ARLINGTON -- The Rangers spent most of the first half in first place in the American League West, but that was hardly cause for celebration in and around the Ballpark in Arlington.
Being in first place did not keep the Rangers from changing hitting coaches at the beginning of June, it did not keep manager Ron Washington from agonizing over his team being last in the AL in defense and it did not keep the front office from conducting an extended search for relief help.
Starting pitching has been the Rangers' strength, with C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando pitching like All-Stars. Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison weren't far behind, despite both having a couple of rough stretches. Derek Holland was hair-pulling up and down, but a five-hit shutout in Cleveland was a reminder of the level he is capable of performing at.
But he was inconsistent, and club president Nolan Ryan said that was what was most frustrating about the team as a whole. The fans are still coming out at a record pace, and if they continue to do so through the hot summer, the Rangers could break 3 million in attendance for the first time in club history.
They won't do it if they let their division lead slip away, and the Rangers, after starting the season by winning nine of their first 10, harbor a nagging suspicion that they had a chance to bury their division foes but didn't take advantage.
"We know we have a good team," designated hitter Michael Young said. "We just need to focus on doing what we can to get better and playing our style of baseball. If we do that, we'll be fine."
AT THE BREAK
MVP: Michael Young -- He is hitting for average, driving in runs and his versatility has been an asset.
Cy Young: C.J. Wilson -- Both he and Alexi Ogando were deserving of All-Star consideration.
Rookie: Craig Gentry -- He has carved out a role as a platoon center fielder and his defense has been outstanding.
Top reliever: Neftali Feliz -- He has been occasionally erratic with too many walks but he is still one of the top closers in the game.
Players to watch in the second half
Darren O'Day: If he can pitch like he did the past two seasons, it could do much to help the Rangers bullpen.
Chris Davis: He is crushing the ball in Triple-A and could return to the big leagues at some point in the second half.
Alexi Ogando: He could be the dominating starter the Rangers need in the playoffs if he can hold up for a full season.
The Rangers will get an immediate test right away. They open the second half with a seven-game road trip to Seattle and Anaheim to face their two closest division competitors. But the Athletics, with their young pitching, are right there as well, and baseball's smallest division still retains the potential of being a four-team rest to the end.
Everybody knows, as Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, that the starting pitching in the AL West may be the best in baseball, and the Rangers' rotation has been right there with the rest of the division.
The Rangers would not be adverse to another impact trade to reinforce the rotation the way they did last season with Cliff Lee, but they realize that that pitcher is probably not out there. They also know -- as Ryan insisted -- that Ogando has the ability to be a dominating postseason starter if he can withstand the rigors of a full season.
The Rangers have been open about their desire to upgrade their bullpen and have shown interest in just about every reliever possibly available, whether it's Heath Bell and Mike Adams of the Padres, Joel Hanrahan of the Pirates, Kevin Gregg and Jim Johnson of the Orioles, Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey with the Nationals, Royals closer Joakim Soria or several good arms operating out of the struggling Marlins bullpen.
Texas was able to activate Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day off the disabled list on the last homestand to reinforce the relief corps, and the club still believes that -- despite the emergence of Jordan Walden with the Angels and Brandon League with the Mariners and the return of Andrew Bailey for the Athletics -- that it has the best closer in the division in Neftali Feliz.
The Rangers still know they have to do a better job of locking down leads late, and they know they have to play better defense. Third baseman Adrian Beltre was signed in the offseason for the primary purpose of upgrading what was already supposed to be a good defense. That the Rangers haven't played well in the field and that they have had trouble holding onto late leads have been the two biggest sources of concern for Washington and others.
No doubt the Rangers have not hit as well as expected, especially with runners in scoring position, and not having Josh Hamilton for six weeks with a broken bone in his right arm certainly didn't help. But the Rangers know on any given night that they can trot out a lineup that includes six current or former All-Stars -- so hitting should not be an issue.
The Rangers are the defending AL champions, but in the second half of the season, the starting pitching has to remain strong through the Texas summer heat, the bullpen has to fall into place and the defense has to get better if they want a shot at returning to the Fall Classic.
As Young said, the Rangers have to play their style of baseball and they have to do it night after night, and not during invariable stretches. The division is challenging, but the Rangers' biggest challenge in the second half is just finding the championship style that served them so well in 2010.