Texas teetering

Several first-place teams are trying to hold off their nearest rivals as the finish line in baseball’s 2011 regular season is now clearly in site.

The AL West-leading Texas Rangers, finally getting a day off Monday after playing the last 10 days in the Texas heat, are one of those clubs.

When the Rangers captured two of three games over the weekend against the second-place Los Angeles Angels, it expanded their lead over the charging Halos to three games. However, that lead was a more cushy seven games just 10 days ago.

Last week’s four-game homestand against Boston didn’t do the Rangers any favors. After blanking the Beantown boys 4-0 in the opener, Texas dropped the next three games by a combined score of 30-7.

Texas is close to getting third baseman Adrian Beltre back after he missed a month with a strained left hamstring, but now Nelson Cruz could be down for some time with a similar injury.

The opposition won’t get much easier this week, as the Rangers host the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays in a three-game series starting Tuesday night. Texas will then get a chance for some quick revenge when it travels to Fenway Park for a three-game weekend series against the Red Sox.

The Rangers will need to maintain at least their three-game lead heading into their final three games, which just happen to be in Anaheim against the Angels.

The Angels may have a slight schedule advantage over the Rangers coming down the stretch. The Halos will play the slumbering Seattle Mariners seven times, the injured Minnesota Twins on three occasions, the Baltimore Orioles in a three-game series and the Oakland A’s six times.

Mike Scioscia’s troops still must play a three-game series against the Yankees, but those outings will be at the Big A where the Angels were 38-28 heading into Tuesday’s games.

The Rangers also play Seattle and Oakland six more times each, as well as a three-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians.

Texas will have just 12 of its last 27 games at home, which is unfortunate considering the club is a stellar 42-27 entering Tuesday’s action.

Ron Washington will skip Matt Harrison in the rotation in favor of reliever Scott Feldman in Tuesday’s opener against the Rays. Other starters could probably use a break, as well. Over the last 10 games, the relievers have a 6.35 ERA while allowing seven home runs in 35 innings.

Feldman will be making his first start of the season after pitching seven games out of the bullpen. The most recent relief appearance was the most promising.

The right-hander blanked the Red Sox on two hits through four innings during last Thursday’s 6-0 loss. Feldman walked one and fanned three during a 54-pitch effort.

Tampa Bay will counter with Jeremy Hellickson, who enters the contest with an 11-9 ledger and a very respectable 3.01 ERA. The Rays are 12-11 in Hellickson’s 23 starting assignments, with the ‘under’ going 13-10.

The 24-year-old right-hander is off last Thursday’s 2-0 loss against Detroit as a $1.65 home favorite. Hellickson absorbed the loss despite allowing just two runs on six hits through seven innings. He walked one and fanned seven during his 102-pitch effort.

Hellickson is 6-4 with a 3.68 ERA on the road, with the ‘over’ going 9-3. He has a 5-5 record and a 2.41 ERA at home, with the ‘under’ going 10-1. He has not faced the Rangers this season.

These teams have had one three-game series against each other this season (May 30 – June 1 at Tampa), with the Rangers taking the opener (11-5) and finale (3-0). The Rays registered a 5-4 victory in the middle game. The ‘over’ cashed in the first two games before the ‘under’ made an appearance in the finale.

Texas has not faired well in close contests this season, evidenced by its 16-21 record in one-run games and 4-4 ledger in extra innings. The Rangers have outscored their opponents by 99 runs thus far (686-587). Texas is 56-40 against right-handed starting pitchers.

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