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09/09/07 12:15 AM ET

'Pen leads Rangers after starter leaves

Rookie Mendoza done after being hit by drive in second

ARLINGTON -- The Rangers had not one, but two starting pitchers knocked out on Saturday and still managed to move to within one game of the Oakland Athletics in the American League West.

It just turned out to be A.J. Murray and not Luis Mendoza who was the Rangers rookie pitcher earning his first Major League victory.

Murray was the first of four relievers who were called upon after Mendoza got whacked by a line drive on his left knee, and they all held it together for a 7-3 victory over the A's.

"I wasn't expecting to come into a situation like this," Murray said after the Rangers won for the 11th time in 13 games. "But they called me and I went out and did my job. It was unfortunate that [Mendoza] had to come out. He was pitching a good game."

Mendoza, called up from Double-A Frisco earlier in the week, wasn't even expecting to make his first Major League start. He found out only after he came to the ballpark that he was replacing Kason Gabbard, who was scratched because of a blister on his left thumb.

He made it through just two scoreless innings and 30 pitches, but still managed to impress manager Ron Washington.

"He didn't seem to have any jitters," Washington said. "He kept the ball in the strike zone, threw some good sinkers and had a good tempo. It's too bad what happened. I'd like to have seen what would have happened if he had stayed out there."

Mendoza retired four of the first five batters he faced on groundouts before Nick Swisher came to the plate with one out in the second. The Athletics center fielder ripped a line drive back to the mound that hit Mendoza on the inside of his left knee cap and dropped him to the ground.

"When something like that happens, you just say, 'Oh Man,'" Swisher said. "That's something you never want to do. I ran to first base and didn't know what to do. I'm not sure where I hit him."

Mendoza stayed down for several minutes while trainer Jamie Reed attended to him. He finally got up, walked around the mound and threw several warmup pitches. The Rangers let him stay in the game and he retired the next two hitters on fly balls.

"He showed a lot of guts getting up and finishing that inning," Washington said.

But when he went back to the dugout, he sat down and the knee started stiffening up on him.

"When I sat down and then tried to stand up, my knee really hurt," Mendoza said. "It's disappointing, but it's something that happened. I feel good. I was a little bit nervous, but after the first pitch I felt pretty good."

Gabbard is only supposed to miss one start. Pitching coach Mark Connor said he'll likely start on Thursday against the A's.

But asked if Mendoza would get another chance, Washington said, "Probably."

"He'll bounce back," Washington said. "It certainly would have been nice to see another one of our young guys give us a good game, but he showed me something."

Mendoza was acquired from the Red Sox in a trade for reliever Bryan Corey last year, and he was 15-4 with a 3.93 ERA in 26 games, including 25 starts at Double-A Frisco. He was a last-minute callup when the Rangers, worried about the workload of their bullpen, decided they needed an extra arm.

There were no real plans to start him this month until Gabbard went down. Now he has given the Rangers something to think about.

"Tonight was a good start," Mendoza said. "I showed them I could start games and help the team."

Mendoza left with a 2-0 lead, and the Rangers opened it up with a four-run fourth inning against Oakland starter Chad Gaudin. Hank Blalock started the inning with his second home run since coming off the disabled list.

Blalock also had a pair of run-scoring singles and is now 8-for-22 with nine RBIs in six games since coming back.

"It's certainly been a pleasure having him back in the lineup and driving in runs," Washington said. "He's certainly gotten some big hits for us."

Murray allowed two runs in three innings, and the Rangers finished it off with Mike Wood, John Rheinecker and Wes Littleton. They are now one game away from getting out of sole possession of last place for the first time since April 24, and they are seven games under .500 for the first time since May 13.

They have 21 games left. A record of 14-7 allows them to finish right at .500.

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