KANSAS CITY -- Outfield defense. It wins games for the Rangers. The Rangers may be feeling an overwhelming need to upgrade their offense, but this may be the best defensive outfield they've ever had, and they continue to make one highlight-worthy play after another. Wednesday night was no exception, only this time it saved the Rangers in a 4-3 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Left fielder David Murphy and right fielder Nelson Cruz both made exceptional defensive plays that allowed the Rangers to escape with a victory.
"The outfield defense was outstanding tonight," manager Ron Washington said. "Running those balls down saved the game." The Rangers ended up taking two of three from the Royals while the Athletics have lost three straight to the Yankees in the Bronx. That leaves the Rangers with a 9 1/2-game lead in the American League West with 29 games left in the season and their magic number is now 21. Murphy, besides his great sixth-inning catch, also had three hits, and Andres Blanco had two more, including an RBI double. Mitch Moreland's fifth home run of the season, which gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead in the sixth, ended up being the difference in the game, but only because of the defense. "That's got to be our backbone, starting pitching and defense," Murphy said. "Obviously our bullpen has been awesome, but we've got to play great defense. When you're playing close ballgames, you've got to play great defense or the other team will take advantage of it." The Rangers did so on a night when five pitchers gave up ten hits and walked five. What saved them was holding the Royals to 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. Rangers starter Tommy Hunter earned his third win by fighting through 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on seven hits and a season-high four walks. He struck out three over 94 pitches and is now 12-2 with a 3.64 ERA. His .857 winning percentage is the highest in the league. "Tommy was in and out," Washington said. "He was getting the ball up a little bit, but he stayed out there and battled. That's all you can ask from him. He didn't have his best stuff but he had good enough stuff." But this game wasn't over until Cruz went to the wall not once, but twice in the ninth inning. Neftali Feliz, who was going for his 34th save, retired the first hitter on a grounder to second. Then Wilson Betemit followed with a high drive to deep right. Cruz went back and caught it just in front of the wall. "It was pretty high," Cruz said. "I knew he didn't hit it out." Billy Butler was the last batter. He smashed one to right. It wasn't as high, but it was hit harder and further. This time Cruz raced back, jumped and crashed into the wall while making the catch to end the game. "If we were in Texas, that game's over, we win it, but we're not," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "They both smoked the ball. I thought both of them had a chance to go out. The outfielders in that situation are playing no-doubles, they're playing deep and that's the only way you're going to catch a ball like Billy hit -- he just scalded it." Cruz crashed into the wall hard but appeared fine after the game. "He hit it pretty well, but it wasn't a fly ball like Betemit," Cruz said. "We were playing deep to protect against no doubles. I was able to get over there and into the right position." So did Murphy in the sixth. It was probably the bigger catch of the night. Cruz kept the Royals from getting the tying run on base. Murphy simply took two runs away from the Royals. "He saved us with that one," Washington said. The Royals' rally started with two outs. They were down 4-2 when Brayan Pena singled off of Hunter. Washington then brought in Michael Kirkman, but Mitch Maier singled to put runners on first and second. That brought up Gregor Blanco and he smacked a line drive deep down the left-field line that was slicing high and away from Murphy. "There's a lefty on the mound, and Blanco a left-handed hitter," Murphy said. "He's a tough guy that tries to slap the ball the other way. I was actually playing kind of shallow on him and he got pretty good wood on it. I didn't think it was going to travel the way it did. It started fading toward the line and started carrying over my head a little bit. I knew I had to gain ground on it as much as possible." He did. Running full speed, Murphy reached up and snagged the ball at the last second to make the catch. "That was the game-saver right there," Yost said. The Rangers outfield defense has a way of doing that. They have done it all year.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.