Banister steering Rangers' turnaround
First-year manager relying on basics, clubhouse leaders
When a club survives the kind of terrible start the Texas Rangers had, it typically means two things:
1. The manager has done a fabulous job holding things together.
2. The team has strong clubhouse leadership.
So I began a conversation with Rangers manager Jeff Banister on Thursday afternoon by asking how he held things together during a 7-15 start.
"With chicken wire and spit," he said.
And then Banister turned serious. He talked about pretty much starting over in Spring Training as a first-year manager. Banister focused, not just on fundamentals, but on communication and establishing relationships and trust.
Banister and his coaches drilled it into their players that the only things they could really control was their effort and attention to detail. But they had to control those things.
If that sounds like basic stuff, it is.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels felt a lot of things went wrong when the team lost 95 games in 2014.
They'd been decimated by injuries, but the things that bothered Daniels most were baserunning and errors and effort.
Banister had to fix those things or the Rangers were not going to be the club they'd once been.
That is, one of the best in baseball. Between 2010-13, Texas averaged 93 victories and made the playoffs three times. The Rangers won the American League pennant in 2010 and again in '11.
So back to basics.
"We knew there'd be judgment days for all of us, and how we were able to work through 'em and come out on the other side would say a lot about us," Banister said. "We knew we weren't a perfect team. There were going to be nights we had to find a way to draw it up in the dirt."
Banister is just getting warmed up. First-time managers are pulled in all sorts of different directions. They're tested, too, in ways large and small.
No matter how good a manager is, at some point, accountability has to include the players.
"Listen, Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre are the leaders in that clubhouse," Banister said. "They kept it going inside there. They never wavered one time. Their energy level, their drive and passion have been outstanding. What they've done with these guys is incredible."
Only thing is, when Texas started the season 7-15, it seemed a carryover from going 67-95 the season before.
"I do think that was the perception," Daniels said. "No one thought we'd be any good. That's not how we saw it."
Rather, Daniels saw plenty of things he liked: effort and leadership and cohesion. He would eventually be forced to place five starting pitchers on the disabled list. Actually, all five are still on there.
The Rangers started to win anyway. Their positives began to outweigh their negatives. Fielder, Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo are leading an offense that's No. 1 in the Majors in runs this month.
Fielder, who played just 42 games last season before undergoing neck surgery, is playing like a man who has fallen back in love with the game in leading the AL in batting average (.361) and is tied with Nelson Cruz for the RBI lead (38).
Any conversation about the Rangers begins with Fielder, both his production on the field and his leadership in the dugout and clubhouse.
"It's fun to watch," Banister said. "I make sure I'm in a spot in the dugout where I don't miss a single at-bat. More than anything, I can't say enough about what he does in the dugout. He's vocal and engaged. He challenges guys.
"We had a situation in New York where a guy misplayed a ball. I was walking down the dugout and Prince said, 'I got this one, Skip.' He took the young man aside -- he and Adrian -- talked to him about focus and how we have to play. It's that kind of stuff you can't measure."
Daniels has overhauled the bullpen since Opening Day and is getting good work there, too. And that rotation, the one pieced together with chicken wire and spit, has at least kept Texas in games.
The Rangers are 15-9 since that terrible start and are seven games behind the first-place Astros. That's a large gap, but they've at least had a good stretch of play.
They're also hopeful of getting three veteran starters -- Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez -- back in the rotation within a few weeks. Also, 23-year-old right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez could soon his get chance.
There's also the Josh Hamilton experiment. He received a warm reception and had two hits in his first home game since being reacquired by the team with which he had his best five years in the big leagues. Hamilton helped Texas win a pair of pennants, and so there's plenty of good vibes.
The Rangers have no idea how much productive baseball Hamilton has left in the tank, but they're at least encouraged by seeing how happy he is to be back with his former team.
"He looks great," Banister said. "His swing is really close. His timing is close."
As Banister said, Texas is far from a perfect team. But the club's offense is the best in the division, if not the AL. New closer Shawn Tolleson is anchoring a bullpen that has done good work lately.
So if the Rangers can get enough starting pitching to hang in, they should have a chance to make a run at a postseason berth. Texas and Houston play each other seven times in the final three weeks.
Regardless, from a terrible start, the Rangers suddenly are as optimistic about things as any team.
"We're real early in the season, and I'm not suggesting we're on top of the world," Daniels said. "But even the first two or three weeks when our record wasn't good, we were in every game. Our guys were fighting, competing. You see it every night. Last year, we didn't have that. That's the No. 1 thing that has changed. It's culture and chemistry. That's what we had to get back to, and I give [Banister] and his coaches a ton of credit for that."