ARLINGTON -- The "hot foot" prank was big in Spring Training for the Rangers this year. Players were sneaking around everywhere, trying to light unsuspecting teammates' shoes on fire.

It's an old baseball prank and the Rangers were going crazy with it. Then somebody went a bit too far. They targeted pitching coach Mike Maddux.

"Somebody thought he was fair game," reliever C.J. Wilson said. "The next day, Mike had their shoes on the table and they were completely torched. The shoes were completely melted ... melted into sandals. He destroyed them."

Message received. The first-year Rangers pitching coach knows how to get a point across, and there were many to make in Spring Training. Over the past nine seasons, Texas' pitchers knew a little something about getting torched.

Maddux, after six years as the Brewers' pitching coach, took over a staff that had finished last in the American League in pitching in 2008 for the fourth time in nine years. Over a nine-year run from 2000-08, under six different pitching coaches, the Rangers had the highest team ERA in the Major Leagues at 5.14 while giving up the most hits and the second-most walks. Last season's ERA was 5.37.

Yet this season, after a doubleheader sweep over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, the Rangers are fifth in the AL in pitching with a team ERA of 4.23 and had allowed the fifth-fewest baserunners per nine innings.

"They are pitching incredible," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I think every team that's successful has to have good pitching. And Texas has shown if you build a staff that goes out there and does the job, then your team can go out there and win a lot of games."

The Rangers have finished with a losing record in eight of the past nine years, mainly because their pitching was so bad. But now here they are in September with a chance to run down either the Angels in the AL West or the Red Sox in the AL Wild Card race.

"These guys are learning the value of command," Maddux said. "Controlling the baseball and pitching ahead. They have a plan on what they want to do with each hitter and in certain counts. It's always good to have a plan, and guys having the ability to throw three pitches for strikes allows you to do that.

"These guys have really bought into that."

Rangers pitchers had reason to buy into it in Spring Training. Maddux was hand-picked by club president Nolan Ryan, who was determined to change Texas' history of bad pitching. Maddux had success in Milwaukee, where the Brewers were second in the National League in pitching in 2008 while reaching the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. He is the brother of Greg Maddux, who is headed for the Hall of Fame.

"I saw what he had done in Milwaukee," pitcher Kevin Millwood said. "I also knew if he was anything like his brother, he was as smart as can be. That was enough right there to jump in with both feet and see how we could get better."

Texas turnaround under Maddux
Rangers' pitching improvement from 2008 to '09
Category
2008
2009
ERA5.374.23
Opp. BA.288.259
H/910.288.89
BB/93.913.39
SO/96.016.23
HR/91.111.11
SO/BB1.541.84
BR/914.6312.71
Shutouts810

Rangers pitchers were also tired of their past. But they didn't have to hear about it in Spring Training. Maddux didn't bring it up. He also didn't seem to do excessive homework on his pitchers. His preference leaned toward keeping an open mind with each pitcher as he watched them work for the first time in offseason minicamps or Spring Training.

He did not try to reinvent pitching. Much of what he preaches is universal: establish the low fastball, pitch ahead in the count, pitch inside and be able to throw three pitches for strikes. He does not do major tinkering with a pitcher's mechanics, although he does emphasize a few absolutes like "head-to-target," proper balance and power with the legs.

"We try to keep it simple," Maddux said. "Just being able to repeat your delivery is good mechanics."

Maddux does love the cut fastball. He contends it may be the best pitch in baseball. Most pitchers have their best success against hitters who bat from the same side as they throw: right vs. right and left vs. left. That comes from a breaking ball that breaks away from the hitter. The cut fastball breaks in on hitters who bat from the opposite side of the plate from where the pitchers are throwing: right vs. left and left vs. right. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is going to the Hall of Fame on the cutter. Rangers pitchers have used it well this season.

Room for improvement
Rangers pitching from 2000-08
Category
No.
AL rank
ERA5.1414th
Wins68910th
CG3114th
H/910.0114th
BB/93.7513th
SO/96.0812th
HR/91.1611th
SO/BB1.6214th
Shutouts5113th
Blown saves2002nd

Millwood, a right-handed pitcher, has held left-handed hitters to a .222 average. They hit .273 off him last year. Lefties are hitting .222 off Scott Feldman as opposed to .291 in 2008.

But mostly Maddux succeeds in the mind, in communicating with his pitchers, getting them to pitch with confidence and conviction and getting them to pitch with a plan. Pitch by pitch, batter by batter.

"He is one of the best communicators I've ever seen," veteran reliever Eddie Guardado said.

"He's done a great job with these pitchers, getting them to believe in themselves," manager Ron Washington said.

"The best coaches typically have some similar traits: a high level of technical knowledge in their area, genuine care for their players, endless work ethic and an ability to check their ego," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "Mike has all of those attributes. He's also a gifted communicator.

"Whether he's dealing with me, [Washington], a veteran starter, a rookie reliever, a foreign player that doesn't speak English -- whatever the case may be -- he has a knack for getting his message across clearly and succinctly."

What Maddux believes in most is preparation. He and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins will spend hours before every series looking at video of opposing hitters, trying to find some weakness that the Rangers' pitchers can exploit. Early in the season, when he was still trying to become familiar with the AL, they were spending four to six hours at the computer.

"Hawk and I call it 'Breaking the code,'" Maddux said. "If you look hard enough, there has got to be some weakness in a hitter that we can go to if it's our strength. But if it's not our strength, you're better off pitching to your strengths and taking your chances."

Before the Rangers played the Twins for the first time this summer, Maddux studied over 50 of Twins catcher Joe Mauer's at-bats, trying to find some clue on how to pitch to him. Mauer is the leading hitter in the AL, but he is batting .238 against Texas this season.

"If you're not prepared, then it's your own fault because you weren't listening," Millwood said.

"Sometimes you can try and get too smart, and it works against you," Maddux said. "As long as you're pitching to your strengths and guys are executing each pitch with conviction, we're going to be fine."

It comes down to having a good plan and sticking with it, and having an idea of how to execute.

"If you do that, you don't have to worry about anything else," Feldman said. "Trust your stuff and make pitches. No matter what predicament you're in, you can always get out of it by making pitches."

The Rangers' improvement has been significant, but it hasn't been easy. Not everything has gone according to plan. Texas has had to put 11 different pitchers on the disabled list, including four-fifths of its season-opening rotation.

Millwood has avoided the disabled list but missed almost two weeks with a strained gluteus muscle. Closer Frank Francisco has been on the disabled list three different times. The current staff has no less than seven rookies, including starters Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter.

Maddux is also the first to say that the Rangers' improved defense has also been a huge reason why they are pitching better this season. But that was part of the plan from the beginning and why Texas inserted rookie Elvis Andrus at shortstop while moving Michael Young to third.

The Rangers are still only eighth in the league in fielding, but it is better than being last like they were the two previous seasons. Their 4.23 ERA is only the fifth best in the league -- 18 runs on Monday knocked them down two spots -- but it's still their best since a 4.06 ERA in 1992.

With Maddux in charge, the Rangers are no longer pitching patsies. They are winning with pitching for once.

"I don't think it's a surprise at all," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "This year has been affected by what has been going on over there for the past couple of years. They have some good young arms and the maturity of guys who have worked so hard. Whether it be C.J. Wilson, Francisco, Feldman, some of the young new arms like Holland. You could see a difference in the dynamics in Spring Training."

Now it is September and still going strong.