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Saturday's Top 5: Rising Rangers discovering late-game answers

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Rangers win third straight

Baseball Tonight Spotlight: Bobby Wilson's double in the seventh inning scores Elvis Andrus for the game-winning run in Texas' 4-3 win over Baltimore.

1. What’s hot in August? Texas, as in the Rangers: With 34 games to go, the Rangers have already matched their win total for the 2014 season and retain their wild-card lead over the Twins, Angels and the fading Orioles, whom they took down 4-3 on Saturday. The Rangers are 17-9 in August and have won 20 of their past 30 games. If there’s an AL team not named the Blue Jays coming together at the right time, it’s the Rangers.

If the Rangers owed Friday’s win to their stars, Saturday’s belonged to some less likely heroes, with journeyman catcher Bobby Wilson plating the decisive run in the sixth, after Will Venable was intentionally walked to face a guy who did, after all, have a .570 career OPS in 555 at-bats before Saturday. With one run to work with, manager Jeff Banister did something that might have frightened Rangers fans just a few months ago: He turned it into a bullpen game and won, thanks to Keone Kela, Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson and Shawn Tolleson’s 28th save of the season.

Guess how many big-league saves Shawn Tolleson had entering the 2015 season, after 105 appearances? Zip, zero, nada. That’s fun to keep in mind the next time you read about the next "closer prospect" or the offseason appeal for your team to sign "an established closer." Guess where the Rangers got Tolleson? Waivers, after the Dodgers chucked him there after he missed most of the 2013 season while recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back. Twenty months later, he has established his closing bona fides merely as a function of opportunity, while relying heavily on an old-fashioned four-seam fastball that sits around 94 mph.

Sorting out the pen has fast become a key for the Rangers. As the rotation has stabilized, scores have come down, from 10.8 runs scored per July game between the Rangers and their opponents to 8.7 per August game. Narrower margins make bullpen performance that much more critical.

As fans have noted, there’s a good news, bad news development to worry about: Tolleson has had to pitch in seven of the past nine days, and he has racked up five saves and a loss. This relief crew might lack fame, but this isn’t a matter of building the perfect bullpen in the abstract. This is about finding the collection of guys Banister can use to best effect and in whom he can develop confidence to win games such as this one -- without burning them out before October.

2. Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays: Saturday was obviously Encarnacion’s turn to be the latest Jay performing epic feats of strength, after he blasted a trio of home runs to power Toronto’s 15-1 shellacking of Detroit. It was pretty much a classic bit of execution for the Jays’ slugger, as all three were delivered on middle-in pitches, and that’s just something you do not want to do:

Fans responded happily enough. They showered the field with caps, which Encarnacion gathered before offering a promise:

3. Mike Fiers doesn’t need a no-no to beat the Twins: What did Fiers do for his trick after throwing a no-hitter? He settled for a great spin to shut down the Twins in Houston’s 4-1 win. The Astros won a game in which they got no home runs but provided plenty of good pitching and defense -- the other key elements to their success this season. They’re up by five games in the win column with just 32 left to play and their odds of winning the AL West pushing 90 percent. It’s going to happen, folks.

4. Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: Zimmermann's quality start to beat the Marlins keyed the Nats' picking up a game on the Mets in the NL East race. The Nats need anything that gets them within range before the two teams face one another again in a three-game set starting Sept. 7. Beating up on the Marlins is what the preseason favorites have been reduced to.

5. Joe Kelly, Boston Red Sox: By beating the Mets on Saturday, by weird circumstance, Kelly joins some pretty remarkable company in Red Sox history …

… which -- without any disrespect -- also means Joe Kelly is now the worst pitcher in the past 30 years to win six games in a month for the Red Sox. But giving the righty that kind of left-handed compliment risks losing sight of what’s impressive about his run of success, which is that he has snapped off a streak of four straight quality starts for the first time all season. One reason for that? He’s throwing a lot more changeups and sliders to complement a fastball still averaging around 96 mph. If he has turned a corner, you can add him to the silver linings from an otherwise lost season for the Sox.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.