Vicente Padilla, a huge reason why the Rangers have climbed to .500 so quickly, pitched seven strong innings and took advantage of a pair of early two-run home runs by Milton Bradley and Marlon Byrd for a 6-2 victory over the Astros before 38,534 fans at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington Saturday.
The Rangers, with their 15th victory in their last 21 games, are now 22-22 on the season after starting out 7-16.
"It's very significant because of what we had to do to get here," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We've been playing great baseball."
"It's significant because it happened so early," shortstop Michael Young said. "It's not a surprise because we expect to play well, but to get back to .500 in the middle of May after our start is pretty good."
Saturday's victory also moved the Rangers to within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Angels in the American League West and assured them of winning their seventh straight series.
"That shows we are playing good baseball," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We're going out there with confidence expecting to win. Every time we go out on that field, we expect to win, and it's shown."
The Rangers have won seven straight series, but have yet to sweep one. They have taken two of three in six three-game series and won three out of four against the Mariners in Seattle. But a victory on Sunday would give them their first three-game sweep of the season.
It would also be just their second sweep in 17 three-game series against the Astros since their Interleague series began in 2001.
"That's how you do it," Washington said. "When we won 100 games in Oakland, we kept winning series and winning more series. Then you get lucky and have a five- or six-game winning streak. But it takes pitching. You've got to pitch the ball and catch the ball. I keep saying our offense is going to be what it is. But if you master those two things, pitching and catching the ball, you're going to be successful."
The Rangers have done both well over the past 21 games, but especially pitching. Padilla's performance, with relief help from Eddie Guardado and Joaquin Benoit, left them with a 3.70 ERA over this stretch.
Padilla has been the rock of the rotation. Remember, the Rangers have had to put no fewer than five starting pitchers on the disabled list at some point this season: Kevin Millwood, Jason Jennings, Brandon McCarthy, Luis Mendoza and Kason Gabbard. Currently, their rotation consists of Padilla, Gabbard and three pitchers who started the season in Triple-A: Sidney Ponson, Doug Mathis and Scott Feldman.
But Padilla, almost by default, has moved to the head of the Rangers' rotation and pitched like a No. 1 starter, going 4-0 with a 1.60 ERA in his last five starts.
"He's been very significant, especially with Millwood down," Washington said. "He's the guy anchoring our pitching staff, and he's been battling his tail off. They worked him hard for five innings tonight, but the last two innings, he was very efficient."
Padilla allowed two runs on five hits with three walks and six strikeouts, raising his season record to 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA.
"To be honest, he pitched me tougher than I've been pitched all year," Astros outfielder Hunter Pence said. "He threw me all fastballs and located every one of them. I wasn't very comfortable facing him. He didn't leave much over the plate. He kept us off our rhythm. You get a runner on [and] he kind of pauses. [he] just kept us off balance."
Padilla out-pitched Roy Oswalt, the Astros' ace who allowed six runs in six-plus innings before leaving with a strained right groin muscle. Byrd was 1-for-10 against Oswalt in his career, but ended up going 3-for-3 off him in his first start since coming off the disabled list.
Byrd, who came into the game hitting .125 off the season, was still kicking himself for hitting into a crucial double play on Wednesday in an extra-innings loss to the Mariners.
"Here the team is winning, and you feel like you're the one who killed it," Byrd said. "I really needed to just put the bat on the ball, hit the ball hard and have some good at-bats. Now, maybe I can go up there with a little more confidence instead of scuffling."
His teammates were able to figure it out, and now the Rangers are a .500 team again.