ARLINGTON, Texas -- Robinson Cano leads the American League Championship Series with a .421 batting average, and Cliff Lee seems to make the world stand still every time he takes the mound. But the best name, best range and best hair in the series all belong to Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus.
The hair -- a bird's nest of self-expression -- spills out after the ninth inning when Andrus removes his cap and stands at his locker dissecting each day's game with reporters. In a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Andrus singled three times to raise his series average to .364, stole a base and ranged halfway to the bleachers to make a defensive play on Derek Jeter in the first inning.
That was the good news. Andrus also was picked off second base by Kerry Wood in the seventh inning, taking the starch out of a Texas comeback bid. It was the type of play that reminds you that, for all of Andrus' wondrous skills, he still has a ways to go.
"He's got a high kick, and every time I see a pitcher with a high kick, I've got a chance to steal," Andrus said after the game. "Today, he got me. That happens when I'm too aggressive. I have to be smarter on that play, and learn from my mistake and keep going."
At 22, Andrus embodies a lot of things worth liking about Texas, a team long on athleticism, brimming with confidence, and excited about both the short- and long-term future. And why not be excited? The Rangers have a 3-2 lead in the series, and they'll send team strikeout leader Colby Lewis to the mound Friday night against Phil Hughes, a pitcher they battered in Game 2. If the Rangers fail to win the sixth game, they'll have Jedi Master Lee waiting in reserve for the finale Saturday night.
Although the focus naturally falls on Lee, AL MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton, Cano, or the Yankees' core four of Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, Andrus has shown he's capable of making memorable plays on the big stage. He wowed the Yankee Stadium crowd in Game 4 when he ranged to his right and made an off-balance throw to third base to nail Cano and help snuff out a big inning for New York. It was a breathtaking blend of athletic skill and field awareness.
Andrus can beat opponents with his speed, too. His biggest play of the postseason came early in Game 5 of the division series, when he scored from second base on a Hamilton ground ball to give Texas a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay and send the Rangers on their way to the ALCS.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Andrus was the first player to score from second on an infield out in a postseason game since Baltimore outfielder Paul Blair did it against Cincinnati in Game 5 of the 1970 World Series. In the 2010 regular season, Atlanta's Jason Heyward, Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips and Toronto's John McDonald were the only players to achieve the feat.
It was no accident. Andrus has showmanship in his genes, and he's always looking for an opening.
"Before that game, he told me, 'Let's go out and make everybody here say, "I can't stand that guy,"'" Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland said. "He wants to go out and do stuff that really catches your eye, and it just comes natural to him. It's second nature for him to go out and make a diving play. He has a lot of fun doing it, and he makes it fun for us, too."
Or, as Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler says of Andrus, "He was in the big leagues at 20 for a reason. He's got a great baseball heart."
I won't lie -- this year has been a tough year, a challenging year for me. But that's what I like. I like to be challenged.
”-- Elvis Andrus
Andrus developed an appreciation for defensive acrobatics as a youth in his native Venezuela. "For 90 percent of the kids my age, Omar Vizquel was the guy," he said. Then Andrus celebrated his 15th birthday, his horizons expanded and he added Jeter to his list of personal favorites.
The Rangers made a spirited run at Andrus when he was a 16-year-old amateur but lost out to the Atlanta Braves, who signed him to a bonus of more than $500,000. But Andrus made a lasting impression on the Texas front-office people and scouts, who got to know him personally while courting him in his teen years.
A.J. Preller, Texas' senior director of player personnel, was among the Rangers officials in Venezuela checking out Andrus at the time. Each night, the Rangers would spend time with potential signees at a local beach resort, and Preller remembers Andrus relaxing in an easy chair and conversing with team officials in his native Spanish. He was quite the social animal.
"Whatever the 'it' factor is, he has it," Preller said. "Just the comfort level he had in talking to a general manager, an assistant general manager or a scouting director -- it was pretty special for a young kid. Nothing fazed him."
When the Braves decided to make a run at the 2007 National League East title, they acquired All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira from Texas for Andrus; catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia; and pitchers Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones. As much as it pained the Braves to trade Andrus, they appeared to have the shortstop position covered with Yunel Escobar, who hit for more power than Andrus and was further along in the developmental process.
In hindsight, the Braves surely would like a do-over. They grew tired of Escobar's inattentive play this season and packed him off to Toronto for 33-year-old Alex Gonzalez in July. Meanwhile, Andrus finished second to Oakland reliever Andrew Bailey in the 2009 rookie of the year race and made the All-Star team this season. He fell off in the second half, hitting only .247 with a .592 OPS after the break, but is advanced enough to realize that his struggles can be an important step in the maturation process.
"As a player, I always wanted to be the main guy that everybody watched or followed and would do exciting things," Andrus said. "I won't lie -- this year has been a tough year, a challenging year for me. But that's what I like. I like to be challenged."
Andrus is becoming a favorite of Texas fans, who have grown accustomed to the public-address system playing "All Shook Up" when he cranks out another base hit. In answer to the obvious question, Andrus was not named after Elvis Presley. His late father, Emilio, and his mother, Elvia, named their daughter Emily and their three sons Erikson, Erold and Elvis. Maybe it's bad karma for a shortstop to be so indelibly linked to the letter "E," but the name is now part and parcel of Andrus' professional identity.
Before Andrus takes the field in the first inning of each game, he scrawls his father's name in the dirt in tribute. He has found a surrogate father in Texas in the person of manager Ron Washington, who -- when he was a coach in Oakland -- was a mentor to Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez and is now applying that same brand of tough love to Andrus.
"Wash won't let Elvis get away with anything," one Rangers official said. "It's like a father-son thing. It's pretty funny to watch."
There's no communication gap in this relationship. In his first two professional seasons, Andrus' grasp of the English language consisted of the words "hey" and "bye." Then he joined Myrtle Beach in the Class A Carolina League and willed himself to become fluent in English. Andrus developed a fondness for country music, and he has beefed up his vocabulary with help from his new friends Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts.
"It's the perfect music you can understand," Andrus said. "If I listen to hip-hop, that's too fast for me."
Although Andrus' teammates love him for his enthusiasm and gregarious nature, they're not entirely sold on his motives.
"I don't think Elvis really likes country music," Kinsler said. "I think the only reason he listens to it is for the American girls."
As we said earlier, the kid is always on the lookout for an opening.