Rangers blossom midseason under first-year manager
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- In late July, Rangers manager Jeff Banister gathered his players in the visiting clubhouse in Anaheim. At the time, the Rangers had a losing record (45-49) and were 7 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West.
Surely, this was going to be one of those tough-love meetings, a laying down of the law.
Two months later, everything has changed for the Rangers (84-69). Their season has been transformed on almost every level, and now they're cruising toward their fourth postseason appearance in six seasons.
Their 6-2 victory over the second-place Astros on Friday night increased their lead in the AL West to 4 1/2 games and reduced the magic number to 5.
That must have been some meeting.
When Banister called the team meeting, No. 1 starter Yu Darvish hadn't thrown a pitch (and wouldn't). No. 2 starter Derek Holland had spent three months on the disabled list, and there were other injuries up and down the roster, to catcher and outfielders, here, there and everywhere.
To think the Rangers could still make something of their season required a heavy dose of optimism. Yet on that day in Anaheim, that's exactly what Banister dispensed.
"We showed 'em a video of each one of them and their families and fathers and all these pictures and different moments of the first half of successes," he said. "At the end of it was a celebration of what we had accomplished to that point.
"I believe in the different aspects of being able to motivate guys. You need that little extra spark. We as coaches are consistently pouring that pitcher full, so it never gets too low."
Banister has done this kind of thing at least once a month. He calls it "coach up, coach forward." His message has always been basic: be professional, keep playing hard, see how it all plays out.
"Everything we've done begins with Banny," Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder said.
Banister and his coaches looked over every silver lining and also relied on his veterans, especially third baseman Adrian Beltre.
"I can't say enough about the leadership in our clubhouse," Banister said. "I'm telling you, they always thought this was possible."
That was a tough sell in those early weeks of the season when he was piecing lineups and a rotation together with spit and hope.
Maybe that's why he got the job in the first place. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels had been blown away by Banister in his first interview last fall.
Clint Hurdle was a huge factor. He'd had a significant influence on the Rangers when he served as hitting coach during the 2010 season. The Rangers loved his presence and his enthusiasm along with his ability to get the best from every player.
When Daniels sat down with Banister, he saw plenty of Hurdle in the man who'd been Hurdle's bench coach for four seasons in Pittsburgh.
"Sometimes you just know he's right for your team," Daniels said.
And that's exactly what he has been.
The Rangers have gone 34-16 since Aug. 2 to turn an eight-game deficit into a 4 1/2-game lead. Banister and his players deserve tons of credit for continuing to fight the good fight, but the Rangers were transformed in very substantive ways.
Here's how the Rangers are different:
1. Delino DeShields Jr. has become one of baseball's best leadoff men. When the Rangers took him in the Rule 5 Draft of unprotected Minor Leaguers from the Astros last winter, they said they loved his skills and believed he had a chance to contribute even though he'd hit .236 in Double-A in 2014.
With center fielder Leonys Martin injured, DeShields got a chance to play every day and has been hugely important. The Rangers are 62-39 when he's in the starting lineup. His on-base percentage is .344, and his defense in center field is way above average.
2. Cole Hamels has given the Rangers a true No. 1 starter. The Rangers are 8-0 in his last eight starts, and Hamels has pitched at least seven innings six times. Daniels pursued Hamels aggressively even when the Rangers had a losing record. He still believed the Rangers could make a run in 2015 and also liked that Hamels was signed through 2019.
3. Holland returned from the disabled list. He has had some dominant starts and some that look like the work of a guy who spent four months on the DL. But his return has given the Rangers someone to line up behind Hamels. Holland is no sure thing, but having pitched in 13 postseason games for the Rangers, he could be a significant weapon next month.
4. The Rangers have had baseball's best bullpen in September: 2.00 ERA entering Friday. First, Shawn Tolleson has emerged as a reliable closer: 33 saves and a 2.77 ERA. Second, 22-year-old right-hander Keone Kela has been in 66 games and compiled a 2.44 ERA. Since he returned from being sent to the Minors for a 12-day break, he hasn't allowed a run in 17 appearances. Finally, Daniels added two other solid arms by getting left-hander Jake Diekman in the Hamels trade and right-hander Sam Dyson from the Marlins. All of a sudden, Banister only needs six innings from his starters because he has a nearly airtight group for the final three innings.
5. Beltre spent 15 days on the DL with a left thumb injury in June. He took one round of batting practice and went right back into the lineup. He may not have been 100 percent from the moment he returned, but the Rangers feed off him and count on him in an assortment of ways. His 40 RBIs since Aug. 15 tie him with Edwin Encarnacion for most in the Majors.
6. Fielder is healthy. He missed 120 games in 2014 and underwent neck surgery in the offseason. He worked relentlessly to get his body back in shape, and has 27 doubles, 22 home runs and 88 RBIs. With Beltre and Fielder in the middle of the lineup, Banister has a formidable pair to build around.
7. Shin-Soo Choo got insanely hot. He's hitting .422 this month and is a perfect touch in the No. 2 spot in the batting order between DeShields and Beltre. The Rangers are leading the AL in runs this month.
8. Chris Gimenez became the starting catcher when Robinson Chirinos injured his shoulder swinging a bat. He is 32 years old and has been with three other organizations. He'd spent most of the season at Triple-A Round Rock. To say the Rangers didn't expect the production they would get is an understatement. When a team has a special season, there are always surprises. Gimenez qualifies as one. He's hitting .271. The Rangers are 23-4 with him in the starting lineup.
9. Mike Napoli probably wasn't certain what his role would be when he returned to the Rangers in a trade with the Red Sox. He couldn't have guessed that he'd get much of his playing time in a position he'd never played. On Sept. 13, Banister inserted him in left field. He believed that Napoli's offensive presence would more than offset whatever defensive issues he might have. Score one for the new manager. The Rangers are 8-1 with Napoli in the lineup.
10. The Astros gave the Rangers an opening by going 7-15 in September. But the Rangers have baseball's best September record at 16-7. Even more impressive, they're 45-34 on the road. They finish the regular season at home with three against the Tigers and four against the Angels.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.