Hitting talent goes around the horn for Rangers

Jung stays hot at plate after Semien's tone-setting homer in series win over Pirates

May 24th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- The Rangers are off to a 31-18 start to the 2023 season after a 3-2 win over the Pirates in the rubber game on Wednesday afternoon at PNC Park, tied for their second-best record through the first 49 games in franchise history.

An outsized part of this blistering start has been due to the offense. Any way you slice it, Texas has been at least solid from Nos. 1 through 9 in its order.

But the Rangers’ infield is beginning to flex its collective muscle at the plate in recent series.

Throughout the three-game set in Pittsburgh, the unit produced, and nobody did so stronger than third baseman . After slugging a homer in the series finale vs. the Rockies at home on Sunday, Jung carried his strong bat to PNC Park to slug a late homer in each of the first two games.

The first came off All-Star reliever David Bednar, who had not allowed a home run to that point in 2023 and carried a 0.56 ERA into the at-bat. Jung ambushed a 1-1 fastball on the upper threshold of the strike zone.

The caliber of the arm was stronger on Monday, but Tuesday’s dinger was arguably more impressive for two reasons. First, Duane Underwood Jr. put Jung into an 0-2 count. Unfazed, the third baseman swung on the next pitch, a hanging curve, to crush his longest MLB homer at a Statcast-projected 444 feet.

“It wasn’t like I was going up there looking to do damage,” Jung said. “It was just [trying to] get the bat to the ball, and I just happened to do that. With two strikes, I try not to shrink the zone, but just stay with the approach I came into the box with, don’t expand.”

To cap his trip to the Steel City, Jung hit an RBI double and a single in the rubber game.

Unlike Jung, who has yet to put a full 162 games under his belt in the Majors,  has begun to put together seasons of 160 games or more with unbelievable ease. His steady value showed again on Wednesday, when he homered on the second pitch of the game in a pivotal three-run frame off Johan Oviedo.

The blast, which marked his second leadoff homer of the season, extended Semien’s hitting streak to 14 games, the second-longest active streak in MLB. And his all-around contributions haven’t gone unnoticed; entering Wednesday’s game, he was tied for the MLB lead in bWAR at 2.9 with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Luis Robert.

Given that Semien has played in 161 or 162 games in every season from 2019-22 other than the pandemic-shortened ‘20 campaign, the Rangers can feel very confident about seeing this kind of performance on a daily basis.

And Semien’s presence has already given an intangible boost to the Rangers’ young half of the lineup.

Take it from Jung.

“He’s like a big brother, truly. He kind of took me under his wing with everything he does routine-wise,” Jung said. “Even in Spring Training, I was his tail, and he loved it."

“His work ethic, I haven’t really seen anything like it,” manager Bruce Bochy said of Semien. “He’s relentless with his ground balls, his defensive stuff, offensive stuff. He’s just a pro.

“He’s a shortstop that you’re fortunate to have play second, because he’s so athletic. He’s a leader here in the clubhouse.”

Around MLB, fans might not be tuned in to just how productive the Rangers’ starting first baseman has been. But consider this: Nathaniel Lowe was tied in fWAR (1.3) with Mets star Pete Alonso entering Wednesday’s game.

Lowe added a double, single and an intentional walk to his totals in the finale, raising his slash line to .333/.411/.464 in 84 at-bats this May, including 12 hits over his past six games.

The quietest of the group offensively in Pittsburgh was Corey Seager, but since his return from the injured list on May 17, he’s hit .333 with three doubles and two homers. His track record speaks for itself.

Texas’ infield leads the league in runs scored (148); for comparison’s sake, the MLB-worst Tigers’ offense has produced 166 runs on the whole.

That will play.