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Gabe Kapler calls from Tulsa. His voice is friendly but a little garbled. It's not the phone line, though. Sounds like he's munching on something.

"My leg feels great," he says, chomping away, nourishing a body muscular enough to launch a fitness craze if he'd ever go Billy Blanks. "It feels better than at any time last year. Any injury is a tough injury because you can't play, but this one wasn't any tougher than any other. Actually, I was hoping to come back a little bit sooner."

If he had, there wouldn't be this dilemma. Wouldn't be this "uh, OK, now what?" question lingering. But there is, and Johnny Oates has to iron it flat some way or another. The quandary has left the Rangers manager cryptic and cantankerous, even more so than usual.

Everything was rolling along smoothly for a while. The lineup, particularly the outfield, looked decided before spring training had even begun, alleviating Oates of at least one managerial headache. Left to right, it was going to be Rusty Greer, Kapler and Ruben Mateo.

Then the injury.

In late March, just as the weather warmed Port Charlotte and the season crept closer, Kapler went down with a tear in his right quadriceps muscle. At the time, it was no big deal. Sure, Texas had lost its starting center fielder--a man who'd rebounded impressively from the DL last season, hitting .302 with 14 homers and 60-something RBI--but everyone figured he'd be back soon enough. So off he went to Double A Tulsa, where he put in a short stint with the Drillers, rehabbing the injury, refining his swing, getting ready. He returned to Arlington on Sunday--laced a hit in three at-bats--and, under the original plan, that should have been that. Business as usual.

Except that it's not so simple anymore. Inserting him into the starting lineup isn't as academic as it appeared it would be only a month ago. The only thing that seems certain now is a bit of brain pain for Oates and likely a bunch more Advil. Thank you very much, Chad Curtis.

Though Curtis recently suffered a mild hamstring strain while stealing his fifth base, the Rangers will give him a few days off and don't expect that he'll be forced onto the disabled list.

"He's played well, very well," Oates says of Curtis, entertaining the usual pack of reporters during batting practice with frequently impatient responses. "He's done a good job for us. In every phase. Base running, hitting. He's been right in the middle of a few rallies. He's taken some key base-on-balls. He's done just a terrific job."

Which is why putting a name next to the "8" position in the lineup is going to be so damn hard once both cats are healthy. The way Curtis has played is a surprise, but it probably shouldn't be. He told everyone before the year had begun that he'd put in extra work during the offseason, that he'd done specific speed training while maintaining a grueling workout regimen that leaves his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame looking as though it were chiseled from the hardest, most expensive marble. Told everyone that he'd come to camp to appropriate the leadoff slot from left fielder Rusty Greer. Nothing against Rusty, he said, but the Chad ain't working pro bono here. They pay him to do his job, to compete, to play well, to try to play every day.

"I feel like what I did in the offseason has helped me a lot," Curtis, 32, says, sitting in the clubhouse, bare-chested, before a game. "I have this energy and life in me, especially in my legs. I feel like I've gone back seven years. Also, I think my mental approach has been better. I've been really trying to focus--get some production."

In Kapler's stead, Curtis has done just that, playing exceptionally. As of Tuesday, he was hitting .375. Knocked in three home runs and nine RBI. Carried a .435 on-base percentage. Wouldn't be unreasonable for Curtis to be content, happy, perhaps even thrilled with the way his season has matured. He's not. Typical Curtis, he plans to keep pushing. He is, by any definition, a classic overachiever. There were a few opportunities to move runners along that he missed, he says. This bothers him to no end--"I could have done more," he offers--so he refuses to give up the fight. And, frankly, he shouldn't. It's not his to lie down; it's his to make Oates think, and rethink, the team's initial blueprint. No doubt, he's done that.

Should the Rangers leave him out there as a regular? He thinks so, for whatever that's worth. "It doesn't really matter what I think," Curtis says. "He [Oates] is going to do what he's going to do. I think my play has dictated that I'm someone who can help the team, and that should hopefully continue to get me playing time."

If you're Johnny Oates, what do you do when they're both back? Long-term, makes more sense to go with Kapler, who, at 25, is younger and has shown he's got skills enough to be something quality in this league. But long-term doesn't help an average team now, and long-term sure as hell won't help a manager who has to win this season in order to keep a job later. Really, how can Oates justify taking Curtis out of the lineup when Curtis has been one of the club's most consistent players in nearly every facet? Then again, how can he keep Kapler on the bench, how can he stymie the potential there?

The gravity doesn't escape Oates. Standing near the Texas dugout, his mood is nearly as gloomy as the gusty, gray skies overhead. The cardinal--but often broken--rule in sports is that you don't lose your job to an injury, and so I ask if Kapler will be permanently returned to his post.

"I didn't say that," Oates says, smiling his eerie smile.

Well, then it must be Curtis, right?

"I didn't say that either. Are you making out the lineup? I don't know who's going to play because we don't know who's completely healthy and who will stay that way."

All right, someone asks, joining the fray, let's assume everyone is healthy, then what?

"If that's the case, then no one is gonna play because we'll have seven outfielders."

Fine. The responses are curt, which tends to be General Johnny's way of moving on to the next question. But, this time, his sullen 'tude is also something else: It's indicative of the stress. You can see it plainly, manifested in extra wrinkles and folded arms. Problem being, there's no definitive path that will lead the Rangers to increased productivity or more wins.

Me? I'm not sure what I'd do if I were Oates. Probably go with Kapler.

And then call up Jim Beam.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez