Underrated Washington has Rangers back on track
Once-fading Texas has won nine of past 10 since skipper called a team meeting
ANAHEIM -- With losses in eight of 10 games following the All-Star break, the Rangers were spinning in reverse. Manager Ron Washington could hardly recognize them.
A three-game sweep by the Indians in Cleveland left Texas six games behind Oakland in the American League West on July 28, informing Washington -- a man not given to team meetings -- that it was time to take action.
Washington called a meeting "spontaneously" following a 6-0 loss to the Tribe, planning to talk for 10 minutes. The meeting lasted 45 minutes, with players taking the floor to express their emotions.
"They were drifting away from who the Texas Rangers are," Washington said. "We were about to go to sleep."
Something happened. The stale air was swept away, replaced by a crackling energy.
"They opened up to feelings that are clear now," Washington said. "Change isn't because of the meeting; it's because of the players. The mindset changed; the attitude changed; the commitment to each other changed. I just put the forum out there and laid out the work, and they did the rest."
Grinning, Washington added, "That's my specialty. That and defense."
Since their group therapy session in Ohio, the Rangers have won nine of 10 to move into a tie for the AL West lead with the A's. Texas swept the Angels with its flying feet en route to Houston for a Lone Star showdown with the Astros starting Friday night.
The Rangers have done this with the dark cloud of Nelson Cruz's status hanging overhead. It burst on Monday with the slugger's suspension for the balance of the regular season for violating Major League Baseball's Basic Agreement and Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment program.
Cruz, the team leader in homers (27) and RBIs (76), provided lineup protection for Adrian Beltre. Mitch Moreland takes on a more prominent role in an offense ranking eighth -- uncommonly low -- in the AL in runs scored.
The popular view is that the Rangers are forced by the loss of Cruz to play small ball.
"There's been a lot of talk going around -- must be those experts," Washington said. "Our game hasn't changed from what it was, what it's always been. What you saw [13 steals the past two games] is what it's been.
"Guys who can hit it out of the park will hit it out of the park. We will continue to go first to third and steal bags. Cruz is gone, [and now] we've gotta change our style? Come on."
Washington, who is doing some of the best work of his career this season, stresses pitching, defensive execution and offensive aggression.
The injury-depleted rotation has been patched together behind Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. Matt Garza arrived courtesy of the Cubs as a solid No. 3, followed by Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando. The bullpen has held up with youthful Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross getting the ball to veteran closer Joe Nathan.
A team with diminished power has forced mistakes and manufactured runs on the bases. Leonys Martin and Elvis Andrus have combined for 56 of the team's 85 steals, 30 by Andrus.
"They opened up their game a couple years ago, leading the league in 2010 going first to third," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who came up with Washington in the Dodgers' organization. "When you're gauging offensive efficiency, you're looking for a team that can sustain slumps from the big guys and still create.
"They lost [Mike] Napoli and [Josh] Hamilton, and now Cruz. What they're doing is getting creative in building an offense."
Having matched wits with Washington for seven years, Scioscia has a broad appreciation of the Texas skipper's skill and resourcefulness.
"Ron, besides being an incredible people person, has a deep understanding of every aspect of the game," Scioscia said. "He's got an invaluable foundation of fundamental baseball with a passion to apply it.
"Wash's baseball IQ is as good as anybody I've been around."
The Rangers won AL West titles in 2010 and '11, ending the Angels' three-year run, but were overtaken by the A's last year.
For all of his success, averaging 91.5 wins the past four years, Washington has not claimed an AL Manager of the Year Award. He was second in 2010 to the Twins' Ron Gardenhire.
A shortstop in his day, Washington is fit and involved, throwing batting practice daily.
"When you see your manager having so much fun and being relaxed," Andrus said, "it takes the tension out of players. Just know your role on the team and don't try to be a hero.
"It's been kind of crazy all year. In past years, we were able to take it to teams with our power. This year's been tough. But we know Wash always has our back. Win or lose, he's the head of the ship."
Manager of the Year?
"I would love to see it happen," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "But I don't think Wash really cares. He believes awards are accomplished by a group of people, not individuals. I think it rubs off on his players."
Washington has no bonus for winning the AL Manager of the Year Award. His incentives are for winning the division and each round of the postseason.
"The World Series is the big incentive," Washington said.
Washington's opening address this spring was the same pitch he's been delivering since taking the reins in 2007.
"He told us, 'Be yourself,'" Kinsler said. "'If you're a goofball, be a goofball. ... If you're high-energy, be high-energy.' He's not trying to change anyone. He expects you to be who you are.
"He trusts his players, and his players trust him. He's an old-school guy. He believes if you show trust in people over and over, they're going to perform. He's laid-back … but he's going to explain things the way he wants them done."
Washington did that in Cleveland, in no uncertain terms. It is his specialty.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.