ARLINGTON — Pitcher Kevin Millwood insists it’s different this time for the Texas Rangers, who haven’t been to the playoffs in 10 years and have blown an early lead in the American League West.

“Everybody in here believes we have a really good chance at winning this division,” Millwood said Thursday as the team prepared for the second half of the season. “That’s definitely different than where we’ve been the last couple of years. We come in here with a lot of confidence and a lot of excitement.”

Though it seemed that the Rangers may already be looking to 2010 and beyond with their ongoing rebuilding plan focused on young players from within the organization, they went into the All-Star break trailing the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels by only 1 1/2 games.

“We’re in a great position, I’ll take that,” manager Ron Washington said. “The possession of first place is going to be established in September. Right now, we are going to continue to play good baseball.”

Texas (48-39) has led or shared the AL West lead for 65 days this season. The Rangers were alone on top for 48 consecutive days until June 22, their longest consecutive stretch since their last division title in 1999.

“We’re close. We know it’s a battle, we’re playing for something,” outfielder Marlon Byrd said. “It’s a lot different than last year.”

The Rangers finished second in the AL West last season, the first time they weren’t third or fourth since 1999, but that was with a losing record and 21 games behind the Angels. Texas had the highest-scoring offense in the majors — along with the worst pitching staff.

That summed up the Rangers over the past decade in which they were in serious contention after the All-Star break only once: potent offense and miserable pitching.

Things are different now. Even with two rookies in the starting rotation, the Rangers are relying on their pitching this time.

“First half MVP? Just have to give it to our pitchers,” Byrd said.

Influenced by team president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher known for hard work ethic over a record 27 seasons, and new pitching coach Mike Maddux, Rangers starters are averaging six innings an outing. That has lessened the load on a bullpen that was the most overworked in baseball the past two seasons.

Millwood (3.46 ERA), who has thrown an AL-high 130 innings, and Scott Feldman (3.83) are already eight-game winners. Vicente Padilla will go for his eighth victory tonight in the opener of a three-game series against Minnesota.

The team ERA of 4.34 is more than a full run below last season’s total. Only three times (1991-93) have the Rangers had a lower ERA coming out of the All-Star break.

Good pitching has been necessary since the Rangers are hitting only .255, 12th in the American League.

Texas has spent much of the season without slugger Josh Hamilton, though he was elected by fans as a starter in the All-Star game.

Hamilton went on the disabled list twice after crashing into outfield walls making catches, and hit .243 with six homers and 24 RBIs in his 42 games. He returned to the Texas lineup the week before the break, but didn’t have an RBI in those seven games.

Michael Young became an All-Star for the sixth straight season, and a starter for the first time, after making a position switch that initially led him to request a trade.

The Rangers decided last winter to move Young, who had just won his first Gold Glove and had been an All-Star shortstop five straight seasons, to third base to make room for 20-year-old Elvis Andrus, who had never played above Double-A.

While Andrus has been solid, hitting .253 with 16 stolen bases and 12 errors, the Rangers sent young first baseman Chris Davis back to the minors after he hit .202 with a majors-high 114 strikeouts in 77 games.

Young and Hank Blalock are the only two everyday players remaining from the 2004 team that remained in contention until an 11-inning loss in the 158th game of the season.

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