AL champion Rangers facing hurdles in repeat bid

The shiny championship rings Texas players are still in boxes.

There have been a lot of spiffy improvements to Rangers Ballpark,

too, since their first World Series.

Yet, there is already plenty to tarnish the expectations for the

Rangers less than six months after winning their first American

League pennant.

Just like the days when the Rangers were still also-rans in the

AL West, there seem to be growing concerns about pitching despite

plenty of big bats.

All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre has been added to a lineup

so stacked that Rangers career hits leader Michael Young has been

pushed into the role of the primary designated hitter and dropped

to sixth in the batting order. Josh Hamilton is coming off an AL

MVP season when he led the majors hitting .359, along with 32 home

runs and 100 RBIs.

But ace left-hander Cliff Lee decided not to stay despite a $138

million, six-year offer and instead returned to Philadelphia,

another team he has pitched for in the World Series.

And soon after settling on their Lee-less rotation, and deciding

to keep hard-throwing Neftali Feliz in the bullpen, Tommy Hunter

strained his right groin, Derek Holland had a horrible outing and

C.J. Wilson went only two innings his final Arizona start because

of tightness in his left hamstring.

Wilson, the crafty left-hander who won 15 games last season

after making the transition from the bullpen to the rotation, did

throw some more pitches on the side after coming out Saturday and

still plans to start the season opener at home Friday against

Boston.

But while the weekend will include the debut of the ballpark

upgrades and handing out those rings to fifth-year manager Ron

Washington and his players, it marks the beginning of the Rangers’

bid to return to the World Series.

”We know what it takes to get there now, and we need to win

three more games, that’s it,” said, Lewis 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in

four postseason starts after 12 regular-season wins in his return

from Japan. ”That was the big deal, we know what it takes, we know

what type of grind it is.”

The Rangers had never won a postseason series, or even a home

playoff game, before last season – the 50th in the history of the

franchise that started as the expansion Washington Senators in

1961.

”It’s a confidence builder. We’ve always felt like we could do

it,” Hamilton said. ”We just got to the point where the pitching

stepped up, and our defense and our hitting kind of all worked

together at the same time.”

Ian Kinsler has returned to the leadoff spot after a career-best

.382 on-pace percentage last year while hitting in five different

spots in the order. Elvis Andrus is hitting second, setting up

Hamilton, Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Young, the longest-tenured Ranger

who had requested a trade but seems content now to begin his 11th

season in Texas.

”I think because we lost the World Series, it motivated

everybody to be better,” said Cruz, who hit .318 with 22 homers

last season even while missing 51 games with hamstring

problems.

While Lee was the big midseason acquisition last season, the

Rangers already had a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL West that was the

largest in any of baseball’s six divisions when he arrived from

Seattle. They had taken over first place for good June 8, a day

after losing to Lee.

Lee won the clinching game in the AL division series, but lost

both of his World Series starts, including the Game 5 clincher for

San Francisco exactly five months before Friday’s 2011 opener.

Hunter, 13-4 last season, will open the season on the disabled

list instead of in the rotation for the third straight year.

The decision has already been made on Feliz, and he’s staying as

the closer after setting a major league rookie record with 40 saves

last season. Feliz was stretched out this spring and showed that he

could be a starter, but other relievers struggled so badly this

spring that he remains more valuable in the back-end of the

bullpen.

Reliever Alexi Ogando could fill in as the No. 5 starter for

now, but Texas looks forward to potential help from former NL Cy

Young Award winner Brandon Webb, who is trying to make a comeback

from shoulder surgery that has kept him out since the 2009 season

opener for Arizona. Webb won’t be ready for the start of the

season, but made progress this spring.

Too bad Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan isn’t an option.

While Ryan is long gone from the mound, there is no question

about who is running the Rangers front office.

Ryan, the Rangers’ president since 2008, added the title of CEO

earlier this month after the surprising departure of managing

partner Chuck Greenberg from the team.

Greenberg had been the public face with Ryan of the investment

group that finally acquired the team during an auction last August

after a dramatic bankruptcy court showdown. The team then went to

its first World Series, but Greenberg was gone seven months later

because of growing differences between he, Ryan and board

co-chairmen Ray Davis and Bob Simpson, the team’s two biggest

financial investors.