ARLINGTON, Texas -- It seems that every time the American League West race has tightened or the Texas Rangers haven't played up to their capabilities, they've found a way to win a big game or a crucial series.
"That's why we're the best team in the AL right now, up to this point," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "I hope y'all don't forget that."
Texas reminded anyone who wasn't sure with a critical win over the pesky Oakland A's on Thursday.
It wasn't easy. The Rangers jumped out to a 5-0 lead -- Kinsler set the tone with a smash over the left-field wall on the second pitch he saw in the game -- and then had to hang on as the A's scored runs late to tighten things. In the end, it was a 9-7 victory that lowered the magic number to three and pushed the AL West lead back up to four games. It's a nice cushion to have with just six games left in the 2012 season. Texas sits on the cusp of its third consecutive AL West crown.
"We want to respond," Kinsler said. "We want to be a team that's tough to put away. Other teams know we're very good, but they also know that our chemistry is very good also. They have to fight through that, too. We're going to fight to the end."
Kinsler's words are telling. He knows there's a sense among the fan base and the media that this Rangers team hasn't played to its capabilities depite having the best record in the AL. But while outsiders nitpick a club that now has 92 wins and is vying for a third consecutive trip to the World Series, the guys inside the clubhouse and the coaching staff maintain an even keel.
"They've always given a response," manager Ron Washington said. "Every time people decide to jump off our little submarine, we resurface. You can jump off, but you can't get back on."
Did Kinsler need to remind himself that the Rangers were the best team in the AL?
"No. Never," Kinsler said. "I've known we're the best team since April."
That's when the Rangers built a 6 1/2-game lead in the AL West and forced the Los Angeles Angels to play catch-up the rest of the season. But it was the way the Rangers played in April -- scoring tons of runs, getting shutdown starting pitching and playing crisp defense -- that set an extremely high bar in 2012. Frankly, they haven't reached that bar since, which might be why there's been some angst among the fan base.
They've always given a response. Every time people decide to jump off our little submarine, we resurface.
”-- Rangers manager Ron Washington
But just because they haven't clicked on all cylinders for parts of the season doesn't mean they aren't a championship contender. Every team has its warts. The reality is the Rangers head into the final week of the season as the deepest team. They can score with anyone, have the best bullpen in the league, and have a playoff rotation consisting of pitchers who can pitch deep and keep their team in the game. The question, as it is with any team, is whether they can put that package together consistently this time of year. But you have to have the ingredients to do that -- and the Rangers do.
They've also got one trait that gives them an advantage these days: experience.
It's a veteran group that knows what it takes to make the postseason down the stretch and then do something once it gets there.
Michael Young says that's because the Rangers stay in the moment.
"We're really good at making sure we focus on today's game," Young said. "The last two games weren't even on our minds. We know what it means to go out there and win. We know how to win. We know how to play in big games. The last two games went their way. They played well today. But we wanted to win a ballgame today and we did it."
They did it with the bats swinging early and often. The clutch hitting that was absent the past week showed up Thursday. Texas was 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position after going 3-for-20 in the first three games of the series. The Rangers scored five two-out runs, and every time the A's scored early in the game, the Rangers answered to keep the lead. That was important when things got close late.
It helps when you've become a team that knows how to handle the moment when the pressure is highest. Thursday was just the latest example. On Aug. 1, down six runs early to the Angels and in danger of seeing the AL West lead slip to two games, the Rangers made a furious comeback to win 11-10 in 10 innings. It was a springboard for the club, which then built a 6 1/2-game lead over the next 10 days as the Angels went the opposite direction. The Rangers lost to Cleveland on Sept. 1 and saw the lead dip to just three games, but then they won seven of the next 10 to keep the A's at arm's length. A few weeks ago, the lead went to just two games for the first time since the second week of the season, but the Rangers answered with a 2-1 victory in Seattle and then a series win over the Angels in Anaheim.
They've been in front since the season started and they've made sure to stay there.
"They believe in each other," Washington said. "We know we can play. We knew it wasn't going to be easy when those guys came in here. The worst we were looking for is a split. They can play, also. We got what we wanted and we'll move on."
Moving on means trying to beat the Angels and clinching a third straight division title as soon as possible.
"As long as there's baseball on the schedule, we'll play," Washington said. "It's not always the best team that wins. It's the team that plays the best. They played two games better than we did, and we played two games better than they did. We know it's a 162-game schedule. We wish we could have gotten some games earlier, but you can't look back. You can only look forward."
That's something this team has become very good at doing.