By Thom Henninger
It’s too early to make too much of a series between division contenders, but this weekend’s Angels-Rangers matchup in Texas offered some intrigue. Not only were the host Rangers in first place in the American League West, 1.5 games up on the second-place Angels, they led all American League clubs in batting (.308), home runs (30) and slugging (.547) playing at home.
Going into the series, there were nine Rangers slugging better than .500 before the hometown fans, including Omar Vizquel (6-for-12 with a double) and rookie Elvis Andrus. Believe it or not, the group slugging .500 didn’t include Chris Davis or Josh Hamilton.
The Rangers also had a pair of .400 hitters at home in Ian Kinsler (.413) and Michael Young (.408). Between them in 17 home games prior to the Angels’ visit, Kinsler and Young had scored 32 runs. Kinsler had 15 extra-base hits among his 31 hits — nine doubles, a triple and five homers — and he had driven in a team-leading 17 runs at home.
The weekend series presented a stiff challenge for Rangers hitters. They were scheduled to face two of the AL’s best starters — Joe Saunders (5-1, 2.66) and Jered Weaver (3-1, 2.45) — sandwiched around John Lackey’s 2009 debut.
The Rangers slammed Saunders in the opener, as Kinsler stroked two homers off the Angels southpaw, who surrendered seven runs in 5.1 innings of a 10-8 Texas win. Andruw Jones also homered, and Hamilton tripled home the first run of the game in the first inning before connecting on a 460-foot blast in the eighth. Since coming off the disabled list Tuesday, Hamilton has three homers and nine RBIs in five games.
On Saturday, Lackey lasted all of two pitches in his debut after rehabbing an elbow ailment all spring. His first offering sailed behind Kinsler’s head, and Lackey planted his second in Kinsler’s ribs. Was Lackey responding to the second baseman’s two longballs in the series opener? Or was the adrenaline flowing a little too freely in his first start? The umpires didn’t buy that notion for long.
“When the first pitch of the next game to that hitter is behind him, that’s a red flag,” crew chief Tim Tschida said. “We gave (Lackey) the benefit of the doubt because maybe he was a little amped up coming off the DL. When he hit him with the second pitch, that was something else.”
Kinsler was held hitless in the second game, but Young had a pair and Hamilton drove in two more runs in the Rangers’ 5-3 win. In the series’ first two games, Texas has scored 15 runs on 18 hits, including eight for extra bases, and they are slugging .556.
In Sunday’s finale, the Rangers square off against Weaver, who has held opponents to a single run or none at all in four of his seven starters. He’s been terrific in nine career outings against Texas, en route to a 2-1 record and 2.54 ERA.
As for Weaver, he faces a Rangers lineup that keeps generating homespun offense. Kinsler is now batting .429 at the home park, and leads the majors in extra-base hits (17), total bases (66) and slugging among players with 50 home at-bats (.844). Plus, the Rangers are getting plenty of run production from plenty of places.
Texas Rangers at Home, 2009
G HR R/RBIs Avg/Slg Ian Kinsler 19 7 22/20 .429/.844 Michael Young 19 3 16/ 9 .413/.600 Elvis Andrus 16 1 11/ 6 .340/.547 Andruw Jones 11 3 13/10 .333/.718 Nelson Cruz 18 4 10/16 .297/.488 Marlon Byrd 15 2 11/10 .297/.500 Hank Blalock 16 5 9/16 .224/.507 Josh Hamilton 14 3 11/13 .232/.482 Chris Davis 18 4 8/10 .246/.462
A Sunday win and a Rangers sweep would give Texas a 4.5-game lead over the Angels in the AL West. There’s little significance to sweeping the Angels or opening up a lead at this point of the young season, but beating the two-time, defending AL West champs is still better than losing to them.
Take any wins over the Angels you can get. After all, they just got starters Lackey and Ervin Santana back after season-opening DL stints, and it’s conceivable Kelvim Escobar will return during the second half. Beating the Angels won’t be getting easier, and taking care of business at home will be critical to keeping the Rangers in the AL West race.