ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Texas Rangers and Houston Astros open up the final month of the season faithful to the company line -- "one game, one series at a time" -- but with plenty of ambition.
The Rangers will be difficult to catch in the AL West with an 8.5-game lead over the Astros with 28 games to play. Winning two of three against Houston this weekend in a series at Globe Life Park in Arlington will all but actually clinch the division save for a very rare and unforeseen series of events. Texas would then have the luxury of resting key pieces and setting up its rotation for the divisional round of the AL playoffs.
However, if the Astros, winners of 10 of their last 12 games, can take two or even sweep, the division might yet have some intrigue left.
After Houston, the Rangers go on the road for four at Seattle, three against the Angels and three at Houston.
"There's no doubt the next 10 days or so will be a challenge for us to get some separation from the guys behind us," Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "The one coming up with Houston will be important for us to create some separation so we can get some rest."
Houston enters one game back in the AL wild-card standings. They'll need to go 15-14 in their final 29 to match the 86-win plateau they hit in 2015 and will likely need to do that to have a chance at the wild card in 2016.
The Astros' first order of business is solving the Rangers riddle. Texas is 11-2 against Houston this year.
But the schedule doesn't get any easier.
After the Texas series are four games against Cleveland on the road and three with the Cubs at Minute Maid Park.
"Trust me, I'd love to rattle off a ton of wins and clinch a week in advance and set up your rotation and set up everything, but it doesn't seem like it's going to play out that way for too many teams in the game," manager A.J. Hinch said. "The scoreboard is right in front of us (in left field at Minute Maid Park), but the more you scoreboard watch, the more you're taking your attention away from beating the team that's on the field in front of you."
In game one on Friday, the Astros will throw right-hander Doug Fister (12-9, 3.60 ERA) against Texas righty A.J. Griffin (6-3, 4.39).
Fister has battled consistency in the second half, going 4-6 with a 4.09 ERA in 12 starts since June 26. He had success against the Rangers in his last start against them on Aug. 6, holding Texas to one run in six innings.
Griffin, too, has struggled with consistency since coming off the DL in June. The right-hander has only one quality start since May 2, though it was in his last outing. Griffin threw six scoreless innings in a victory over Cleveland.
Texas enters having won five straight and six of seven on its current 10-game homestand.
"The body of work speaks for itself," manager Jeff Banister said of Texas' recent results. "We need to play well. Houston is hot right now. We still have some work to do. We need to come back ready to play."