MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Second ace set to join already potent rotation

Darvish's impending return fulfills GM Daniels' plan to pair him with Hamels

Second ace set to join already potent rotation

HOUSTON -- When Rangers general manager Jon Daniels made the trade for left-hander Cole Hamels last summer, he had two things in mind.

First, an immediate return. He believed Hamels might be one of the final bricks in the wall to get Texas back to the postseason in 2015.

That part of the plan worked out nicely, as the Rangers won 10 straight Hamels starts down the stretch to overtake the Astros and capture the American League West.

Daniels also had a broader vision. He looked ahead to a time this season when Texas would have two aces -- Hamels and Yu Darvish -- at the top of its rotation. That one-two punch might compare favorably with any in the game and potentially make the Rangers a formidable October team.

That vision is about to become reality. Darvish, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, made his final Minor League rehab start on Sunday, and he likely will return to the rotation next Saturday against the Pirates in Arlington.

Darvish on strong rehab start

Here's the part the Rangers couldn't have predicted. Even without Darvish throwing a pitch, the rotation has been the AL's best. Hamels allowed one earned run over eight innings Sunday afternoon to lower the rotation ERA to 3.38, lowest in the league.

"Darvish is going to come in, and we're going to have fun," Hamels said after the Rangers completed a weekend sweep of the Astros with a 9-2 victory. "He's a tremendous asset to this team."

At the moment, the AL West is a two-team race, with the Mariners (26-17) leading the Rangers (25-19) by 1 1/2 games. The Angels (20-24) are in third place, 6 1/2 games out.

Few teams are more confident than Texas. To get this kind of starting pitching and then to add a potentially dominant starter is a dream scenario.

"I do like where we're at and how we're playing," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said.

Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis, 36, has pitched some of the best baseball of his career, posting a 2.75 ERA in nine starts. Left-hander Cesar Ramos got a spot start on Saturday and allowed the Astros one run over six innings.

"We've had outstanding pitching from everybody in the starting staff," Hamels said. "That's what you want to have. You want to have too much pitching and guys all doing well. That's what makes a good team maintain their level of play."

Offensively, the Red Sox and Mariners are the only AL teams that have scored more runs that the Rangers.

Now, about that Texas defense. It just might be the best in the AL as well, according to the metrics used by Fangraphs.com.

Against the Astros, the Rangers won a pair of 2-1 games on Friday and Saturday before breaking out with nine runs and 13 hits on Sunday. To Banister, the best part of Sunday's offense was that six of the nine runs scored with two outs.

"Those are back-breakers for the other team," Banister said.

The Rangers came to Minute Maid Park after getting swept in an ugly series in Oakland. But their starters allowed the Astros two earned runs over 21 innings, and Texas relievers allowed one run over six innings.

"Our confidence is real high right now," first baseman Prince Fielder said. "A lot of things are going well for us."

One other factor is youth. In second baseman Rougned Odor and outfielder Nomar Mazara, the Rangers have a pair of regulars who are 22 and 21 years old, respectively. To add them into a mix with veterans such as Adrian Beltre and Fielder creates a nice environment.

"It does a lot for the team, especially the way they're handling themselves," Fielder said. "They're handling themselves like men. It motivates everybody. Sometimes, young players don't get it. These guys get it. They keep their mouths shut and work hard, and that's all you can ask for."

Odor did not play on Sunday, but Mazara got two hits and made a nice play on a Jose Altuve liner in the seventh.

Mazara's brilliant catch

"It creates an energy for the veteran guys," Banister said. "When you have that young, exuberant energy that shows up every single day and they're hungry and have that fire, it gives those veteran guys another shot in the arm."

The Rangers will get another one next weekend when Darvish makes his first start since Aug. 9, 2014. In 83 career starts, his ERA is 3.27.

"I think our best baseball is still in front of us," Banister said.

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.