Rangers steal an advantage with speed

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's entertaining to watch Texas Rangers first-base coach Gary Pettis every inning.

He walks around his coaching box with a stopwatch in hand and his eyes darting from the pitcher to the catcher to the outfielders. He goes through his mental checklist, noting how fast a pitcher's delivery is to home plate, how quickly a catcher releases the ball on a throw to second or third, and how good the arm of each outfielder is. Then he relays that information to his baserunner, making sure the player's checklist matches his own.

"He does a great job of getting prepared," speedster Elvis Andrus said. "He was a good baserunner and he's shared that with us. We know what to expect."

Pettis, manager Ron Washington and the rest of the coaching staff have imparted an aggressive baserunning style since they arrived in Texas. And in the last two seasons in particular, that style has made the Rangers a more versatile offense. It's another reason the club is in first place in the AL West and charging toward yet another postseason appearance.

The style is much more than simply stealing bases, though the Rangers do that as well as anyone with a 76 percent success rate, tied for first in the AL. Before Tuesday's game, they had 106 stolen bases, third most in the AL this season and ahead of last year's pace.

This Texas team goes from first to third as often as possible with fewer than two outs. The runners break almost immediately on any ball in the dirt that starts to get away from a catcher, hoping to swipe an extra base. All of that constant movement and pressure on the bases makes life a little more stressful for the pitcher and defense, forcing the opponent into mistakes. If you give the Rangers a break, they take advantage.

"We've made a concerted effort to make it a big part of our game," Michael Young said. "There's a big difference between aggressive baserunning and reckless baserunning. We run aggressively. We know when to take chances and when to push the envelope. It's worked in our favor more times than not."

It's a style Mike Napoli was indoctrinated in during his time with the Los Angeles Angels and he sees a bunch of similarities.

"We've got a lot of guys here that know how to run the bases and they're aggressive," Napoli said. "That's how Wash wants us to be. Don't be scared. When you run the bases aggressively, you put pressure on the defense and you make things happen. We've been able to do it.

"There will be times where you run into outs, but most of the time good things are going to happen. That's what Wash wants and that's what we're doing."

Washington is pleased that his players put themselves in scoring position with the aggressive style. At times this season, they haven't capitalized as much as the manager had hoped.

"But if we keep getting guys out there and into scoring position, they'll start scoring more," Washington said. "You have to get them out there."

The top of the Rangers' lineup is the catalyst. Even during some offensive lulls this season, Ian Kinsler has found a way to get on base. He has 70 walks, by far the most for any leadoff hitter with at least 250 plate appearances this season. He's also tops on the team in runs scored at 84, fourth most in the AL. Once Kinsler gets on base, he has a tendency to make things happen. He has 21 stolen bases and has been caught only twice.

Once he's on, Washington can utilize Andrus to either bunt Kinsler over or allow him to swing away and see if the Rangers can get two fast runners on base. Andrus leads the club with 31 stolen bases. When both are on the bases, it gives the meat of the Rangers' lineup the opportunity to cash them in.

Few runners in the league are better at going from first to third than Kinsler and Andrus. And when you add in Josh Hamilton, one of the best all-around baserunners in the game, the upper third of the Rangers' lineup can wreak havoc on the bases.

Washington also has outfielders Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry, who both run particularly well. But even the players who don't have supersonic speed understand how to run the bases smartly and efficiently. It allows Pettis to get aggressive with them on tag-ups and singles to get more runners into scoring position. Then the bigger bats have the job of driving them in.

"They understand not only how much fun it is to play that way, but how valuable it is in terms of winning a ballgame where it is a pitchers' duel," Pettis said. "It puts us in a position to score a run without having to get another hit. If we can go first to third with less than two outs, a fly ball or ground ball scores a run. That matters."

Yes, it does. That speed and aggressive style help the club score runs in different ways, something that was on display in one of the biggest games in franchise history, Game 5 of the ALDS last year. That night in Tampa, the Rangers created runs on the bases early and let Cliff Lee do the rest for the club's first playoff series win.

That same approach should certainly aid the Rangers' cause as they make the push toward another postseason.

Pettis will be sure they stay focused on that goal.

"He's huge for us," Young said. "He's really aware of our game situations. The fact that he played for so long helps. He pays attention to the game. He's on top of things before a series starts and he communicates really well with us."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.