June was magical for Hamilton, Rangers
Team's best month since '78 was result of unstoppable offense, strong all-around play
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- No, it wasn't just the elimination of a toe tap that helped the Texas Rangers dance through June.
Sure, Josh Hamilton's minor swing change -- getting rid of the timing mechanism he had been using just prior to swinging the bat through the zone -- had a lot to do with his monster month, pushing the Rangers to anything but a June swoon. But so did his renewed approach to batting practice, where he tries to spray the ball to all fields and not worry about hitting homers or putting on a show.
"I've focused on not trying to hit the ball too far," Hamilton said. "I'm just squaring the ball up and getting the barrel of the bat on the ball. I've worked at carrying that to the game. More good things than not are going to happen when you do that. I think that's why I've been more consistent."
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Hamilton finished with 49 hits, a .454 batting average, nine homers and 31 RBIs in 27 games in June (he rested one game and just kept hitting). His 23-game hitting streak ended Thursday, as the Rangers lost two of three to the Angels. But that loss counts toward July. And it doesn't diminish what the club did in June to vault to the top of the division.
Texas won 21 games, matching a franchise high set in September 1978, nearly three years before Hamilton was born. The month included an 11-game winning streak, second best in club history. In the process, the Rangers went from one game behind in the American League West to 3½ ahead after Thursday. They were two games over .500 to start the month and finished 17 games over.
Vladimir Guerrero punctuated the best month in club history with two home runs on the final day of June in Angel Stadium against his former team, including a grand slam that vaulted the Rangers into the lead midway through the game.
The final game of June typified the month: a complete effort. The Rangers got enough runs -- thanks to five Guerrero RBIs -- and the pitching settled down after allowing some early runs and held the Angels in a tight game late. That's how you win key games and stay in the playoff hunt.
Hamilton credits the success to the club's ability to focus on every game. That's something that he believes comes from good chemistry, which allows for strong accountability.
"We haven't slacked off during the games," Hamilton said. "Earlier this year, we'd get a lead and get comfortable and kind of give it away a little bit. We haven't done that the past month. You remind yourself in the dugout and you remind each other that the game is still going on. The last out hasn't been made yet."
Michael Young was quick to point out that the entire Rangers lineup has stepped up and that even though the towering homers hit by Hamilton and Guerrero have come at critical times, so have the sacrifice bunts or the guys beating out double-play balls.
"I like the fact that we've really played hard to start with," Young said. "We haven't taken a day off. We've played hard every day and it's been a total team effort. Our pitchers have been competing and we're battling in all of our at-bats. We've shown constant improvement. We need to make sure that continues."
But it's Hamilton who has put up the historic numbers. The 29-year-old slugger is only the second player in the past 50 years to hit over .450 and have at least nine homers and 30 RBIs in one month (Richard Hidalgo did it in September 2000). He's reminded fans of the guy that bashed the ball all over the place in 2008, captivating the nation with his comeback story and homer barrage at Yankee Stadium as part of the All-Star festivities.
That Hamilton wasn't in sight last year, battling a swing change and injuries. But after a slow April, Hamilton began to have better at-bats and was chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone in May. He felt comfortable enough to take out his toe tap mechanism in Chicago at the beginning of June and, maybe not coincidentally, his hitting streak began. He also stopped thinking of batting practice as a place to hit homers and wow fans. Hamilton is all business in the cages now. He tries to hit the ball to all fields and wants to see line drives, not homers.
"I'll still hit balls out, but it's not because I'm trying to," said Hamilton, who added that he wasn't taking this batting practice approach last year or even early this season. "I have that little uppercut in my swing anyway, and if I magnify that in batting practice, it's going to be even bigger in the game."
A gaggle of Rangers has followed Hamilton's lead this month. Guerrero continues to pound the ball and was leading the AL in RBIs after Wednesday's game. He was second on the team (Hamilton is first) in batting average at .339.
But while those two have made the loudest statements this month, Young continues to hit consistently, hitting well over .300.
Elvis Andrus has hit nearly .480 in the past eight games to push his average near the .300 mark. And more important, he's second among full-time leadoff hitters (with more than 50 at-bats) in on-base percentage.
Ian Kinsler has found his power stroke (two homers in the past four games) and has hit well enough the past few weeks to see his average climb toward .300.
Julio Borbon has stepped up after struggling for much of the season and had a huge June, as well. He hit .356 with two homers -- yes, Borbon hit two out -- and 10 RBIs with a .400 on-base percentage. Borbon has used his speed to put pressure on the opponent, and by getting on base has given Young, Kinsler, Hamilton and Guerrero the opportunity to drive him in.
But you can't have a good month in baseball with just a big offense.
"If we want to go a long way like we want to, pitching is going to have to be our backbone," outfielder David Murphy said. "We've got to put up runs, but pitching and defense are the keys. And we've pitched well and played good defense."
The Rangers' pitchers sported a 3.38 ERA in June as opponents hit just .229 against them. The starters had two complete games and went deep into many others, saving the bullpen. And the relieving corps kept the Rangers in close games and didn't have a single blown save (9-for-9 since May 25).
Texas collected these wins against many teams in the lower half of the league in terms of record. Several players pointed out that the Rangers have to win the games on its schedule.
"You have to beat everybody," Murphy said. "If we're there in the end, we didn't do it by just beating up on weaker teams. The standings don't matter in June, but you have to put yourself in position to make a run. To be where we are, we haven't just beaten weak teams. We've beaten everybody. We feel like we can play with anybody."
That will be put to the test this weekend and after the All-Star break. Besides just finishing up with the Angels, the Rangers come home to face the Chicago White Sox, who just had an 11-game winning streak snapped.
Texas faces Boston and Detroit on the road to start the second half and then has 16 games with the AL West before taking on the top three teams in the AL East. All of that happens before the middle of August.
So things stiffen up. The Rangers believe they are up to the challenge.
"We all believe in the guy next to us," Young said. "It's a good clubhouse. Guys come to play every day. Guys push each other every day. Guys see something we feel we can help a teammate out, whether it's pushing him, no one hesitates. It's a great, winning atmosphere."