Express on the right track

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A lot can change when a minor league organization switches affiliations. For the Round Rock Express, it means impressive attendance figures and newfound postseason aspirations.

The Express, in their first season as the Triple-A affiliate of MLB’s Texas Rangers, are enjoying what could be their first winning season since 2006, as they are clinging to a half-game lead in the Pacific Coast League’s South Division. In each of their past four series, Round Rock has gone 2-2. The Express can make it five consecutive split series with a win Tuesday night over the Albuquerque Isotopes, the team narrowly trailing the Express in the PCL South.

“This team is hitting on all cylinders,” said shortstop Omar Quintanilla. “We’re a force to be reckoned with. What we’re trying to do is a win a championship.”

Quintanilla is one of two former Longhorns on the roster, along with catcher Taylor Teagarden.

After spending five years in the Colorado Rockies organization, Quintanilla, who helped Texas win the 2002 national championship, was signed by the Rangers last December. Teagarden, who was a part of the 2005 Longhorns squad that won it all, was the Rangers’ third-round selection in 2005 and is hitting .338 this season.

The Express are improving, largely because they are now affiliated with the defending American League champion, division-leading Rangers and not the cellar-dwelling Astros. It has been six years since Houston has been in the playoffs, when they won the 2005 NL pennant. That kind of failure rubbed off on the Express — it’s been five years since the Express have had a winning season. Now, at 33-25, Round Rock is in a position to have that elusive winning record and reach the postseason.

Another benefit to being affiliated with a better big league ball club is an influx of higher-profile players passing through for rehab assignments. Reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton and fellow slugger Nelson Cruz had three-game stints with Round Rock in May on their way back from the disabled list. In their second game with the Express, a 9-4 victory, both Hamilton and Cruz went deep. They also both homered in their first game back with the Rangers, a 4-0 win over the White Sox. The Rangers are 10-4 since their return.

Considered to be one of the finest minor league ballparks in America, the Dell Diamond also does its part to attract big crowds. It is a fan-friendly venue complete with a swimming pool, Sport Court, rock wall and a conference center. It comes as no surprise that the Express are leading the league in attendance, averaging 8,339 fans per game; over 1,000 more than the next closest team.

The Express are more appealing now. They have a better team, bigger names passing through, a great stadium and even multiple former popular Longhorns. From a fan’s perspective, the Express provide everything one could ask for. Now the team, in its first official season as the Rangers’ affiliate in Round Rock, is ready to deliver by capturing the division title and giving themselves a shot at the league championship.