Rangers haven't missed a beat
Kinsler says clubhouse chemistry is as strong as ever
ANAHEIM -- Ian Kinsler read and heard the speculation, all winter long. The Rangers would miss Michael Young's leadership. They wouldn't be the same without the power production of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli. The chemistry that helped lift Texas to back-to-back World Series, one out away from a championship in 2011, would be diminished, if not destroyed altogether.
Here, in a nutshell, is Kinsler's honest reaction: blah-blah-blah.
"No one changes because people leave," Kinsler said on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium, where the Rangers were wrapping up a three-game series against Hamilton and the Angels. "That's another thing the media makes up. I don't know why people write about it. Everyone in this clubhouse is exactly the same. We're actually more comfortable with each other, and that makes for better chemistry. The whole clubhouse lives to play the game and win."
Young, now with the Phillies, was the face of the franchise for a decade, a leader by example. He was accessible and insightful. Teammates respected him. But they equally respect Adrian Beltre, another leader by example. Hamilton and Napoli, who has been pounding the ball for the Red Sox, have been replaced by Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, players of proven quality.
If the first month of the season is any measure, these new Rangers haven't missed a beat.
There is the same lively banter in the clubhouse that there was when Young, Hamilton and Napoli were bopping around. Livewire Elvis Andrus remains committed to a good time. Beltre is as open as Young and Hamilton. Nelson Cruz is all smiles. Even Kinsler, who seems so self-contained around the media, apparently is freewheeling behind closed clubhouse doors.
"When you get to the big leagues, you don't change," said Kinsler, in his eighth season as the Rangers' second baseman and leadoff catalyst. "I just like to play baseball. I enjoy my time in the ballpark. The media might not see it, but I love to have fun and joke around. I would say we have a lot of guys who keep things loose, not just one guy."
The good vibes start, he said, with manager Ron Washington and his staff and run down through the ranks.
"Wash keeps us loose, [third-base coach] Gary Pettis keeps us loose, Derek Holland keeps us loose," Kinsler said. "Adrian, Elvis, Pierzynski . . . you can go on and on. We've got a lot of guys who like to have fun and keep things loose."
Berkman, along with his switch-hitting skills and versatility in the No. 3 spot as the designated hitter, brings a reputation as one of the most respected personalities in the game. Cardinals players still talk about how vital Berkman was in their drive to the 2011 title at the Rangers' expense in one of the best Fall Classics of the modern era.
"He plays hard, the right way," Kinsler said of Berkman. "And he's not scared to say what's on his mind. Everyone knows what he's done."
Yu Darvish has arrived, fully evolved, as one of the game's best in his second season in the Lone Star State. Holland and Alexi Ogando are proven commodities. The rotation isn't as good as it will be when Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis are healthy, but it's deep enough to keep the Rangers in the American League West hunt.
The anchor of the pitching staff, closer Joe Nathan, commands the same brand of respect as Berkman. Nothing impresses players more than consistent production over the years. Nathan takes his rightful place among the best the game has seen in handling the ninth-inning responsibilities.
"Our job, is to get it to him," said Jason Frasor, new to the Rangers' bullpen after nine seasons in Toronto and part of one season with the White Sox. "If we get it to him, we win. It's a good blend we have in this bullpen, and it all starts with Joe."
Derek Lowe gives the staff another experienced hand and voice, along with Nathan and Frasor. By the end of the season, Washington could have the luxury of three elite closers occupying his bullpen.
Joakim Soria, a free agent who excelled with the Royals, had a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery and now has a July target date. Neftali Feliz, the Rangers' closer in their World Series seasons, will be one year removed from Tommy John elbow surgery in August.
Joe Ortiz, a 5-foot-7 southpaw from Venezuela, has been the big find early on with his 1.42 ERA in eight appearances. Howie Kendrick's walk-off homer in the 11th inning on Tuesday night was the first dent in the armor of Ortiz, who has struck out 11 against two walks in 12 2/3 innings.
Robbie Ross, another lefty, and Tanner Scheppers, the gifted young right-hander, have been lights out. Texas' bullpen has the best ERA in the league.
"Every single one of the guys is talented," Scheppers said. "We're all pretty familiar with each other; most of us have been together in the Minors. We feel good in the direction we're going."
The naysayers aren't saying much now. If there are cracks in the Rangers' foundation, they haven't shown through yet.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.