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Hamilton's incredible year keeps going

Hamilton's incredible year keeps going

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ARLINGTON -- Josh Hamilton's grandmother was one of the first to call him late Wednesday night after his dramatic game-winning, walk-off home run against the Angels.

"She was all fired up," Hamilton said. "She watches all the games. She was going, 'Josh, I just had a feeling. ... I had a feeling.' I said, 'Grandma, I wish you'd have more feelings like that.'"

It's hard not to have a good feeling when Hamilton walks to the plate these days with a black maple bat in hand, runners on the bases and a game on the line. His two-out, two-run home run off All-Star reliever Francisco Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Rangers' 5-4 victory was the latest and greatest episode of a seemingly magical season for Hamilton that could be building to a climax on Tuesday when he arrives in New York for the 79th All-Star Game.

Two years ago, nobody really knew if he would ever play Major League Baseball. Now he is the No. 1 story in the game, and there he was on Wednesday night in the opening montage for ESPN's SportsCenter, crushing a 3-1 pitch from Rodriguez over the right-field wall and then getting buried in the crush of the home-plate celebration afterward.

"It was awesome," Hamilton said. "It's why you play the game."

It's the second time Hamilton has done that this season. The Rangers trailed, 4-3, in the top of the ninth on April 1 in Seattle, and Hamilton hit a two-run home run off Mariners reliever J.J. Putz to win it.

The game was at Safeco Field, so it wasn't a walk-off home run, but he is the first Rangers player in club history to twice have hit a home run in the ninth inning or later to give his team the lead when it was trailing at the time. He is also the only Major League player to have done it twice this season.

Just add that on to all the other accomplishments in his meteoric first half: two-time American League Player of the Month, All-Star selection, Major League leader in RBIs almost from Opening Day ...

"In Cincinnati, you could see the ability that everybody was raving about, but I don't know if anybody knew he would have a first half of this magnitude," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's having an MVP year."

Everything seems to have gone perfect for Hamilton this season.

"It has been fun," Hamilton said. "I've been enjoying it. I wouldn't want to be anywhere [else] than to be on this team and with these guys. This is the best clubhouse I've ever been in and the Texas Rangers fans have been unbelievable. I just hope it keeps coming and I hope it gets better and better."

It's hard to get better than this for a guy who seems to be taking expectations to a new level with each heroic feat. The challenge will be just to maintain his high level of performance through the second half, because as great as the first half has been for Hamilton, it has also been physically and mentally taxing.

Thirty minutes after hitting his game-winning home run, Hamilton walked into the clubhouse from the trainer's room with ice packs all over his body. He almost had as many ice packs as he did tattoos.

"It's just normal," Hamilton said. "My shoulders ache, my knees ache, I get treatment on my back every day. It's definitely a grind, but that's where the mental part comes in -- you've got to fight through it."

Hamilton gives trainers Jamie Reed and Kevin Harmon and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez much credit for keeping him on the field, and manager Ron Washington has tried to lessen the load on him. Hamilton, the Rangers' Opening Day center fielder, started for the seventh time as the designated hitter on Thursday, and he's also started 27 times in right field on the theory that it's less taxing on his legs.

But Hamilton also played in his 90th game on Thursday, which equals the number of games he played in for the Reds all of last year. That came after missing 3 1/2 years because of his personal issues with drug and alcohol problems. Remember, as dramatic as Hamilton's home run was, it was his first in his last 70 at-bats.

"Of course he's wearing down," Washington said bluntly. "At this point every player on every team is wearing down. You fight through it and the more you fight through it, the more you find out about yourself. He's learning how to grind and he's playing with guys who know how to grind it out. He's benefiting from that.

"Now it's mind over matter. These are what you call the 'dog days.' But what I like is, even though he wasn't hitting home runs, he'd still find a way to get the ground ball for an RBI, a single for an RBI, get the ball in the air for an RBI. Finally, he found a way to hit a bomb when we needed it."

Washington has tried to give Hamilton more time off but he usually declines the offer, concerned about letting down his teammates.

"That's called accountability," Washington said. "I like that."

So Hamilton plays on and tries to keep focused on the field. He remains a national story but tried to give himself a break this week, turning down a couple of national radio interviews. But it's only a brief respite, because he'll be at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for the All-Star Game and many will want his time and attention and a piece of one of the biggest stories in baseball.

"God doesn't give me what I can't handle," Hamilton said. "I'm excited about it, and I'm excited about doing it at that level and on that stage and sneaking in a few words about the Lord, telling everybody and every interviewer why I'm there and that's the grace of God."

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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