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Texas sees room to improve despite great first half

ARLINGTON -- For the third straight year, the Rangers spent the All-Star break in first place. They did so this season even though they say they have not played their best baseball yet.

"No," infielder Michael Young said. "We haven't really busted out offensively, and we've been banged up on the pitching front. At the same time, we've managed to push on and still win some games. That's the product of having a bunch of guys who have played together the last few years and learned how to win games."

The Rangers have had their moments, especially when they won 15 of their first 19 games, and people were starting to compare them with the greatest teams of all time. There was also a stretch in June when they won 16 of 19 games, mostly against National League competition.

There were other stretches that weren't quite as prosperous. Some of it was blamed on an offense that still leads the league in hitting and runs scored, but also suffered some baffling cold spells. More disconcerting was a rash of injuries that clobbered the Rangers' pitching staff over a six-week period.

Through mid-May, the Rangers had not made a single roster move. By the end of June, half of their 12-man Opening Day pitching staff was on the disabled list -- moving Texas from a team overflowing with pitching to one rumored to be major players for either Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

So as the Rangers get ready to begin the second half on Friday night in Seattle, their two biggest goals are to get their pitching staff back to full strength and get their offense back to potency. Do that, and the Rangers will take their chances against the rest of the American League.

"These guys know how to play, they know how to win and they know how to handle adversity," manager Ron Washington said. "There's no panic here. We know what we need to do and we know we have to get these guys healthy."

The pitching staff is slowly coming back together. Derek Holland was activated off the disabled list last Saturday after missing a month because of the effects of a stomach virus, and Colby Lewis (strained right forearm) is expected to come off immediately after the All-Star break.

First-half awards
MVP: Josh Hamilton Can't argue about a guy who was American League Player of the Month for April and May.
Cy Young: Matt Harrison He emerged as the staff ace while many others were landing on the disabled list.
Rookie: Yu Darvish He believes he can be better. The Rangers feel the same way. But he has been very good so far.
Top reliever: Joe Nathan He is in the running to be the American League Comeback Player of the Year.

Alexi Ogando (strained right forearm) is ready to begin a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Round Rock, and he could be back in the Rangers' bullpen at some point during the upcoming road trip. Koji Uehara (strained late muscle) isn't that far behind. Mark Lowe (strained rib cage muscle) is expected to resume throwing in Seattle.

Neftali Feliz (sprained right elbow) is also close to a rehabilitation assignment, but the Rangers aren't preparing him for the bullpen. They want him to build back up to be a starter.

"I think we have to come out making a statement in the beginning of the second half," outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "You know, hopefully we'll have a lot of guys back healthy soon that went down, especially pitchers, and we can get that rolling. We really haven't played on all cylinders as a team yet this year. So I would be excited to see that happen."

By the time the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline rolls around, the Rangers could be back to full strength on their pitching staff. That doesn't preclude for other injuries to hit, but they enter the second half expecting a big boost in pitching.

"I don't know what the numbers will be, but confidence-wise, it will be a big boost just knowing as a unit that everybody is coming back healthy," Lewis said. "When you look around and see, this guy is hurt, that guy is hurt, this guy is down, it doesn't give you the sense of unity like we had the last couple of years. When everybody gets back, I think we'll have an easier mindset."

The Rangers have been relatively healthy on offense with the exception of Mitch Moreland, who could be out until the beginning of August with a strained left hamstring. Beyond that, the offense has been healthy, although not quite as productive as the Rangers expect.

Players to watch in second half
Michael Young His first half was one of the worst of his career.
Derek Holland The Rangers thought he would be right there with Matt Harrison, but missing a month didn't help.
Mike Napoli The Rangers need more offense out of their catchers.

"We can be a lot more consistent," Washington said. "You hope with the talent we have in that lineup, you'd like to think that at any given time, you have four or five guys who have it going. The inconsistency part is when you have the whole lineup struggling. But we're still finding ways to get it done. I look at that as a positive."

This is still a team that sent five position players to the All-Star Game. Hamilton is having the makings of another MVP season, Ian Kinsler leads the league in runs scored, Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre have been in the top 10 in hitting, David Murphy is coming on at the right time and Craig Gentry has played well in a part-time role.

But both Young and Mike Napoli have struggled through the first half, Nelson Cruz's power numbers are off and Moreland's loss has been felt at first base.

"I've never seen the offense this inconsistent," Washington said. "Some guys are not at their best, that's all it is. All we can do is stay the course, work on things we need to work on and transfer it into the game. These are our guys. We've got to ride it out. That's all we can do."

So far it has been good enough to hold down first place in the American League West. But remember, the Rangers have much higher expectations than just a division title.

Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish, Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland, David Murphy, Mike Napoli, Joe Nathan, Michael Young