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First things first: Big play lifts Rangers

First things first: Big play lifts Rangers

ARLINGTON -- Rangers manager Ron Washington said he wants a "natural first baseman" next year if Jarrod Saltalamacchia ends up being his catcher.

Before the Rangers' game with the Devil Rays on Sunday, Washington also talked about having "outstanding defense" at the position and about Brad Wilkerson's natural instincts.

In the fourth inning on Sunday, Washington saw a reminder of how much outstanding defense can make a difference in a game.

Wilkerson brought a budding Rays rally to a sudden end with an inning-ending double play, and the Rangers went on to a 9-1 victory at the Ballpark in Arlington on Sunday night.

"I told you Wilkie can play," Washington said. "He's got great instincts. He's a chip off the old block. He comes and plays."

Wilkerson's play proved to be the pivotal moment in a game that started with the temperature at 98 degrees, the highest of the season. It also allowed the Rangers to take two of three from the Rays and move to 3-3 on the homestand.

Rookie outfielder David Murphy also had a good night, going 3-for-4 with three doubles and three runs scored. He is now 5-for-9 with the Rangers since being acquired from the Red Sox.

"I've been feeling good up at the plate and trying to have good at-bats," Murphy said. "Just working with [hitting coach] Rudy Jaramillo has helped me big time. Hopefully I can build on this."

The Rangers won even though starter Kason Gabbard left the game after just five batters because of stiffness in his left forearm. The injury is not considered serious, and he still is scheduled to pitch on Friday against the Twins.

Willie Eyre (4-5) took over for Gabbard and pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings to get the victory. But his night might have turned out differently if not for Wilkerson.

Texas was up, 2-0, in the fourth when Tampa Bay loaded the bases with one out. Ben Zobrist smacked a line drive that was headed to right field. But Wilkerson reached above his head, snatched it and then fired it to second base to double off the runner.

"It looked harder than it was," Wilkerson said. "I jumped a little early."

But Washington agreed it was the biggest play of the game.

"I'm glad he was standing in the right spot," Washington said.

Wilkerson was on Sunday night. The long-term future is the bigger question, as it is in all matters involving the Rangers these days.

The Rangers are giving Saltalamacchia every chance to be their future catcher, and so far they like what they've seen. He nursed five pitchers to victory on Sunday night and has impressed Washington with his work behind the plate.

"He receives the ball well, he's made good throws and he gives good targets," Washington said. "He looks like he can receive. He hasn't given us any reason to be concerned about anything. For a 22-year-old, he looks like he knows what he's doing."

If Saltalamacchia is the catcher, the Rangers don't have a first baseman for next year. Wilkerson is splitting time with him right now, but he is a free agent after this year. Washington may want a "natural" first baseman, but the free-agent list is thin. Sean Casey is the only potential free-agent first baseman out there who is playing regularly right now.

Yes, the Rangers would like a big-time run producer at first base, but he simply may not be out there. Texas may have to improvise. When Washington was in Oakland, the Athletics won two division titles in 2002-03 with converted catcher Scott Hatteberg playing first base. The A's also had outstanding pitching.

Much depends on Saltalamacchia. If the Rangers stick with Gerald Laird at catcher, then Saltalamacchia plays first base and Wilkerson is expendable. If Saltalamacchia's future is at catcher, Wilkerson also becomes more important to the Rangers as a first-base candidate.

"Wilkie is an option," general manager Jon Daniels said. "He's played well. We haven't ruled it out."

Wilkerson has been an outfielder for much of his Major League career, but he has taken to first base. He said he likes it there and is comfortable there. The Rangers are 18-13 in his 31 starts there this season.

"We'll see what happens," Wilkerson said. "This is a great place to play and I've enjoyed my time here. Players are treated with the utmost respect and first class. If they can follow through with a couple of acquisitions, who knows? I just want to get myself in the right position and with a winning team."

He was in the right position on Sunday, and the Rangers won a game.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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