Laird powers Rangers past Jays

Laird powers Rangers past Jays

ARLINGTON -- A few days ago, Gerald Laird was the Rangers player most involved in trade rumors, with one team in particular, the New York Yankees, allegedly showing interest in the 28-year-old catcher.

On Monday night, Laird will be in the Rangers' lineup trying to hit Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain.

Laird will be fresh off Sunday's two home run performance that helped rally the Rangers to an 8-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, setting the stage for the Rangers' biggest series since 2005.

The Rangers are hanging in the Wild Card race, six games behind Boston. They are 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees, one of three teams in front of them in the Wild Card standings. At least as this four-game series starts with New York, there is a lot of intrigue.

"It's a big series," Laird said. "We're not going to back down."

Rangers-Yankees could be more interesting because of what transpired here Sunday. Laird had his two pivotal home runs, the second of which gave the Rangers a 5-4 lead in the fifth inning. Rookie first baseman Chris Davis hit his 11th home run and fifth for the left-handed hitter in 36 at-bats against left-handed pitchers.

On the pitching side, rookie starter Luis Mendoza went seven solid innings. And Eddie Guardado was up in the bullpen in a one-run game in the bottom of the eighth. He pitched the ninth inning, and even though the Rangers had built a four-run lead, it signaled that manager Ron Washington may be leaning toward using the veteran lefty in more save opportunities with closer C.J. Wilson blowing his last save chance. Washington dismissed the idea that he is changing closers, saying that he "felt Eddie was the right one." Washington did say there will be times he will go to Guardado the rest of the season, leaving the door open for a change or using two closers down the stretch.

Washington was much more open about the strides that Laird has made in his first true full season as a starter.

Laird showed that he continues to mature as a ballplayer, slamming two two-run homers, both of them into the Rangers' bullpen in right-center field.

Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has been on Laird, a pull hitter, to use the whole field. Laird had reinforced what can happen when he goes the other way, especially in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where the wind aids balls headed for right-center field.

Washington was constantly on Laird last season, pushing him and prodding him to become a better player. Washington had Laird batting second in the lineup Sunday.

"I got on him last year, and it affected him," Washington said. "I get on him this year, and he says, 'Yes, Skip.' I don't know, either that, or he ignores me.

"He knows I care about him. Maybe he wasn't used to being challenged. I have a lot of respect for him, and I think he has respect for me."

Laird's respect around baseball has gone to another level, as several teams were rumored to have inquired about him during the weeks leading up to the Trade Deadline.

"I think I've been playing good ball," said Laird, who is hitting .314 with six homers after his second two-homer game of the season. "I appreciate [the trade interest]. It's nice to see."

Laird put the Rangers back in the game with his first home run in the fourth inning, cutting the Blue Jays' lead to 4-2.

The Rangers flexed more muscle in the fifth. Davis had a solo home run to right field to cut Toronto's lead to 4-3. After Travis Metcalf was hit by a pitch, Laird lifted another two-run homer to almost the exact same spot for a 5-4 lead.

"I didn't try to do too much," Laird said. "I got a couple of pitches up over the middle of the plate, and I hit them. I'm using the whole field, and it's working out."

Laird also helped Mendoza survive a three-run first. Mendoza settled down and even went back out for the seventh inning with a one-run lead. That surprised even him.

"I thought the sixth inning was going to be my last inning," said Mendoza, who allowed four runs on six hits. "Then they gave me the ball in the seventh inning."

Washington said it was a big hurdle for Mendoza to clear. Mendoza may not have lost his spot in the rotation if the rough first inning had turned into a rough outing, but turning it around erases the question, for now. Instead, he has three solid starts in four outings, and he will be back out there Friday at Baltimore.

"He'll be in there," Washington said. "It was never us telling the kid he wouldn't get the start. But I thought he proved he has the capability."

Something that Laird also has shown time and time again this season.

"It's my second chance to play every day," Laird said. "I'm learning pitchers. I'm figuring out my game."

Todd Wills is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.