Rangers relying on Blalock, Wilkerson

Rangers relying on Blalock, Wilkerson

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock did not make the crosstown trip to play the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday.

The day off gave him extra time to work on some things back in Surprise, and there is a lot to do. This has been a time for much experimenting for Blalock, who is hitting .219 with no home runs and three RBIs in 13 games and 32 at-bats this spring.

"I'm OK," Blalock said. "I'm trying new stuff at the plate, things that I'm trying to be comfortable with, finding something that feels good for me. It's not there yet. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn't."

Brad Wilkerson did make the trip to Tempe, starting at first base in place of Mark Teixeira. Wilkerson struck out in his one at-bat before the game was washed away by rain, and he is hitting .194 with one home run and four RBIs for the spring.

"I feel good," Wilkerson said. "I feel healthy, that's the biggest thing. I'm working on some timing issues at the plate, but I feel like I'm going to be ready for Opening Day. I'm excited about that."

The Rangers are watching Blalock and Wilkerson carefully and need the pair to get going soon. Both are coming off shoulder surgery after a disappointing 2006, and their importance to the Rangers offense is obvious, just as much as (or more so) than Sammy Sosa.

On a team that lost Carlos Lee, Mark DeRosa, Gary Matthews Jr. and Rob Barajas in the offseason, the Rangers are counting on turnaround seasons from both Blalock and Wilkerson in the bottom half of their lineup.

"Spring Training is not something you go on too much, because they both have track records," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "You keep giving them at-bats, and sooner or later they're going to lock in. Their spirits are high, and they're not down on themselves. If they were, then I'd be concerned."

Blalock has worked on several different things, most notably trying to be more patient at the plate and trying to hit the ball in the opposite direction. He has developed into a notorious pull-hitter over the past couple of years, and teams have reacted by using a drastic shift against him, putting three infielders to the right of second base.

Blalock is still looking for his first home run of the spring, but he has hit a couple of doubles into the left-center-field gap. Blalock also leads the Rangers with seven walks while striking out six times.

As a Major League hitter, Blalock has 519 career strikeouts and 241 walks. But that wasn't always the case with him. In his first three years in the Minors, Blalock walked 153 times and struck out 148 while batting .326.

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The goal is to strike the right balance between power and patience with the same locked-in intensity that has made him a career .303 hitter with runners in scoring position. He hit .337 in those situations last year, which allowed him to finish with 89 RBIs even though he batted just .266 with a .401 slugging percentage.

"I'm seeing the ball well and seeing a lot of pitches," Blalock said. "I feel good about the fact that I'm walking more. The next thing is to start driving the ball more. I've always trusted my ability to turn on a ball and drive it, but I've been working in batting practice on staying inside the ball and hitting the ball the other way."

Washington said being patient at the plate and thinking about going to the opposite field worked together.

"If you do that, you lay off the bad breaking balls and the high fastballs," Washington said.

Wilkerson's main issue has been the health of his shoulder. He hit .255 with 32 home runs, 106 walks, 116 runs scored and 67 RBIs in 2004 with the Expos. But since July 1, 2005, he is hitting .225 with 184 strikeouts in 613 at-bats. The Rangers acquired him after the 2005 season.

A free agent next offseason, this season will show just how much the shoulder has impacted his offensive performance.

"It's just good getting a lot of at-bats thus spring," Wilkerson said. "I want it and need it. I just want to be ready for Opening Day in regards to health. Now I just need to get some timing issues down, that's the biggest thing."

His versatility could be an important factor as Washington tries to get all his outfielders into the lineup. Wilkerson can play all three positions and first base. But he is not guaranteed a spot in the lineup.

Washington said Nelson Cruz will play right field and Kenny Lofton will play center. Left field and designated hitter for Opening Day against Angels pitcher John Lackey is still to be determined.

"It depends on how we come out of here swinging the bat," Washington said.

Sammy Sosa has had a great spring, hitting .410 with three home runs, but Frank Catalanotto is hitting just .226 and has just four hits in his last 25 at-bats.

They will compete with Wilkerson for playing time. Wilkerson insists that if he's healthy, everything else will fall into place. Washington said that if Wilkerson is healthy, the Rangers will be satisfied.

"This guy is a baseball player," Washington said. "I really believe Wilkerson will be the Wilkerson they thought they were getting when they traded for him."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.