A division lead that was as many as seven games just a little over a week ago has rapidly dwindled to two games for the Texas Rangers.
And the very team Texas (74-58) is trying to fend off, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (71-59), are in town this weekend for a series that figures to have an October feel. The Rangers have lost six of their last eight, while the Angels have won six in a row to set up a key AL West showdown with first place on the line.
Texas enters the series having lost three straight games to the Boston Red Sox by a combined margin of 30-7. All of a sudden, the Rangers are in danger of being overtaken for first place for the first time since July 6 by an Angels team that is well rested after Thursday's off-day and beaming with confidence.
"(The Red Sox) whipped our butt for three days," manager Ron Washington said. "We couldn't pitch to stop them, and we couldn't get anything going offensively. You play 162 games, and you hope games like this get spread out."
While a glass-half-full perspective would suggest this may just be a blip on the radar for the Rangers, there are also valid concerns about a pitching staff that has struggled in a big way lately. Even CEO Nolan Ryan conceded the pitchers look "fatigued and not sharp." Of course, Ryan, who ranks fourth all- time in innings pitched, made headlines two years ago for banishing the use of pitch counts throughout the organization.
Starters Matt Harrison and Derek Holland are well above their career-highs for innings pitched, while C.J. Wilson is approaching his career-high and Alexi Ogando is in the midst of his first full big-league season. Colby Lewis certainly did not look sharp in being knocked around for seven runs in Tuesday's loss to Boston. On Wednesday, it was Harrison getting shelled for seven runs in five innings. And on Thursday, Ogando gave up four home runs in the first four innings to put his team in an early 6-0 hole.
Over the last five games, Rangers starters have allowed 25 runs over 25 innings, and that includes 6 2/3 scoreless innings by Wilson in their only win in that stretch on Monday. In those five games, the Rangers have been outscored 24-5 in the first four innings.
Now, Texas will turn around and face Dan Haren on Friday night, and possibly Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver if Angels manager Mike Scioscia decides to use the latter two on short rest. Washington was asked about the magnitude of the series and his thoughts on Scioscia possibly lining up his top starters on short rest.
"It's a big series, no doubt about it," Washington said. "I have no reaction at all to them starting their guys on three days' rest. Scioscia's club never dies. They never will. They're going to battle all season, and he has some pitchers to throw out there."
"We have a new opportunity (Friday)," third baseman Michael Young told the Star-Telegram. "It doesn't really matter what happened in the past. These games are over with. We've been through these stretches before, and we've always answered the bell. I expect this to be the same thing."
The series is so big that Jered Weaver (15-6, 2.03), who recently became $85 million richer with a contract extension, may start Sunday's game on three days' rest for the first time in his career. In his most recent start Wednesday night, the right-hander threw just 96 pitches in seven innings. There has also been talk of using Ervin Santana (9-9, 3.17) on short rest to start Saturday's game, while Dan Haren (13-6, 2.98) will take the hill Friday night on regular rest.
Despite possibly using two of their top pitchers on short rest, the Angels are riding a wave of confidence. They have gotten hot and enter Friday's series opener looking for a seventh straight victory. At the start of the winning streak, the Halos were seven games back of the first-place Rangers. When these teams square off Friday night, the Angels will be two games back with a chance to take the lead.
"I think we match up well," said Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, whose walk- off homer against the Rangers on Aug. 18 started the team's current win streak. "When we're playing well, I think we match up with anybody. I know at times our offense has struggled and everyone knows they can hit. It's no secret we need to score some runs against them."
While the Rangers were being dealt their sixth loss in their last eight games from Boston on Thursday, the Angels had the day off to rest up for this weekend's pivotal series.
SIGNS OF LIFE IN SEATTLE
In what was one of their better-played series of the season, the Seattle Mariners (56-73) took three of four this week from the Cleveland Indians, who are trying to make a playoff push in the AL Central. For the Mariners, it was a solid ending to a seven-game road trip that began with a three-game sweep in Tampa last weekend.
Most importantly, a lineup that has been dormant for much of the season (and last) has begun to come alive. Over their last five games, the Mariners have scored 7, 3, 5, 12 and 9 runs (7.2 avg). The last time Seattle plated 21 runs in a two-game span was Aug. 8-9, 2007. Better yet, some of the young guys have been leading the charge.
During the road trip, rookie third baseman Kyle Seager went 15-for-25 (.600) with five doubles, two homers and seven runs scored to raise his average from .182 to .313. In the Cleveland series alone, Seager was a ridiculous 12-for-17 (.706) with three doubles.
"He's a young player, gone from Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues here in a short period of time," manager Eric Wedge told the Seattle Times. "So there's always going to be a certain amount of time to adapt and adjust and get a feel for what's going on. He's hitting up there with some confidence, he's using the entire field. He's always hit wherever he's been, and he's really swinging the bat well right now."
Although they still boast the worst team batting average in the majors (.235), the M's have hit a respectable .284 in August. That turnaround could not have happened without Seager and a few other youngsters heating up at the plate. Rookie second baseman Dustin Ackley has held his own both in the field and in the batter's box, where his is hitting .288 in 58 games. First baseman Mike Carp, getting his first extensive action in the big leagues since being called up in June, is batting .300 in 48 games this year and just had a 20-game hit streak halted on Monday. Rookie left fielder Trayvon Robinson has hit .304 in 16 games, while guys like Casper Wells and Wily Mo Pena have found their power stroke over the last few weeks.
As the front office evaluates personnel to see who fits into the team's plans moving forward, some of the younger guys are making a case to stick around for a while.
A'S TRADE KOUZMANOFF; HARDEN NEXT?
As it turned out, Kevin Kouzmanoff was not the Oakland Athletics' long-term answer at third base, after all. Initially acquired from San Diego in the winter of 2010 to fill just that role, Kouzmanoff on Tuesday was traded along with cash to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for future considerations. He'll report to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
The 30-year-old Kouzmanoff hit just .221 with four homers and 17 RBI for Oakland this season and had also committed nine errors in just 46 games. On June 26, he was demoted to the minors for the first time in five years and A's manager Bob Melvin turned over the third base gig to Scott Sizemore for the time being.
"I think it's a spot we need to figure out moving forward," A's assistant general manager David Forst told the Oakland Tribune. "Scott has done a nice job. I think he's certainly a guy we see in the plans. We'll figure out the offseason when the offseason gets here."
Meanwhile, veteran Rich Harden has been the subject of numerous trade rumors over the past two months. The 29-year-old, who is 4-2 with a 4.55 ERA in 10 starts this season, was almost dealt to Boston on July 30. That deal fell through because the Red Sox had injury concerns. Earlier this week, the Indians claimed Harden off waivers but a deal could not be worked out, so the A's pulled him off waivers. If Harden is sent through waivers a second time, Oakland cannot pull him back if a team puts in a claim.
Although Harden said he would like to finish his career in Oakland, where it started as a 17th-round pick in 2000, he conceded he has paid attention to the trade rumors.
"In the past I never really paid attention to it," Harden said in the Tribune. "This year, I'd say I paid more attention. It was easier when I didn't, because it's not something you can control."