Club's first half among hot topics in Houston this week
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
Alfonso Soriano and Hank Blalock (right) share a laugh on Monday in Houston. (Charles Krupa/AP)
HOUSTON -- For the previous three seasons, Alex Rodriguez was the most recognizable face for the Rangers at the Midsummer Classic.
Those days are only a year removed, but they seem a lifetime away.
Hank Blalock, Francisco Cordero, Kenny Rogers, Alfonso Soriano, and Michael Young -- the faces of the future, and one from the past -- have transformed the second-oldest franchise in the Lone Star State into a first-place team with more than a lone star.
"We traded away Alex and lost a bunch of players through free agency, and when you do that, you really don't know what's going to happen," Rogers, 39, said. "But I think it gave a lot of young players an opportunity and they seized it. They went out and showed the people what they are capable of doing. These guys are out there to make their mark, and I'm happy they have done that. In turn, it has made us a better ballclub."
Young and Cordero are making their first All-Star appearance, while Rogers and Blalock are making their second appearance. Soriano is playing in his third All-Star Game.
All five players addressed the media Monday afternoon, and plan on participating in all the All-Star festivities available, not the least of which is the game Tuesday.
"It's been pretty overwhelming so far," said Young, who brought his wife and parents to Houston. "I'm trying to take the advice that everyone has laid out for me, and that's to soak it all in and have a good time. I'm enjoying the first part of it, and I have two more days to make the most of my experience."
The Rangers have made the most of their first half. The club came into the All-Star break in first-place with a two-game lead over Oakland in the American League West.
Along with the annual Home Run Derby and Astros pitcher Rogers Clemens, the Rangers have been a hot topic of conversation in the Bayou City.
To call them one of the surprises of the 2004 season is an understatement.
Michael Young / SS
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"It's not the fault of anybody that we surprised people, because when you look at our division, it's so talented," Young said. "I think everybody was expecting Anaheim to play well with the great additions they made, and you can never count out Oakland with the pitching they have. I think everybody expected those teams to make the most noise, and we kind of slept under the radar a little bit.
"The biggest thing is we are not finished yet. We have to improve and get better each game this year. When we go out on the field, we expect to win and that's something I hope we can keep going through the second half of season."
But before the second half of the season begins, the five All-Stars are going to enjoy their time in Houston. Rogers was all smiles and somewhat paternal as he addressed local and national reporters. Blalock, the hero of the 2003 All-Star Game in Chicago, appeared comfortable in the spotlight -- for once -- and stroked his goatee like a new toy after most of his answers.
Soriano, as usual, did not hide his glee for life, and Young acted ... like Michael Young -- calm and collected, yet unable to hide a childish grin.
Francisco Cordero / P
Weight: 200 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
As for Cordero, he was so eager to get to Houston he made the four-hour drive from Arlington with his brothers not long after arriving in town from Boston on Sunday night.
The Rangers closer made it to Houston at approximately 6 a.m., and said part of the reason he drove was to spend time with his family in preparation of one of the most adventurous two days in his career, so far.
Funny thing is, not long after he arrived, Cordero said he felt like he was at home.
"This feels like I'm in the Texas Rangers clubhouse, with us sitting next to each other, talking and laughing," Cordero said. "It's a great feeling to be here and have four of my teammates with me. There are a lot of people in baseball and out of baseball -- really everybody -- who is surprised with us. They were expecting the Texas Rangers to be left behind, but we are not."
Blalock echoed Cordero's sentiments and had a feeling the Rangers were going to be better than many believed as early as Spring Training. His belief in the team increased with each game -- and each win.
The five All-Star selections are a result of individual accomplishments, but also the team's success, he said.
"Everybody knew we had players who could go out and be competitive," Blalock said. "It was just a matter of if we could put it together. Everybody knows we can do more things in the future, and we expect our second half to be just as strong, if not stronger, than the first half."
For the Rangers to continue their success, the effective pitching cannot stop. Rogers, who is in his third stint with the club, has paced the Rangers staff with a 12-3 record and a 4.19 ERA. Cordero has 27 saves in 29 opportunities.
"When I first got here, I thought we had a chance to surprise a few people, but then we made a few trades and I was concerned, without a doubt," Rogers said. "You never know what's going to happen or unfold during the season and I'm happy to say it has worked out."
That too, is an understatement.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.