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Who Needs A-Rod? Quietly taking over at shortstop, hot-hitting Michael Young has sparked Texas's stunning start

When the Rangers' Michael Young volunteered to switch positions
this spring--he moved from second base to shortstop after Alex
Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees--he did it as he does most
things, without a fuss. "It was a five-minute conversation, and
only because I made it that long," says Texas manager Buck
Showalter. "There's a real sincerity to his game, a real
humbleness. There are no agendas."

While playing slick defense in his new spot--through Sunday he
had made only two errors--Young has also quietly become one of
baseball's best leadoff hitters. He was batting .352 with a .398
on-base percentage and led the AL in hits (38) and multihit games
(14). Pruned of high-priced veterans like Rodriguez, Juan
Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro, surprising Texas sat atop the AL
West with a 16-9 record.

Young's altruism averted a logjam at his old position. Alfonso
Soriano, a second baseman obtained from the Yankees in the
Rodriguez trade, was resistant to playing shortstop or a corner
outfield spot. Having played shortstop frequently in the minor
leagues, Young has adapted quickly. "Range-wise, you have the
same ground to cover," he says. "Obviously you have a longer
throw [from short], but I've enjoyed that because you can't
really cut it loose from second too often."

When A-Rod was playing short and Young was at second, the two
were so comfortable playing together, Young says, they rarely had
to speak to communicate. Rodriguez was a mentor to Young; they
often sat together on team charters, spending hours discussing
games. "With his arm strength and footwork he wasn't going to
have a problem," says Rodriguez of the position switch.

At the plate Young has an excellent eye for the strike zone and
sees a lot of pitches (3.82 per plate appearance) but rarely
walks. "Honestly, I'm never looking to work a walk," he says.
"I'm looking to go up and make hard contact every single time."

"He's more of an old-school hitter," says Texas hitting coach
Rudy Jaramillo. "He's aggressive, but he's very good about
swinging at strikes." He bats in a Jaramillo student's trademark
stance, weight distributed evenly between his front and back
feet, his body square to the pitcher.

Young hits lefties and righties equally well, and the majority of
his hits go to the opposite field. With two strikes Young will
put his front foot down earlier in the pitcher's windup;
Jaramillo says this sharpens his pitch recognition and perception
of the zone. Last season no other hitter in the American League
had more hits on two-strike counts than Young, who had 86. In the
nightcap of last Saturday's doubleheader sweep of the Red Sox,
Young found himself in two-strike counts three times against
righthander Pedro Martinez. The first time he took two balls,
fouled off three pitches and then flied out to the warning track.
The second time he had an RBI single and the third time an RBI

Like his friend Hank Blalock, the Rangers' 23-year-old third
baseman who signed a five-year, $15 million extension in the
off-season, Young, 27, accepted a new contract from the club on
Opening Day, a four-year, $10.5 million deal. Along with Soriano,
28, and first baseman Mark Teixeira, 24, they give the Rangers a
youthful, potent and relatively inexpensive infield on a team
that's trying to rebuild after four straight last-place finishes.
"There's a great dynamic in our clubhouse; we've jelled quickly,"
Young says. "We're winning, and it's a fun atmosphere right now."

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CONNORS/AP Young had only two errors through Sunday, while hitting .352 inthe leadoff spot.