Statistically speaking, Josh Hamilton is Matt Kemp.
Entering Monday, here were Hamilton’s Triple Crown numbers and rank in the American League: .395 average (second), nine home runs (first) and 25 RBI (first).
And Kemp in the National League: .425 (first), 11 home runs (first) and 24 RBI (tied for first).
Hamilton’s Rangers were 16-6, best record in the league. Kemp’s Dodgers were 16-6, best record in the league. I could go on, but you get the idea: They are the elite players on the top clubs in Major League Baseball.
Well, Hamilton didn’t play Monday. It was his first absence of the season. He has an injured back muscle, and the Rangers don’t know when he will return.
A similar absence for Kemp would debilitate the Dodgers. As great as Clayton Kershaw is, as impressive as Andre Ethier has been this year, the Dodgers would be mediocre without their superstar center fielder.
The Rangers? Yu Darvish spun seven brilliant innings, and Texas never trailed in a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ron Washington’s team had every reason to take an honorable loss in this particular game. The Rangers played Sunday night in Texas and didn’t arrive at their Toronto hotel until 5:30 a.m. Monday. The artificial surface at Rogers Centre has been known to brutalize knees and backs, a particular concern for Adrian Beltre considering his recent left hamstring strain. And they were without perhaps the best player in the American League.
The perfect rationale existed for the Rangers to coast on this stride of the 162-game march.
Except . . .
“That’s really not the way this team is wired,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “If we’ve got nine innings to play, then we’re going to try to beat you. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, what time we got in, where we’ve got to go. That’s just the way we play the game. I think we proved that today.”
The Rangers proved something else Monday: They remain the most balanced team in baseball. As if to underscore that point, Moreland and Craig Gentry — the eighth and ninth batters — socked back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning.
Gentry replaced Hamilton in center field. For one day, at least, he hit like Hamilton, too.
Through that lens, it’s easy to see why Darvish’s transition to the majors has been so seamless: The players around him are really, really good. Darvish doesn’t need to be great. Perhaps as a result, he’s been something close to it: 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA. The Rangers have won each of his five starts.
Darvish said through an interpreter that he was well aware of his teammates’ fatigue after their early-morning arrival. “I said to myself, ‘I want to give the team seven or eight innings,’ ” Darvish said. But if he felt any pressure to do so, he didn’t show it. He seemed at ease, pitching in an indoor stadium that he later compared to the Osaka Dome and Nagoya Dome in Japan.
“I don’t expect him to go 32-0,” Washington said. “But the thing about him, he will keep us in ballgames. That’s what we want. The nights his stuff isn’t as effective, I feel like he has enough pitches to maybe still get around (the lineup).
“It helps that he has, in my opinion, a tremendous defense behind him. It helps that he has two superior catchers. It helps that he knows what he’s doing. That combination right there is what you’re seeing.”
Washington observed that Darvish’s arm action was “consistent on every single pitch he threw” in Monday’s game. That’s significant. Often, pitchers telegraph what they are throwing with subtle mechanical variances in their deliveries. If Darvish doesn’t do that, then he will remain an eight-pitch enigma to American League hitters well into the second half.
It would be difficult to describe Darvish’s first month in the big leagues as something other than an unqualified success — in contrast to, say, the early weeks of the marriage between the Angels and Albert Pujols. If there is any surprise with the Rangers, it’s the absence of aftershocks from the crushing defeat in last year’s World Series. The team is a joy to watch, whether or not Darvish is on the mound, and whether or not Hamilton is in the lineup.
Until Hamilton returns, Gentry and the reliable David Murphy will see more at-bats, Michael Young will slide into the No. 3 spot, and Beltre (3-for-5 Monday on a gimpy leg) will become even more vital. The at-bats will be so professional, one after the other, that a casual observer might not notice the absence of a five-tool talent.
(By comparison, patrons at Dodger Stadium would be grief-stricken if someone other than No. 27 batted third in Don Mattingly’s lineup.)
“We know how to make do,” Young said. “This team doesn’t focus on things that go bad. We focus on what we have to do to win a game that night. Simple as that. We’ve played in big games. We know how to deal with these kinds of things. It doesn’t sneak up on us.”
Because I would hate for something to sneak up on you, I’ll end with this: The 2001 Seattle Mariners, who hold the AL record with 116 victories, were 19-4 after 23 games. The Rangers are only two games off that pace. Might want to keep an eye on that.