Rangers’ Hamilton in league of his own

BALTIMORE — Walking out of Camden Yards, Rangers catcher Mike Napoli still couldn’t believe what he had just seen.

“It was like a video game — stupid,” Napoli said. “He’s 5A, 6A. There’s Triple A, the big leagues and then there’s one ahead. He’s in that league.”

The Josh Hamilton League.

A league in which Hamilton made the 16th four-homer game in major league history look so easy, the only surprise was that he didn’t hit five.

The one time the left-handed Hamilton failed to hit a homer — in his third at-bat — he crushed a double to right-center off Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta.

“He just missed that one,” Rangers left fielder David Murphy said after Texas’ 10-3 victory Tuesday. “He put topspin on that ball. That easily could have been a home run.”

Five home runs, imagine.

Hamilton settled for four two-run shots instead.

This was not a night to lament what Hamilton might have become if he had not lost years of his career to injuries, addictions and suspensions.

Nor was it a night to predict what he might earn on the free-agent market next offseason if the Rangers fail to sign him to a new contract.

This was a night to celebrate one of the most gifted athletes ever to play the game, to revel in who he is, right now.

Hamilton’s five extra-base hits tied a major league record. His 18 total bases set an American League record. In his last six at-bats, including his final one Monday night, he has five homers, one double and 10 RBI.

The Rangers, at 20-10, are the best team in baseball, bursting with talent. Yet Hamilton’s teammates speak of him as if he hails from an alien species, hold him in absolute awe.

“Most talented player I’ve ever played with,” said infielder Michael Young, who once was teammates with Alex Rodriguez. “Most incredible individual performance I’ve ever seen.”

A week ago, the consensus in baseball was that Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp was the best player in the game. Well, Hamilton is now batting .406/.458/.840 while Kemp is at .404/.488/.817.

Naturally, the Rangers favor Hamilton.

“Hands-down for sure,” shortstop Elvis Andrus said. “He can do everything. I haven’t seen that much power from another hitter. And he’s fast — faster than me. That’s too much talent for one guy. And he knows how to use it.”

On Tuesday night, Hamilton used it in a way that inspired the crowd of 11,263 at Camden Yards to salute his fourth homer with a standing ovation.

Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre was in the on-deck circle. Young was in the “hole,” next in line. As Hamilton’s fourth homer sailed over the center-field wall, Young strode to the on-deck circle and hugged Beltre.

They said the exact same thing at the exact same time.

“Holy s—! Holy s—!”

* * *

Hamilton had never hit three homers in a game — and come to think of it, three homers and a double would have made for a pretty good night.

But after Hamilton hit his fourth homer, he looked into the Rangers’ dugout as he rounded second base and saw his teammates erupting with joy.

“It reminds of you when you’re in Little League, a little kid, just the excitement, why we play the game,” Hamilton said.

You ask: How does a player do it? How does a slugger, even one as gifted as Hamilton, hit four home runs on a single night?

Hamilton’s answer, believe it or not, is by not trying.

On Monday, before the first game of the series, he took early batting practice. Hit really well. Took regular batting practice. Kept hitting well.

He was feeling it, getting in a groove. And he started taking bigger and bigger swings, trying to hit the ball farther and farther.

As so often happens, he carried that approach into the game, and then went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and two walks in his first five plate appearances.

He looked at some video, and before his final at-bat — with two outs in the ninth inning and the Rangers leading, 12-3 — Hamilton said to himself, “Just try to make contact. Put a good swing on it. Stay small.”

Bingo. Two-run homer off right-hander Jason Berken.

On Tuesday, early rains prevented the Rangers from taking batting practice on the field, forcing Hamilton to work in an indoor batting cage.

In retrospect, a good thing.

“I didn’t see where balls were going. I think that helped a lot,” Hamilton said. “I stayed small, stayed short. I didn’t try to get too big, hit the ball far.”

His first at-bat against Arrieta set the tone, leaving his teammates dumbfounded.

The Rangers had not faced Arrieta since April 9, 2011. Arrieta, Young said, has a “great curveball.” No matter.

Hamilton hit a first-pitch curveball over the center-field wall.

“That showed us right there, he was locked in,” Young said.

Hamilton’s second homer, to left, came on a 2-0, 93-mph sinker from Arrieta. He then hit a double off Arrieta on a 2-1 curveball, and his third homer, to center, off left-hander Zach Phillips on an 0-1 slider.

“Normally he hits home runs to right-center field and right field,” Beltre said. “Today he was hitting them oppo and straight-up center field. You knew something was up.”

Hamilton, though, wasn’t giving any of it much thought.

“I’m the best player when I get out of my own way, just play and don’t try to over-analyze anything,” he said.

Almost all of the great ones take that approach.

But Hamilton’s teammates were watching, analyzing, growing increasingly excited as they witnessed history.

As manager Ron Washington would say later, Hamilton “barreled” everything that he swung at.

Everything.

“The fourth at-bat, I knew he was locked in, but there was a lefty on the mound,” Murphy said. “Not that he struggles against lefties, but it’s not as much of a guarantee.

“After he hit the third one, I knew if they would pitch to him in his fifth at-bat that he would hit another one. I’ve never seen him that focused.”

* * *

The Orioles pitched to Hamilton in the eighth.

Pitched to him while trailing 8-1 with one out and a runner on first. Got ahead of him 0-2, in fact, with former Rangers reliever Darren O’Day, a right-hander, on the mound.

Hamilton had swung through an 86-mph fastball for strike one, fouled off a 78-mph slider for strike two.

“I was surprised he didn’t throw him another fastball up in his eyes,” Murphy said. “I didn’t realize it until I saw it in on TV. I saw the catcher set up away. I thought back-door slider, for sure.

“I can’t believe he threw him a fastball. Obviously, they’re not trying to catch a whole lot of plate there. But pitchers make mistakes. Anything in the strike zone to him tonight was a mistake.”

O’Day, speaking to the Orioles’ beat writers, said it was worse than a mistake.

“I can say it was the worst pitch of my career,” O’Day said. “Guy’s already got three bombs and I had him 0-2 and I throw it right over the middle. I couldn’t have soft-tossed it any better. I’d like that one back, for sure.”

Yet, here’s the thing to remember: The game isn’t easy.

We often say that fielders have great range. Orioles manager Buck Showalter, in a private moment afterward, said that Hamilton is a hitter with great range, capable of hitting pitches wherever they are thrown.

Showalter also made another point.

“Great hitters create anxiety in pitchers that make them make mistakes,” he said. “You’re trying to throw the best breaking ball you can, and you get under it and spin it. You try to throw your best fastball, and it straightens out.”

O’Day didn’t throw the ball where he wanted. Hamilton took one last gorgeous swing. Home run No. 4, lifted over the center-field wall.

Andrus, who scored four runs on Hamilton’s homers — and another on Hamilton’s shot the previous night — ran around the bases “like a little kid.”

“In BP, you can’t hit four in a row,” Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz said. “Maybe four in 10 swings.”

Well, Hamilton now has (beginital)five(endital) in his past 10 swings, and not in batting practice — in games.

“Write good stuff!” he told reporters cheerfully when his postgame news conference was over.

Alas, there’s no way to fully capture it.

The Josh Hamilton League is best experienced live.