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08/15/07 1:50 AM ET
Millwood supported by batterymate
Right-hander shuts down Royals; catcher crushes homer
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
ARLINGTON -- When Gerald Laird was struggling this summer, somebody who knows the Rangers well made an interesting point about their catcher. "Gerald will be all right," the source said. "He just needs somebody behind him that can threaten to take his job away." The Rangers have that somebody in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and on Tuesday night, Laird responded to that threat. Laird hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning that helped the Rangers wipe away the Kansas City Royals' 3-1 lead, as Texas went on to a 5-3 victory at the Ballpark in Arlington. Laird's home run complemented the work he did behind the plate in helping Kevin Millwood win for only the second time since the All-Star break. C.J. Wilson, striking out Alex Gordon with the bases loaded to end the eighth, picked up his fifth save. But one of the biggest stories around the Rangers lately has been the new arrangement in the catching situation as they watch to see how Laird will react. He was in a 5-for-33 skid going into Tuesday's game as he tries to hold on to his job. "I'm not worried about it," Laird said. "Defensively, I'm fine. Offensively, I could be better. I'm just trying to have good at-bats and see where I end up at the end of the year. I've just got to do what I can do and help this team win and help get these pitchers through their outings." Laird has been the Rangers starting catcher since Opening Day, and, as of Tuesday, was third in the American League among catchers with 90 games started. But he'll likely drop as the season winds down. The Rangers announced last week that Laird and Saltalamacchia will split playing time evenly the rest of the season. It's obvious that Saltalamacchia is more than a threat to take Laird's job. "I didn't do this to wake Gerald up," manager Ron Washington said. "Saltalamacchia is a 22-year-old who is a pretty good catcher and the only way we can find out about him is to catch him. If that means Gerald has to wake up and do everything he can to hold on to his job, that's good. But that's not why we did it." Saltalamacchia can also play first base if the Rangers feel Laird is still their No. 1 catcher. So, nothing is decided yet, and, on Tuesday night, Laird came to the rescue after Saltalamacchia's defense put them in a hole. Saltalamacchia committed two errors on one play in the top of the sixth that allowed two runs to score, giving the Royals a 3-1 lead. The Rangers got one run back in the bottom of the inning against Royals starter Kyle Davies when Marlon Byrd doubled and scored on singles by Jason Botts and Nelson Cruz. That left the Rangers with runners on first and second for Laird, who went up to the plate with orders to bunt the runners over. He tried on the first pitch but took ball one. He started to bunt on the second pitch but pulled the bat back and swung away. Washington gives his hitters that option of "slashing" if they see the defense aligned in a certain manner. Laird did and hit it high and deep down the left-field line for a three-run home run. "That's the first time I've seen one of those go out of the ballpark," Washington said. "I've seen a guy do that and hit it down the line for a double, but never out of the ballpark." Call it great timing for the Rangers and for Laird, who also had a double and went 2-for-4 on the night. "I don't know if this is a challenge but I know it's important to myself to establish myself in this uniform," Laird said. "When you have a talented guy like Saltalamacchia, you're going to have to play well to get playing time." But hitting is only a part of it. Washington's first priority for his catchers is how they work with their pitchers. From that standpoint, it has been a challenging year for Laird in working with a pitching staff that has been hit hard by turnover and injuries, especially in the starting rotation. The Rangers went into Tuesday's game with the second highest ERA in the American League, but they allowed just one earned run on four hits against the Royals. "It hasn't been easy for him," Millwood said. "A new way of doing things, but when you're struggling, you can either fall off the earth or you can get better. Hopefully he'll use it to get better." That's what the Rangers are looking for. The challenge has been issued and the threat is there. "I just want Gerald to continue to work with his pitching staff and continue to try and be a leader," Washington said. "Nothing else but play his game and if they throw one in the wrong spot, hit it out like he did tonight. I'm not putting the pressure on anybody other than to play a good baseball game."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.