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Original Issue

Strange, But True

After 13 straight wins, the surprising Rangers were atop the American League West

The Kingdome was rocking late info the night last Saturday, and the Seattle Mariners were poised for a miracle comeback against the Texas Rangers. With one down in the bottom of the 11th and the Rangers leading 8-6, the Mariners had men on first and second. Seattle's Pete O'Brien hit a high pop foul that was headed into the seats behind home plate. But the ball struck a speaker—one that Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre would later say he had never seen hit before—and dropped straight down into the mitt of Texas catcher Mike Stanley, who made the catch just 15 feet from home plate. One out later, the Rangers had their 12th consecutive win, and it was they who were talking miracles.

After the game, Texas pitching coach Tom House shook his head in amazement at this latest bizarre twist in a streak that had long since passed the when-you're-hot-you're-hot stage and was well into divine intervention. "Something's going on here," said House. "I don't understand it. I've never been a participant on this side of the equation before. But [manager] Bobby [Valentine] told me on the plane the other night, 'Maybe this is a meant-to-be season.' "

And why not? Who cares that the Rangers were picked by some prognosticators to finish sixth in the seven-team American League West? There's no logic to baseball anymore, not after last week, when three managers were canned in three days (page 66); a Philadelphia Phillie pitcher with a total of six wins in three major league seasons threw a no-hitter; and the Atlanta Braves, the surprising second-place team in the National League West, opened a 10-game lead on the last-place San Francisco Giants, who were supposed to contend for the division title. And how can anyone explain the Rangers and the Mariners—the only two teams in baseball that have never played a postseason game, and who started the season 0-4 and 0-6, respectively—being in position last week to go head-to-head for the American League West lead in a series that one gushing Seattle official described as "maybe the biggest in our history."

Texas entered this three-game clash of improbable contenders with a half-game lead over Seattle and Oakland; the Rangers had not held first place that late in a season since 1986. Poor Seattle had no chance against a don't-mess-with-Texas hitting attack that Lefebvre calls "absolutely awesome." In the series opener, the Rangers added Mariners starter Brian Holman to the hit list of pitchers they've shelled, tagging him for six runs in three innings en route to a 7-3 win.

A day later, in the aforementioned Speaker Game, Texas trailed 4-3 entering the ninth. But Seattle closer Mike Jackson, who had retired 47 of the last 54 batters he had faced, gave up a solo homer to designated hitter Brian Downing, his second of the game. Then, with two outs in the 11th, the Rangers scored four runs. Light-hitting Gary Pettis singled in two of them, and Juan Gonzalez, the 21-year-old leftfielder who is Texas's burgeoning star, cracked a two-run homer. Seattle's Jay Buhner hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning before the Mariners' comeback was thwarted by intervention from above. "I usually laugh when the umpires explain the ground rule to me," said Valentine, referring to the fact that any ball that is caught after hitting an object suspended from the Kingdome's roof is an out. "I never thought it would ever happen."

In truth, the Rangers are creating their own luck with their bats. Through Sunday, when they ran their winning streak to 13 with a 6-4 defeat of Seattle (since 1980, only the 1988 Oakland Athletics' 14-game win streak has surpassed the Rangers' surge) they hadn't lost, or stopped hitting, since crushing the Boston Red Sox 12-5 on May 12—Ted Williams Day—at Fenway Park. A few Texas players got to meet Williams, the greatest hitter of all time and the first manager of the Rangers, and they all watched the pregame tribute. "There's a connection," says shortstop Jeff Huson. "We're going to ask Ted to take some trips with us."

The Red Sox have the Curse of the Bambino. The Rangers have the Blessing of the Splendid Splinter. In those 13 games, Texas batted .342, produced at least five runs every game and outscored the opposition 103-52. By week's end, their .290 team batting average was the highest in the majors—by 17 points.

What's most stunning about Texas's success is that its starting pitching—supposedly the Rangers' strength—has been as cold as its hitting has been torrid. Nolan Ryan, who has missed two starts with a right shoulder injury, didn't win any of the 13 games. Starters Kevin Brown and Bobby Witt combined for three victories. Moreover, the faceless Ranger bullpen had only 13 saves all year. Reliever Goose Gossage, 39, who was so washed up last season that he got rocked in Japan, has helped take up the slack: Through Sunday, he had four wins.

The Rangers' 24-14 start was even more astounding considering where they stood on Opening Day. For instance, pinch hitter Denny Walling, backup catcher John Russell and rookie outfielder Tony Scruggs all had to play leftfield until Gonzalez recovered from a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup until April 26. What's more, the repercussions from baseball's most controversial transaction of spring training, Valentine's release of leftfielder Pete Incaviglia, were strong. Valentine was booed unmercifully by the home fans. "People were begging for us to fold," says Valentine. "That makes this [streak] more satisfying."

The turnaround began when Gonzalez came off the disabled list and began establishing himself as the best young player in the league. As of Sunday, he was hitting .343 with 30 RBIs. "People ask me how good he's been," says third base coach Dave Oliver. "I don't even want to tell them. That's how good."

The resurgence was sparked, however, by one of the game's best old players, the 40-year-old Downing, who was leading the league in batting (.390) and on-base percentage (.488) at week's end. Until late March, Downing, who was not offered a contract after finishing last season with the California Angels, was jobless. He also had grown his hair long and had stopped shaving. "I'm a biker," says Downing. "I was enjoying life, riding my Harley, watching my kids play Little League for the first time. I had given up hope of playing. It was killing me, but I had planned a Harley trip with some friends to Nevada."

Instead, Downing took a plane from California to Florida when the Rangers invited him to camp on March 28. Injuries sidelined him for the first three games of the season, but he then reached base 20 times in his first 24 plate appearances. It was his screaming leadoff home run off Roger Clemens in Game 6 of the streak that highlighted a 13-5 rout of Boston and got Rangers fans believing.

Another big contributor has been rightfielder Ruben Sierra, who, after a subpar 1990 caused in part by a series of nagging injuries, has reemerged as a force. Sierra enjoyed a monster 1989 (.306, with 29 homers and 119 RBIs), but slipped to .280, 16 and 96 last year, when he also committed 10 errors. "Ruben has a lot of pride," says Texas general manager Tom Grieve. "He does. He doesn't want to mess up in front of 30,000 people. So he worked hard."

Sierra is dying to be a great player. Around his neck this year he's wearing a pendant of a horse's head, which he calls a caballo—Spanish for horse and, for him, symbolic of his being the Rangers' main man. In Puerto Rico, where Sierra was raised and still lives, one doesn't strive to be the caballo unless one means it. Sierra means it. Through Sunday, he was hitting .335 with eight homers and 31 RBIs, and each of his seven steals—he had nine all of last year—had come at key times. Defensively, he has yet to commit an error.

"I want to show people that I'm the best," says Sierra. "Last season people forgot that I was hurt. Now I'm playing like I'm capable of playing."

No team has a more formidable quartet of hitters than Texas has with Sierra, Gonzalez, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (.323) and second baseman Julio Franco (.296). More important, the entire lineup is more versatile and flexible than in recent years, when the Rangers lived by the home run, died by the strikeout and grounded into a lot of double plays. This spring, Valentine stressed being more selective at the plate and trying to create runs rather than swinging for the fences. His tutoring has paid off. As of Sunday, Texas was leading the league in sacrifice bunts and was on pace to strike out 215 fewer times and to ground into 36 fewer double plays than it did in 1990.

The lone Ranger who resisted the new philosophy was Incaviglia, which is one reason that he was released. The jury is still out as to whether dropping Incaviglia, a productive but free-swinging player who's now striking out on a regular basis for the Detroit Tigers, was a wise move, but it certainly helped to change the Rangers' image. "They're out of that swing, swing, swing thing," says Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly. "They're taking a lot of pitches, and that makes them a better offensive team. And they're not chasing pitches the way they used to."

What they are chasing are opposing pitchers. "Everyone knows our one-through-six batters are going to hit," says Downing. "But the seven, eight, nine hitters have really helped, too."

To wit: Third baseman Steve Buechele, who usually bats eighth, was hitting .293 with eight homers (five in his last eight games) and 25 RBIs through Sunday. With just one error at week's end, Buechele has been brilliant in the field as well.

Valentine and his coaches deserve some of the credit for the about-face. "I'm sure everyone understands how good the Oakland group [manager and coaches] is, but I'll match our knowledge base with anyone's," says House. Though Valentine's prowess as a game strategist is second to none, some observers say he is too emotional in dealings with players. He lost the support of some of them when he released the popular Incaviglia, but Valentine has gotten all of them back.

"We have a special group," he says, "but I was saying that when we were losing. When we lost three in a row to Boston on May 9, 10 and 11, I walked in the clubhouse and said, 'Something is different here.' " Indeed, the streak began the next day.

Still, the Rangers will not be a special team or even a contender if their starting pitching doesn't shape up. Other questions remain as well. How long can the makeshift bullpen excel? Is rookie reliever Gerald Alexander (1.50 ERA through Sunday) that good? Can Huson, who batted .199 in the final 75 games of 1990, hold up for an entire season at shortstop? And when will 19-year-old catching phenom Ivan Rodriguez be called up to solve Texas's weaknesses behind the plate?

However, every team in the American League West has weaknesses. Don't be surprised if in September, five are still in the race. Should one of them be the Rangers, they will point to a few games during this winning streak that served as springboards. The most amazing victory of the bunch came against Minnesota on May 23 in an affair that made the Speaker Game look routine. Texas starter Jose Guzman, who because of right-shoulder problems was pitching in the majors for the first time since 1988, walked nine in 3⅖ innings but gave up only two runs. All told, Rangers pitchers were torched for 17 hits on the same day that the Twins were throwing the game's hottest pitcher, Scott Erickson. Still, Texas won 10-6 by scoring five runs in the 11th inning.

Do you believe in magic? "During a streak like this, you can look back on some games and say they're symbolic," said Downing last Saturday night. "But' I don't believe in May. If these weird things are still happening in August, then I'll jump on the bandwagon."



Franco's freaky stance notwithstanding, the Rangers are a fearsome presence at the plate.



While Gonzalez has established himself as the finest young player in the league, Sierra has reestablished himself as Texas's "caballo."



Valentine (right) is batty about Downing, who in two months went from a 40-year-old biker/baby-sitter to the league leader in hitting.