<
>

Ian Kinsler sets the table for Rangers

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington wouldn't budge. Despite a struggling batting average and some early-season hitting woes, the skipper refused to move Ian Kinsler out of the leadoff spot.

Fans clamored for a change, tired of watching Kinsler pop up seemingly a few times per game. He wasn't hitting consistently, while Elvis Andrus was finding his stride right behind him in the lineup. Washington answered numerous questions about it and held firm.

"What are those people saying now?" Washington said late last week. "Look at all the runs he's scored. Look at the production. That's why I never moved him out of the No. 1 spot. Nobody could convince me to move him out of the No. 1 spot. And nobody will convince me to move him out of the No. 1 spot. You see what he's doing. He's been tremendous for us in that leadoff role."

And he's already had an impact in the ALDS. Kinsler, who worked out with his teammates at Tropicana Field on Sunday as preparation for Monday's Game 3 in a series that is even through two games, provided a critical hit late in Saturday's Game 2. The Rangers led 5-3 in the sixth inning when Kinsler delivered two insurance runs. He went the other way for a double and steamed into second base, loudly clapping his hands.

"Any time you can get a hit like that and give our pitchers some breathing room, you're going to be excited," Kinsler said shortly after the game.

It was another example of Kinsler's ability to find the right moment to produce a spark. He does it in numerous ways.

Kinsler's regular-season batting average was .255. But he walked more than anyone else on the team -- 89 times. He scored 121 runs, second only to Curtis Granderson in the American League. And he joined the elite 30-30 club for the second time in his career, stealing 30 bases and hitting a career-high 32 home runs, tying Adrian Beltre for the team lead. Kinsler is one of only 12 players in big league history with multiple seasons of 30 stolen bases and 30 homers.

"The most important thing about leadoff is setting the table for the guys behind me," Kinsler said. "That's it. You have to be able to give them a situation. When you're hitting with runners on base, most guys are better. It makes them focus better. As far as producing runs and all that stuff, I believe I'd be doing that in a different spot in the lineup. The ultimate goal of a hitter is to touch home plate. You can't do that unless you get on base."

Touching home plate became a habit for Kinsler in 2011, and in the process, he set the tone for the offense. Kinsler's style exemplifies what Washington and hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh have worked hard to continue to instill in this Rangers club: versatility. Kinsler can crush a ball deep or create a run with his feet. He's patient enough to draw walks and powerful enough to generate extra-base hits to the gaps.

No other leadoff hitter in the AL had more home runs (32), walks (84 from the No. 1 spot), a better stolen-base percentage (87.5) and runs scored (116 from No. 1 spot) than Kinsler.

"He's a different type of leadoff hitter," David Murphy said. "There's not a whole lot of leadoff hitters that put fear in opposing pitchers the way he does. Some guys, you make a mistake and they could hit a double with maybe a few home runs. You make a mistake to Ian and it could be 1-0 just like that. That's probably one reason he walks as much as he does. He's got a great eye up there, and pitchers fear him. You could argue he could hit more ground balls, but the bottom line is he gets on base. He scores runs."

One of Kinsler's most important roles is being a tone-setter. He starts the entire game offensively for the Rangers, getting the first crack at the opposing pitcher.

"As the first hitter, if you are able to lay off a good pitch, a good off-speed pitch down in the zone and show that patience to the team, I think that carries over whether you make an out or not," Kinsler said. "It shows the recognition of a pitch. If I can do it, everyone else should be able to follow suit. It's the same thing for if I can hit a ball hard or get a hit early. He knows we're coming after him. But the more pitches I see, the more I'm able to relay to the team about what's going on that night and what he has."

The numbers show Kinsler has been more patient this year as the leadoff hitter than last season, when he hit in various spots in the lineup. He saw 3.94 pitches per plate appearance, 22nd-most in the AL. He saw 3.80 last year.

But Kinsler's impact isn't just felt as a catalyst at the top of the lineup. He's also one of the best defensive second basemen in the game. Kinsler is second on the team in defensive runs saved -- 16 -- and is second among second basemen in the AL in that category. He has great instincts and a quick release on double-play balls, and he isn't afraid to stand in and take a hit from a runner to get the extra out.

"His defense has gotten better and better," Washington said. "He works at it and pays attention to the little things. He has instincts on the defensive side of the baseball. He turns a double play as good as anybody I've seen. He keeps the ball in the balanced part of his body and transfers it clean. That allows him to make good throws from different angles. He's one of the top three at his position in the league. It's up to you to line them up how you want, but he's right there with [Dustin] Pedroia and [Robinson] Cano."

Talk to Kinsler's teammates, and you'll find that one quality they feel is underrated is his ability to run the bases.

"He's my favorite guy to watch run the bases because he's fearless," Murphy said. "He's by no means the fastest guy in the league or close to it, but he gets the absolute most out of his speed. He studies the pitcher, and his instincts in all parts of the game are off the charts."

Craig Gentry and Andrus, two of the fastest players on the team and good base stealers, try to emulate Kinsler's ability on the bases.

"He makes so many things happen," said Gentry, who has yet to be caught stealing in his career. "He's aggressive, and he's smart. He knows how to read the pitcher well and when to go."

Gary Pettis, baserunning coach, says Kinsler is the quickest to pick up on the tendencies of a pitcher.

"If I notice something and tell him while he's at first, he could be gone in a pitch or two," Pettis said. "It might take other guys some time to figure it out, but he makes an adjustment and is gone."

Those feet give Kinsler the ability to get into scoring position so that the heart of the Rangers' lineup -- guys like 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton, AL hits leader Michael Young and Beltre -- can drive him in. That is, when Kinsler isn't hitting balls over the fence to drive in runs himself.

"He's got the ability to do so much," Coolbaugh said. "He's a professional hitter and a tremendous all-around player. You think of all the things he does for this team in the field and at the plate, and you've got a valuable player that any team would want to have. I'm glad he's playing for us."

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.