in July. And just like surviving injuries, good teams take advantage of a favorable schedule. The no-panic Rangers need to continue to do just that.