OAKLAND -- The Rangers' clubhouse was almost empty 3 1/2 hours before Sunday's game. They had cleaned the place up after Saturday night's raucous celebration, but there was still a lingering smell of stale beer and champagne in the air. Josh Hamilton was the only player in there that early as he sat down to eat his omelet for breakfast. Most of his teammates wouldn't arrive for at least another hour. The club had spent the night partying and celebrating its first division title since 1999. Hamilton, who no longer drinks because of his well-chronicled troubled past with drugs and alcohol, stayed clear of the inebriating festivities.
He had a quiet Sunday planned as well. "I'm not going to do much today," Hamilton said as he dove into his omelet. "I'll do the [stationary] bike and stretching stuff and get a massage. But I'm going to take a day of recovery. They say if you take a day of recovery, you feel twice as good. But I feel pretty good today." Hamilton has been sidelined since Sept. 4 with two small fractures in his right rib cage. Spasms in a muscle near the injury have also been a problem, but they seemed to have gone away since he stopped putting ice on it. "If I feel it, then I throw heat on it and it goes away," Hamilton said. Hamilton's status remains the biggest question mark surrounding the Rangers as they get ready for the playoffs. After they get back from Oakland, they have seven games at home and then two days off before opening the playoffs on Wednesday, Oct. 6. The Rangers have no choice but to wait to see if that's enough time for Hamilton to be ready. "We know what Josh brings to the table," said third baseman Michael Young. "He has had a great season. Obviously, we'd love to have Josh back in our lineup." Hamilton is asked about it every day: will he be ready for the playoffs? "I feel like I will," Hamilton said. "The first day I swing the bat, I will know for sure. Within the first five swings I'll know. I'll let you know." He was asked if seeing the Rangers celebrate the division title would help motivate him to get ready. "No kind of motivation is going to make me heal faster," Hamilton said. "It would be dumb to pick up the pace and have a setback because I'm in a hurry to get back. I want to stay steady and meet my goal of being in a game later this week. "It's not as frustrating as people think. I can't do anything about it except try to get better. There's no need to be frustrated. When I can come back, I'll be back, even if it's not 100 percent. [Manager Ron Washington] talks about a presence in the lineup. If I can get back to playing defense and have quality at-bats, I'll be able to help the team." Hamilton injured himself playing defense. He was playing center field against the Twins at Target Field when he went back to the wall to catch a fly ball. Hamilton said he did not crash into the wall -- rather, he fell against it. "I jumped up, caught the ball, came down, rolled my ankle and then fell into the wall," Hamilton said. "My elbow got pinned against my ribs." The distinction is important to him. "I feel like I have played a lot smarter this year," Hamilton said. He insisted playing center field does not make it more likely he will get hurt playing defense. The Rangers moved him to left field this season in the belief it would be a less physically taxing position. But they needed him in center on days when David Murphy was in the lineup instead of Julio Borbon. He said that had nothing to do with the injury. "No, not at all," Hamilton said. "You've seen me in left field. I hit walls playing left, dive into bricks, slide feet first into walls, so ... This is the first time I've been hurt this season. I've played with some hurts -- the knee is the biggest thing -- but health-wise, it has been a good year." Hamilton rejects suggestions that he might try another position. "I feel like I'm a pretty good outfielder," Hamilton said. "That's where I can help the team the best. Give me three or four more years and then maybe first base." Even so, Hamilton laughs at the idea that first base is safer. "No, it's not," he said. "I think the stands are even closer to first base, and there's a dugout with a big dropoff. There are a lot more people to run into in the infield." When Hamilton went into the wall, he was hitting .361 with 94 runs scored, 31 home runs and 97 RBIs. He has a .414 on-base percentage that is second in the league and his .635 slugging percentage is still the highest. Before the injury, he appeared to be a lock to be selected Most Valuable Player. Now, that is no longer a sure thing when 28 voters cast their ballots in the next 10 days. Ballots for season awards must be submitted before the playoffs begin. "It will affect their decision," Hamilton said. "But my whole focus is to help the team win ballgames and get to where they haven't been in a long time. That's been an accomplishment. It's not about individual awards." He does have one accomplishment locked up. Hamilton is going to be the third player in Rangers history to win the AL batting title. His .361 batting average is 30 points higher than Twins catcher Joe Mauer, and right now stands to be the highest ever in Rangers history. Julio Franco hit .341 while winning the 1991 batting title. The average is satisfying to Hamilton because it reflects his progress as a hitter. He uses the entire field rather than trying to pull everything to right field and out of the park. Slicing a double down the left-field line gives him as much satisfaction as a home run to deep right. "I love doing that, because they don't know how to play me and it opens the gaps back up," Hamilton said. "I feel like I've learned a lot more about myself and what I am capable of doing. I always knew I had the ability to play the game, but I've learned how to control it and harness it. I know the pitchers and have a plan. All that stuff helps tremendously." But not if he is unable to get back on the field. The goal is to be back in the lineup by Friday, but Hamilton has still not resumed "baseball activities," which, more than anything, means swinging the bat. "One thing I can say is he's moving around better," Washington said. "But he's still not there. He still has to swing the bat. He hasn't done that yet. We have to wait until he starts baseball activities. "Until then, I have no idea. But we need his big bat in there."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.