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Friday's Top 5: Rangers get star performances from Hamels, Choo

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Hamels dominates Orioles

Cole Hamels gives up two hits and one run, while striking out 10, in Texas' 4-1 win over Baltimore.

1. The Texas Rangers: While pushing the Baltimore Orioles further back in the pack in the American League wild-card race in their 4-1 win, the Rangers reaped big benefits from some of the stars they went to such trouble to bring to Texas.

First off, Cole Hamels delivered exactly the kind of big game they were hoping for from him, getting 10 strikeouts in eight innings while allowing just two hits and a run. What was especially impressive was the breadth of stuff he seemed to work into the mix, initially getting swing-and-misses with his fastball and change before turning more to his curve and cutter to finish batters off. It was the sort of brilliant start with equally brilliant stuff that might beat anybody on any given night but was perfect for carving up an increasingly desperate O's lineup.

Second, Shin-Soo Choo went yard, just the latest contribution in his second-half return to the kind of high-end performance the Rangers had in mind when they signed him. His team-best .980 OPS since the All-Star break owes much of it to improved approach since the break. He's seeing more pitchers per plate appearance (4.3 vs. 3.9), his walk rate is up to 14 percent, and he has added almost 100 points of batting average (but "just" 60 points of slugging). So a lot of his value is coming from more singles as well as more walks, evidenced in his .421 BABIP in the second half (against .265 in the first). That might automatically get you to thinking about regression, but keep in mind that Choo was a guy with a career BABIP of .350 before he went to Texas. If he has gotten back to what made him a successful batter in the first place, he's going to continue to be a huge factor down the stretch.

2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers: Fourteen whiffs against a potential postseason opponent to rain down humiliation and pain in a 4-1 smackdown against the Chicago Cubs? That's just another day at the office for Kershaw, who has an MLB-best 1.02 ERA in his eight starts since the All-Star break. But what's also really cool? Kershaw might get seven more starts before the season finishes. Let's say he throws them, averaging his current post-break 11 K/9, while still pitching into the eighth inning on an average night. That would put 300 strikeouts in reach, which if he did it would make him the first guy to do it since Randy Johnson in 2002. Will he get the chance? I suppose that depends on the San Francisco Giants and whether the Dodgers need him to throw those seven regular-season starts to help win the NL West.

3. Twins blank Astros: Since Kyle Gibson didn't make it out of the sixth inning, you can count this as the latest shutout owned by the entire Minnesota Twins staff in their 3-0 win. That's because it was their 10th shutout of the season, yet they're the only team in the league in double digits for shutouts without getting at least one complete-game shutout on the season. They're the one team that owes all of their shutouts to their team, which seems like one of the most Twins-y things you could say about a staff without an obvious ace that spent most of the season benefiting from closer Glen Perkins closing things out.

4. Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates: Three hits, including a double, in the Pirates' 5-3 win was already brag-worthy, but it was just more of the same in Polanco's second-half breakout as the leadoff man the Pirates have long needed. He now has a .379 OBP and an .895 OPS since the break. But Polanco also made a huge impact on defense with two great throws from right field to notch a pair of baserunner kills, first pegging catcher Nick Hundley coming too far off the bag rounding first on a single, and then throwing out Jose Reyes at home plate for a double play to preserve a tie in the eighth inning. That also gets Polanco up to nine assists from right field, tied for the most in the NL with Matt Kemp.

5. Blake Swihart's inside-the-park home run for Boston Red Sox: If I said something as simple as "a catcher hit a fly ball to center field with Juan Lagares playing out there" the highlight you might expect is not the one that we got to see. Lagares earned an all-world defensive rep last season, but this was just one of those unpredictable, incredible plays -- the ball caromed off the fence and back toward the infield past Lagares, and died in the outfield grass where nobody could run it down quickly. Put that in extra innings in a tie game, and it had instant highlight written all over it.

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