DETROIT -- The Rangers knew they would enter this 2011 season with unfinished business at hand. What they didn't count on -- and what they used as motivation from the first day of Spring Training -- was playing third fiddle in the league they won just last year. "The hunger," said outfielder Josh Hamilton, "comes from almost winning it all to coming into Spring Training and having nobody talking about us. People had already forgotten that we had gotten [to the World Series] and what a great season we had. They were talking about Boston and the Yankees." It should be noted that in an era of 24/7 Twitter chatter, there's plenty of room and time to talk about everybody and everything, the Rangers included. But that doesn't mean Hamilton's point was entirely incorrect. We are very much a "What have you done for me lately?" society, and we tend to go into the year ranking teams according to the Hot Stove hierarchy. The Yankees are the Yankees, so they're always going to carry the conversation on some level. And the Red Sox made waves in adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to their roster, making them the winter winners.
As for the defending American League champion Rangers, well, their most significant offseason transaction was losing Cliff Lee. So if they were ignored, relatively speaking, that's why. Two-thirds of the way through 2011, these three clubs have the three best run differentials in the league, and so they must be taken seriously as candidates to wear the AL crown. The Red Sox have won at a .677 clip since their 2-10 start, the Yankees have looked unstoppable in some stretches (and they're in one right now), and the Rangers won 12 games in a row in July -- the sort of streak that definitely doesn't happen by accident. But before they can be concerned with how they are perceived as a playoff threat, the Rangers, you might have noticed, have a more pressing matter to address. The Angels, bereft of big bats but ample in arms, aren't going anywhere. And with Texas having dropped nine of 14, entering Thursday's series finale with the Tigers, Los Angeles is just one game back. A year ago at this time, the Rangers were comfortably eight games ahead of their closest competitor in the AL West. The season's final third was a mere formality. This year, a challenge has certainly been presented. "We know what it takes," said Rangers designated hitter Michael Young. "We know what type of effort it takes to play in big games, and we know what it takes to win those games. So we're definitely relying on our experience in that regard." Experience hasn't prevented this from being a streaky bunch. The Rangers' 61-49 record is largely a product of three significant runs. They won nine of their first 10 games of the season, eight of nine in late May-early June and that dandy dozen that included seven wins before and five after the All-Star break. Asked what it's going to take to play consistently when it counts, manager Ron Washington, having already endured six weeks without Hamilton, three weeks without Nelson Cruz and now the left hamstring strain that's kept Adrian Beltre out since July 23, offered one word. "Health," Washington said. "We've got to keep the Josh Hamiltons and the Nelson Cruzes and the Adrian Beltres and the Elvis Andruses and the Michael Youngs and the Ian Kinslers on the field. That's going to be the key." Actually, if Washington had duplicates of all of the above at his disposal, as the plural forms suggested, he'd be in great shape. But in lieu of adding clones, general manager Jon Daniels added relievers at the non-waiver Trade Deadline to help shore up a bumbling bullpen that has easily been this club's sorest spot. The Rangers' starting staff is second only to the Angels in terms of ERA, but the bullpen ranks among the league's worst. Koji Uehara and Mike Adams should help, though they are both guilty of giving up what turned out to be the winning run to the Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday. Assuming they find the form they flashed with the O's and Padres, respectively, the Rangers landed two relievers who will be under contractual control for 2012, when Texas could explore moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation. That's another matter for another time. Right now, there's a division to be won. Looking at the two contenders in the West, the Rangers, unquestionably, have the deeper and more imposing lineup. But their fate down the stretch is going to be determined by how well these new bullpen pieces mesh and how well their starting staff holds up after last year's lengthy workload. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, two keys to the Rangers' AL title run last October, have struggled in recent starts, though certainly not yet to an extent that can be classified as a trend. It will be particularly interesting to see how well Alexi Ogando pitches in August, September and, possibly, October, given the increased workload that has come with his transition to starting duties. Ogando takes a 10-5 record and 2.88 ERA into Thursday's start against the Tigers, and it says a lot about his season that his two previous outings, in which he gave up just three runs apiece, were considered duds. Just to be safe with Ogando's arm, the Rangers gave him extra rest out of the All-Star break. "He works hard, he's in tremendous shape, and more than anything else, the hitters during the course of the ballgame let you know if he's got anything going or not," Washington said. "We gave him 13 days [off] after the break. If we feel he needs more time, we'll do something else. But he hasn't showed us that yet." Unfortunately for the Rangers, the Angels haven't shown any signs of letup, either. Their robust rotation has carried them a long way, and while the perception might be that the Rangers are one good, long winning stretch from running away with this division, not even the 12-game streak served that purpose -- it ended with the Angels taking two of three in Anaheim. "This year, we're just trying to stay the course," outfielder David Murphy said. "We really didn't play like we were capable of the first three months of the season. Then July was a great month. We need to focus on winning series. We can't expect a winning streak like last month to happen all the time. But if we can focus on winning series, and every now and then run off an 8-2 or 9-2 record in a 10- or 11-game span, those are the types of runs that allow you to distance yourself from the guys behind you." For now, the distance is not as vast as the Rangers would like it to be. Spring Training began with Hamilton and Co. finding inspiration in the national dialogue emanating from Boston and New York, but the focus has rightly turned to the more pressing matter at hand in the division. Should the Rangers survive the West war and reach October again, they'll be better for the experience. And then they'll have a chance to silence the Yankee and Red Sox hoopla. "We want to prove we're a team that's going to be back in the World Series for a long time," Hamilton said. "We want to show we belong there, that it wasn't a fluke."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.