There needs to be a disclaimer attached to those feel-good stretches of success the Texas Rangers had last season.
"Obviously, it did give us a little bit of momentum going into the offseason and we played well in the second half," Ian Kinsler said. "But there wasn't a lot of pressure on us. … We played a lot of games that really didn't matter."
Right before the All-Star break, Texas was unbeaten in seven consecutive series for the first time since 2001. The Rangers then won 23 of their first 38 games after switch-hitting slugger Mark Teixeira, closer Eric Gagne and center fielder Kenny Lofton were traded.
But all that came after the Rangers were already out of playoff contention and a season-worst 19 games under .500 by mid-June under rookie manager Ron Washington.
"We want pressure games late in the season," Kinsler said.
That's something the Rangers have had only once since winning their last division title in 1999. They were in contention until the final week of the 2004 season but still finished in third place while only three games out of first.
"I want to make sure this is the year," All-Star shortstop Michael Young said. "As frustrating as losing is, the only thing I can do is come into spring every year with a clean slate."
For once, the Rangers went into spring training seeming set with their starting rotation.
But Brandon McCarthy will miss at least the first month of the season because of a forearm strain and left-hander Kason Gabbard, who came from Boston in the Gagne deal, gave up 21 runs in 16 2-3 innings.
With McCarthy headed to the disabled list, Gabbard moved up from fifth to fourth in the rotation behind Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Jason Jennings. Rookie Luis Mendoza probably gets the nod the first time a fifth starter is needed in mid-April.
Too bad Nolan Ryan isn't pitching anymore. But the Hall of Famer who got the last two of his record seven no-hitters with the Rangers, not to mention his 5,000th strikeout and 300th victory pitching, is the new team president.
Ryan will certainly have to make changes if he wants to mold the team in his image, but has so far been primarily an observer evaluating the organization. At least he saw a couple of positive pitching signs.
Millwood, the scheduled starter for Monday's opener at Seattle, threw five shutout innings in his only major league spring training start. The 33-year-old right-hander took it slow after he aggravated his right hamstring early in camp, pitching mostly in simulated and minor league games.
Jennings, who joined the hometown Rangers after a miserable season and elbow surgery in Houston, threw a team-high 17 innings with no apparent problems and a 2.12 ERA.
Padilla (2-0, 3.07 ERA in four starts) showed signs that he may be more like the pitcher that won 15 games in 2006 than the one who won only six last year with a nearly two-month DL stint (right triceps).
"We can say we all embarrassed ourselves, he was just one of the guys that was involved in it," Washington said. "I don't know if adversity is a good word for what we went through last year, but you learn from those type of things. We certainly don't want that to happen again. None of us want to be embarrassed."
Former top pitching prospect Edinson Volquez cracked the starting rotation this spring — in Cincinnati. But the Rangers gave him up in a trade for center fielder Josh Hamilton, coming off a breakthrough rookie season.
Hamilton's major league debut came nearly eight years after Tampa Bay drafted him No. 1 overall. He was out of baseball 3 1/2 years because of his addictions to cocaine and alcohol, neither of which he had ever tried until he was hurt and on the disabled list in the minors.
Sober now for more than two years, Hamilton quickly became a fan favorite in Cincinnati with his play and the openness in which he addressed his past. With Texas, he has been at ease in the clubhouse and impressive on the field.
"The team's embraced him," general manager Jon Daniels said. "He's gone through some things than none of us could really fully appreciate, but the way he takes accountability for it and talks about it, you can't help put pull for the guy as a person."
Or the No. 3 hitter in the lineup behind Kinsler and Young. Hamilton hit .448 in 20 spring games in Arizona with three home runs and a majors-best 19 RBIs.
Hamilton isn't the only new outfielder, though Milton Bradley will begin the season as the designated hitter. Bradley is still trying to get his right knee fully healthy after the torn ACL sustained when he was spun to the ground in September by Padres manager Bud Black, who was trying to keep the temperamental player from an umpire.
Two-time All-Star third baseman Hank Blalock is healthy after missing most of last season because of surgery to remove a rib affecting nerves in his throwing shoulder.
Gerald Laird will be the opening day catcher again after beating out Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the 22-year switch-hitter who came from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira deal.
Once reluctant about doing so, Washington committed to Kinsler as the leadoff hitter. Kinsler, with a new contract through at least 2012 with a team option for more, had 20 home runs and 23 stolen bases last year. The second baseman hit .426 in 23 Arizona games.
Young is the only Texas player signed longer, through 2013. He was an All-Star for the fourth time and had his fifth consecutive 200-hit season last year after a miserable start (.192 the first week of May).
Even with his impressive recovery to finish with a .315 average, it was another frustrating year for Young — the longest-tenured player on the 25-man roster going into his eighth season — since the Rangers weren't winning.
"That's all I play for," Young said. "Make sure I just try and win more games."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.