Rangers have settled into 2010 groove

SEATTLE -- Texas Rangers outfielder David Murphy isn't predicting that his club will finish the rest of the regular season undefeated.

"But at this point, why not try?" Murphy said.

The outfielder smiled as he departed the visiting clubhouse in Seattle, fresh off a four-game sweep for the Rangers and the club's 11th straight win, tied for the second longest in team history (record is 14, set in 1991).

Gone is the squad that manager Ron Washington didn't fully recognize for the first three months of the season. In many ways, it didn't seem like one of his teams. The Rangers had fits of sloppiness in the field, a bullpen that coughed up leads and an offense that was inconsistent and unhappy.

It seemed like the magical postseason run of 2010 was a lot longer than just eight months ago. And Washington and his players knew it.

"We weren't playing to our capability," said catcher Mike Napoli, who as a member of the Los Angeles Angels watched the Rangers take hold of the American League West last June and never let go of it.

But as they left the drizzle of the Northwest for sunnier skies in Anaheim late Sunday, the Rangers took with them a game much more reminiscent of 2010. They have blown through the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics and now Seattle Mariners as part of an 11-game winning streak. And the club sits four games up in the AL West, the largest lead in the majors.

It was last June that the Rangers won 11 straight games to gain four games in the division, taking a 4½-game lead after the streak ended and building on it the final three months of the season. The streak was against struggling teams, but the Rangers took advantage of that favorable interleague schedule and established themselves as true contenders.

This year's streak started a few weeks later, but the blueprint is similar. Baltimore, Oakland and Seattle are all at least 11½ games back in their division and are a combined 37 games below .500. The A's and Mariners are the worst offensive teams in the AL. But if you're a team vying for a championship, you've got to take care of business and win the majority of those games. Texas has done that.

Now the task gets tougher with the Angels looming for a three-game set starting Tuesday in a division that has quickly turned into a two-team race.

"I'd like to take at least two out of three," Washington said.

He knows it won't be easy with Dan Haren and Jered Weaver slated to start two of those games. But for a team that beat Felix Hernandez this weekend on the road, it's certainly not intimidating.

This is a Rangers team flush with confidence and feeling like it has erased the uneven play of the first half of the season. It looks a lot like last year's team, the one that did all the little things right and managed to have fun along the way.

"It's time for us to get it together and we know it," Napoli said. "If we want to achieve the goal, we need to be focused every night. We need to bring it every night no matter what. Everyone is bringing it. We're clicking as a team right now. We're all feeding off each other. We're passing it on to the next guy while we're hitting. One guy isn't trying to carry it. We're all doing it."

The Rangers are playing solid defense, making the routine plays and not allowing one mistake to turn into two or three. They are scoring runs in a variety of ways -- moving runners over and hitting sacrifice flies and, of course, doubles and homers. Most important, they are putting on a pitching clinic. A bullpen that was rocky all season is beginning to settle in, and the starters are going deep into games.

"We're playing well in every aspect of the game right now, but it always starts with pitching," designated hitter and team leader Michael Young said. "Pitching is going to lead the way. For any team that has goals of getting to the postseason and making some noise when you get in there, it always starts with pitching. We're throwing the ball extremely well."

In the past 11 games, the Texas staff has compiled a 2.09 ERA with 23 walks and 86 strikeouts. Opponents have hit .194 against them. The starters have led the way, pitching an average of more than 7⅓ innings per game and sporting an impressive 1.98 ERA with nine quality starts.

"I'm seeing the pitchers with confidence to throw any pitch in any situation and not just throw it, but execute it," catcher Yorvit Torrealba said. "They are throwing pitches down in the zone, using both sides of the plate. It's been awesome. It's been unbelievable.

"Sometimes I don't even have to think that hard. I don't care if we're behind in the count, I'll just put down whatever I want and I know they'll throw it and execute it. That's great."

The bullpen's performance is what has pleased Washington the most. After three months of uncertainty, guys are settling into their roles. Mark Lowe is hitting the low part of the strike zone, is nearly hitting triple digits on the radar gun and has a slider with good movement and command.

He's become the primary eighth-inning setup man and his success allows general manager Jon Daniels and his staff to stay patient as they survey the trade market. They want a reliever but aren't in any kind of crisis mode to pull the trigger on a deal now, when the asking prices are high.

Tommy Hunter gives Washington another right-handed power arm in the bullpen, and the manager can utilize his 40-something lefties Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes when needed late in games.

Besides the bullpen, perhaps the most glaring issue on the team was defense. The Rangers committed 69 errors in the first 84 games, most in the league, and had an AL-low .978 fielding percentage. They talked among themselves about a need to focus better. Since the winning streak began, the club has three errors (two by pitchers and one by Torrealba for catcher's interference) and a .992 fielding percentage.

The offense has morphed back into the one that was opportunistic and versatile in 2010. During the win streak, the Rangers are hitting .322 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs. Of the 122 hits, 50 were for extra bases (41 percent). They have scored 6.4 runs per game, which is more than 1½ runs over what they were averaging before the streak.

Led by Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus, the club is running the bases with aggression. If there's a ball in the dirt, they are taking off for the next base (and getting a coveted "Dirt Ball" T-shirt). When a double steal is possible, the Rangers take advantage. And they're making the heads-up plays, too. A prime example: Andrus charged home from third on Saturday with a big insurance run when he saw Hernandez lob a throw to first on a Josh Hamilton chopper.

"Aggressive baserunning makes us way better," Andrus said. "You always want to put pressure on the defense and on the pitcher. We're doing that when we're on base."

Don't forget about Washington and his coaching staff, either. New hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh is making a mark, getting the most out of the offense since arriving in mid-June to take over for Thad Bosley.

Washington's gut is once again making the right calls, too. He moved Mitch Moreland to the ninth spot Sunday in an effort to get him to relax. The result was a three-run homer that accounted for all of the club's offense.

"The bottom line is we all had enough patience to realize it was going to click for us at some point when things weren't going well," Murphy said. "You guys came and talked to us every night and there was nothing we could say except, 'At some point it's going to happen.' This team is way too good to not find its stride at some point.

"Obviously, that's happened right now, and the key is to carry this thing out and finish strong."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.