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Patrick Reusse: Rangers look like a World Series contender again

By Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — The Texas Rangers should be the defending World Series champions. They had St. Louis down to a final strike twice in what could have been a decisive Game 6, then coughed it up in 11 innings. They lost again the next night and went home feeling empty.

A year earlier, the Rangers had been shut down by San Francisco’s pitching, but this time … if right fielder Nelson Cruz had made a catch, if manager Ron Washington had sent Neftali Feliz back out for the 10th inning of Game 6, and a couple more ifs and this was the team that would have brought a first World Series title to Texas last fall.

Ballclubs other than Yankees don’t have a clear shot at these trophies that often, and it will be a long, hard push to a third Series in a row for the Rangers in an American League that appears more loaded with solid teams than at any time in recent memory.

Obviously, there are no conclusions nine games in and with 153 to go, but there is an inclination that the team making a visit to the Target Field is the best that baseball has to offer.

The Rangers made it two in a row over the Twins, 6-2, on Saturday at Target Field. Losing manager Ron Gardenhire was left to lament 15 runners left on base and the complete absence of a clutch hit.

“We should’ve gotten those guys today,” Gardenhire said. “And when you have the chance, you better take it, because that’s a great ballclub.”

This was not an attempt at pandering by a rival manager. The Rangers were looking at crowds of Twins on the bases all afternoon, and yet there was no doubt where the advantage rested in most every matchup.

Twins starter Nick Blackburn mixed pitches and was down 2-1 when he left with a shoulder strain in the sixth. And, still, you never liked his chance when Josh Hamilton stepped into the left-handed batter’s box.

“First time up, it looked like Hamilton just flicked the ball and he hit a rocket to left-center for a double,” Gardenhire said. “Next time up, I think that’s the longest home run I’ve seen here. The crack it made when he hit it … sounded like he was hitting a golf ball.”

The manager rubbed a hand across his forehead and said: “It just sounds different when Hamilton hits a baseball.”

The Rangers were held to four runs in the rain and cold on Friday night and came back with the six-spot on Saturday. These were not explosions by Texas standards, but it did impress Gardenhire.

“What they have up and down the lineup are very intelligent hitters,” he said. “If you make a mistake to them, they are ready to hit … they make you pay.”

The Rangers let starters Anthony Swarzak and Blackburn get away with first-pitch strikes early in both games, and then started taking a hack at the first fastball. This is a lineup so loaded that it has Nelson Cruz batting sixth and Mike Napoli eighth.

“And that kid playing first today, hitting ninth, Brandon Snyder … he ripped the ball, too,” Gardenhire said, after the rookie went 3-for-4. “Where did he come from?”

All of this hitting, and the Rangers’ pitching might be the No. 1 strength of the club.

Yu Darvish, the hyped import from Japan, made his second start. Early on, he appeared to be so hung up on showing off his six or seven different pitches that he’s walking too many — eight in two games — but there’s a bottom line on this 6-foot-5 lad of Iranian and Japanese descent:

“He’s got great stuff,” Gardenhire said.

While he learns, the Rangers have four excellent starters to carry him along: lefties Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, veteran Colby Lewis and now Feliz, with his fabulous right arm moved from the end of the bullpen to the rotation.

So the absence of Feliz must be hurting the bullpen, right? All you have to know is that the closer, the experienced Joe Nathan, is the third-best reliever behind Alexi Ogando and Mike Adams.

Barring injuries, the Rangers look like a team with a big chance at their third consecutive World Series. And if they get there, maybe this time they won’t screw it up.

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