Rangers take pole position in AL West

Elvis charts hit, Feldman records win

OAKLAND -- Rangers starting pitchers have a 3.50 ERA and are averaging 6 2/3 innings per start over the past 12 games.

Those aren't earth-shaking numbers but they have been good enough to drive the Rangers to five straight wins, nine in their last 12 games and sole possession of first place in the American League West.

Scott Feldman, whose return to the rotation started this surge, was at it again on Wednesday night, holding the Athletics to two runs over six innings in the Rangers' 3-2 victory over the A's at the Oakland Coliseum.

Two scoreless innings in relief from Derek Holland and one more from redoubtable closer Frank Francisco, who earned his ninth save, allowed the Rangers to move into first place all by themselves for the first time -- except for the first week of the season -- since June 14, 2006.

"For real?" outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "That's a long time."

Maybe, but the Rangers don't get this kind of pitching for this length of time very often.

"I don't see another team beating us in the AL West if we get this kind of pitching," Byrd said.

"First place is nice, but it means more to me that we're playing good baseball," third baseman Michael Young said. "We're pitching extremely well and we're playing good defense. Those are two things we were really bearing down on in Spring Training. We knew our offense could score runs in bunches."

The Rangers did not score runs in bunches Wednesday night against Athletics spot-starter Dan Giese. Elvis Andrus hit his second home run of the season in the first inning and the Rangers added two more in the fourth after Byrd singled and went to third on a double by Cruz. David Murphy drove in one run with a sacrifice fly and Chris Davis drove in another with a single.

That was enough for a team that was 10-53 in 2008 when the Rangers scored less than four runs in a game. This was the first time this season that the Rangers won when scoring less than four runs. They had lost the first seven.

They did improve their record to 7-4 in one-run games after Francisco closed out an intense ninth inning by earning his ninth save. Francisco threw 23 pitches and 22 were fastballs at 94-95 mph. With a runner on first, he struck out Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday with nothing but fastballs.

"If you locate your fastball, you can get away with anything," Francisco said. "Especially if you're 94-95, and throwing inside, outside, up high, everywhere."

Still these are the kind of games that keep teams in first place, but the starting pitching has to be there. It has been for 12 games.

"I hope it continues," manager Ron Washington said. "We're getting better. We're progressing. Those guys are taking the ball and they're taking a lot of pride on what they're doing. The tone is set with starting pitching. We're playing great defense and we're getting timely hitting. The guys in the clubhouse deserve a lot of credit, especially the pitchers."

Feldman did give up a two-run double to Kurt Suzuki in the fourth but that was it. He was hitting the zone with a fastball at up to 94 mph, he was coming in hard with a cut-fastball and his breaking ball and changeup were there.

Feldman is 2-0 with a 3.24 ERA in three starts and opponents are hitting .186 off him as a starter. They hit .355 off him as a reliever.

"He was really pounding the ball inside, especially to lefties," Athletics outfielder Travis Buck said. "He threw a lot of cutters, and when it's 91-93 and he's throwing it for strikes, that's a tough pitch to hit. And he did a nice job by showing his curveball and change early in the game, so it wasn't like you could just sit on one pitch. It was just tough to square balls up."

The curveball and the changeup are crucial for Feldman as a starter. His sinking fastball got him to the big leagues as a reliever. Being able to throw three or more pitches over the plate are crucial for his success as a starter.

"They're getting better all the time," Feldman said. "That was the big thing in Spring Training. I was focusing on my off-speed stuff. Maybe that hurt me in the short-term, but it will help me in the long-term."

The short-term was being put in the bullpen at the start of the season. He went back to the rotation when Kris Benson went on the disabled list. Benson is back but in the bullpen. Feldman started the Rangers surge to first place with his 4-1 victory over Baltimore on April 24. He's not coming out of the rotation anytime soon.

"I can't take anything for granted," Feldman said. "When they tell me to pitch, I'm going to go out there and do the best I can and win the game. It's nice to get the opportunity to be a regular starter, but I know I have to go out there each time and throw the ball well." The Rangers aren't about to mess up a good thing right now.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.