110.

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The magic number is 110.

 

And it may be 109 by night’s end.  Seattle’s Jose Lopez just
hit a three-run home run off Angels closer Brian Fuentes with two outs in the
top of the ninth, erasing a 3-0 Angels lead.  After Los Angeles failed to
score in the bottom half, the clubs are headed to extra
innings.

 

Coming off tonight’s 14-1 blasting of the A’s,
Texas can win
its 21st game of the month tomorrow, something that’s happened once
in franchise history – in September 1978.  Kevin Millwood gets the chance to
earn that victory tomorrow afternoon – in which case he’d match the club’s
leading winner, Brandon McCarthy.

 

Yeah, you figured Brandon McCarthy would be leading the
league’s best team in wins two months into the
season.

 

I thought it might be kind of entertaining to look back
on something I wrote 103 days ago, on February 16.  Courtesy of your resident
Rangers homer:

 

I’m not here to tell you that 2009
is the Rangers’ year, but since there are local columnists out there trying to
tell you that there’s nothing worth looking forward to, let me suggest that
there are plenty of realistic reasons to believe that 2009 can be meaningfully
better than 2008′s 79-win, second-place finish:

 

1. Despite all the pitching
injuries, Texas was on an 85-77 pace when Ian Kinsler
and David Murphy were last in the lineup together early in August.  Even an
average season from a team health standpoint has to be worth a few
wins.

 

2. Mike
Maddux.

 

3. Kevin Millwood is pitching to
vest a 2010 contract that he’ll never get on the open market, and if he doesn’t
reach 180 innings, he’s in the same boat as Vicente Padilla, pitching for what
should be the final multi-year contract of his career. 

 

4. A full year of Chris
Davis.

 

5. Nelson Cruz hit .356/.448/.667 in
September.  Hank Blalock hit .337/.385/.695 in September (prompting one scout to
tell
Sports Illustrated‘s
Jon Heyman that he was “the best hitter I saw in the second half”).  They had
the top two OPS figures in the American League among hitters with at least 100
plate appearances for the month.  A full season from Cruz and a healthy one from
Blalock could be big.

 

6. Guess who led the league in
batting average in September (among hitters with 100 plate appearances or
more)?  Would you believe Josh Hamilton, who local columnists decided from the
Cowboys press box had a terrible second half?  Hamilton’s home run total dropped off after his
momentous All-Star Break (22 before, 11 after), but after his explosive
.310/.367/.552 first half, he did hit a healthy .296/.376/.498 in the second
half, boosted by his .366/.443/.516 September.  That September clip was his best
monthly batting average of the season.

 

There’s probably a way to create
splits that will show what Hamilton’s output was in the 114 games that
Milton Bradley hit fourth, as opposed to the 48 games he didn’t.  I bet the
disparity was significant.  Answering the question of who will fill the cleanup
void is high on the list this camp, but if Cruz or Blalock can produce the way
he did at the end of the season, we’re talking.  (Yes, you’d prefer to go
left-right in the three-four spots, but Hamilton hit .288/.342/.459 and Blalock hit
.277/.337/.566 against lefties in 2008.  Not
terrible.)

 

As for Hamilton, a year without
all the draining road trip press conferences, without a book to write, with a
better idea of how to condition himself for the duration?  (Chances are he’ll
also have a long-term deal in place before the season starts.)  It’s reasonable
to think he’s set up to approach the production he gave this team in
2008.

 

7. The defense will be better at
first base.  I believe it will be better at second base.  I have enough faith in
Michael Young’s skill set and how he’ll attack his program for the next six
weeks to believe that Young and an Andrus/Omar Vizquel tandem at shortstop will
mean better defense on the left side than the combination of Young and eight
third basemen were in 2008.

 

8. Young at the plate?  Ten unbroken
fingers rather than eight.  Bet on the numbers bouncing
back.

 

9. Mark Teixeira, Francisco
Rodriguez, and Jon Garland out.  Bobby Abreu, Brian Fuentes, and Dustin Moseley
in.

 

10. The bullpen?  Frankie Francisco
started last season in AAA.  He starts this season coming off 13 straight
dominant appearances (1-0, 0.00, five saves in five chances, 21 strikeouts and
four walks in 12.2 innings, four hits [.093 opponents' batting average]). 

 

C.J. Wilson wasn’t healthy.  Now he
is. 

 

Does Eddie Guardado have anything
left?  It didn’t look like it a year ago, and all he did for four months was get
outs.  Derrick Turnbow?  Willie Eyre?  Don’t know, but it’s not as if Joaquin
Benoit gave this team much in 2008.

 

Worried about filling the void
created by the departure of Jamey Wright?  In two of his final three months last
season his ERA was over 8.00.  No reason Donnelly, who is here on a non-roster
deal (just like Wright was in each of his two Rangers seasons), can’t come in
and give this team as much as Wright did in the second half of 2007 and the
first half of 2008.

 

More innings out of the starters
would mean a less brutal workload than Wright and Josh Rupe were put through
last year.  That would be good news for Rupe, who was as good as anyone in
Rangers relief in May and June (2.12 ERA) but struggled in the second half (6.44
ERA).

 

Don’t rule out a surprise emergence
from someone like lefthander Joe Torres.  Ron Mahay and Brian Shouse were
longshot journeymen brought to camp on non-roster deals once upon a time, too,
and look at them now.

 

I’m not ignoring Warner Madrigal or
Dustin Nippert or Kason Gabbard.  Thomas Diamond or John Bannister could figure
in at some point as well.

 

11. I have more confidence in the
23-year-old Saltalamacchia than I did the 22-year-old version.  And I love the
idea of Teagarden growing with, and helping shepherd, the young pitchers who
have arrived or are on the way.

 

12. It can’t get worse for Brandon
McCarthy.  He’s the poster child for the organization’s new expectations of its
pitchers.

 

13. Matt Harrison in his nine wins
(over only three months): 2.75 ERA, opponents’ line of .241/.299/.382, nearly
twice as many strikeouts (33) as walks (17).  In his six losses and
no-decisions: 12.04 ERA, opponents’ line of .416/.469/.788, more walks (14) than
strikeouts (nine).  He’ll be just 23 almost all season.  Some more consistency
from the lefthander could mean big things.

 

14. Holland will be here at some point in 2009. 
Feliz might be, too.

 

15. Ben
Sheets?

 

16. This is going to be true this
summer, and next winter, and every summer and winter in the foreseeable future:
If this club is in the hunt, or feels it’s one or two impact players away from
making serious noise, no team is better positioned to offer high-end prospects
to get a major trade done. 

 

17. I won’t put Andruw Jones on this
list, because I suggested at the top that these were realistic expectations for
improvement.  Never know, but I’m not counting on Jones making this team, or
making a big impact if he does break camp on the
roster.

 

18. This team simply has to have a
better April.  Its record through the end of the first month in the two Ron
Washington seasons is 20-33 – which is a .377 win percentage, or a 61-win pace. 

 

Why does that change in 2009? 
Several factors to consider: (1) Texas opens at home this year, after opening on
the road the previous two; (2) Texas plays more home games than road games this
April, after the opposite the previous two; (3) of the 22 games on the club’s
April schedule, three are against a team that had a winning record in 2008.  And
that team’s winter has been highlighted by the loss of A.J. Burnett and the
addition of Keith Millar on a minor league
contract.

 

But the biggest reason to
realistically believe that April 2009 will be better is that is has to be.  The
Rangers showed some character when their backs were against the wall in May last
year, with major changes reportedly imminent, and in any number of games
throughout the season when they came back to win in dramatic fashion.  In a
sense, their backs are against the wall coming right out of the gate this year. 
Another bad April will mean a new manager in May.  These guys love playing for
Ron Washington.  They know he’s got to have a good start to survive, and that’s
on the players.

 

Better defense in April is
imperative.  Better pitching is, too, obviously, and we can hope that one
offshoot of the stricter off-season conditioning programs and the more
challenging spring training regimens will be that the starting pitchers in
particular will break camp ready to roll.  Even the offense is responsible for a
better start: April was the Rangers’ worst month in terms of OPS last year, and
their second worst in 2007.

 

Hamilton is saying 90 wins is within reach.  Ryan suggests
this team should win at least 87.  But those are just numbers.  You don’t run
out of the dugout on April 6 or April 17 or June 8 thinking, “We’re playing like
an 87-win team tonight.”  You go to war with a mindset like the one Hamilton articulated this
weekend: “We know we have to start off better.  It’s about starting with
intensity from the very beginning, not wait until you get down and get the fire
in [you].”

 

Does a better April mean a better
season?  Not by definition, but it sets a tone, and forges a momentum.  In the
last seven seasons, Texas has had two winning Aprils, in 2004 and
2006.  Those were the only years in that stretch when the Rangers won at least
80 games.

 

Again, I’m not counting on a playoff
berth in 2009.  But for the four local TV sportscasts, three of which apparently
won’t even send a crew to Surprise in the next six weeks, and some of the
Metroplex’s general columnists, the Rangers are a handy punch line.  Given how
uninformed (and disinterested) those opinion-makers are, the joke to me is not
the subject matter, but the messenger.

 

Everyone who pays attention agrees
that this organization is headed in the right direction, though not everyone
agrees on the timetable.  Even if 2009 doesn’t extend past October 4, there’s a
very real chance that this season will be better than the last, and that
shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

You know this thing is cooking when even
I underestimated the
possibilities.

 

 

You can read more from Jamey
Newberg
at www.NewbergReport.com.

 

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