The Thursday Takeaway
When the Angels took a 6-0 lead in the top of the third inning on Wednesday, then erased a thrilling Rangers comeback with a three-run top of the 10th, the five-game lead Texas carried into the four-game series was in jeopardy. Ron Washington’s team also seemed to be in trouble when Ryan Dempster, making his first start since being acquired at the deadline from the Cubs, allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings. But by surging to victory in the bottom of the 10th two days ago, and flexing their offensive muscle to the tune of a 15-run output last night, the Rangers have widened the American League West gap back to four.

The Angels outscored the Rangers 21-10 in the first two games of the series, and Albert Pujols hit a pair of homers in games two and three, but those feats matter little now. For the time being, a race that narrowed with Anaheim’s acquisition of Zack Greinke—especially coupled with a rash of injuries to Texas’ rotation—and that nearly became a dead heat with a devastating sweep in Arlington, is instead back to where it was before the series began.

The Rangers who took the field the past four days did not have the same aura of invincibility that they carried after a 17-6 April. Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz are done for the season, and the pitching staff allowed 39 runs in the series. Josh Hamilton is slumping instead of hitting home runs, and Pujols has usurped his place as the division’s most fearsome slugger.

Two days ago, it was easy to mistake the now 60-43 Rangers, who are tied with the Yankees for the fewest losses in the American League, for a pretender. Wednesday’s extra-inning comeback and Thursday’s shelling of C.J. Wilson should serve as a reminder that, for all its flaws, Texas still fields one of the best teams in baseball.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • If, nine days ago, I had told you to pick the one American League team that would win its next seven games, the 43-57 Mariners might have been your last choice of the 14. Well, lo and behold, after completing a sweep of the Blue Jays on Wednesday, Eric Wedge’s team is now 50-57 and riding its longest winning streak of the season. Extending that run to eight will not be easy, because a date with CC Sabathia in the Bronx is next on their docket. The last-place Mariners will counter with Kevin Millwood, as they attempt to equal the second-place Angels’ longest winning streak of the season (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Is the Matt Moore who dazzled last September back? The 22-year-old lefty’s last two starts would seem to say “yes,” as he has allowed only two runs over 14 1/3 innings, striking out 13 and walking two. That last number is important because it marks only the second time this season that Moore has walked two or fewer batters in consecutive starts. He will look to make it three in tonight’s series opener against the Orioles (Friday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Angels are two games behind the White Sox in the loss column, so this weekend’s three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field could prove pivotal as the American League playoff races shake out. Mike Scioscia will turn to his new ace, Zack Greinke, in game one, sending the 28-year-old to the mound to face a familiar foe. Greinke just 7-10 with a 3.98 ERA in 22 career starts against the White Sox, but he does have ownage on Paul Konerko, who is just 9-for-62 with 17 strikeouts in their past meetings (Friday, 8:10 p.m. ET).
  • Miguel Montero is batting .344/.455/.625 since the All-Star break, and his torrid hitting has helped the Diamondbacks to win nine of their last 12 games. Next up is a series in Philadelphia, where Arizona will take on a new-look lineup that no longer features Shane Victorino or Hunter Pence. The Phillies do still have Roy Halladay, but that will not intimidate Montero, who is 4-for-8 against him and will try to continue to push the D’backs toward the top of the National League West (Saturday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Cincinnati’s recent surge has left Pittsburgh 3 ½ games back in the National League Central, but this weekend’s series at Great American Ball Park gives Clint Hurdle’s team a golden opportunity to regain lost ground. The biggest concern for the Pirates may be James McDonald’s recent struggles—he has allowed four or more runs in each of his last four starts, after doing so only once in his first 15—and the culprit has been his control: The 27-year-old righty has walked 20 batters in 20 2/3 innings since the All-Star break after issuing just 31 free passes in 110 frames before it. McDonald is 5-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his 10 career outings against the Reds, so perhaps his game-two duel with Mike Leake will get him back on track (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Indians are rapidly fading from the American League playoff picture, having lost six in a row and dropped to 50-55 on the season. They enter the upcoming three-game series at Comerica Park trailing the second-place Tigers by five games and the first-place White Sox by 7 ½, making a series win crucial to their dwindling postseason hopes. That means Carlos Santana, who has actually enjoyed his best run of the season during the Tribe’s recent plunge, needs to stay hot in Detroit. His biggest challenge will come in the series finale, as the switch-hitting catcher is just 1-for-18 lifetime against Tigers starter Max Scherzer (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET).