OK, the biggest series since, well, last week in Anaheim, is upon us. The Rangers and Angels will faceoff for three games that will clearly go a long way toward determining the AL West this season.
It's difficult to believe that just a little more than a week ago, the Rangers were three outs away from an 8-game lead. Now, it's just 2 games. The Angels come in having not lost since Mark Trumbo's 2-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to avoid a four-game sweep last week. The Rangers have lost six of the last eight to see their lead drop by four games in the span of a week. So here we are. Some general things to watch tonight and througout the series:
* Starting pitching. That's perhaps the biggest storyline of the series. The Rangers' starters in the last seven games have 7.43 ERA with just two quality starts and the Rangers have lost five of those games. Starters have given up at least 6 runs in each of the last three games. The starter's ERA of 3.74 is the highest since July 2.
In this 6-game winning streak for the Angels, the starting rotation has posted a 2.79 ERA with four quality starts and every starter has thrown at least six innings in that span. Manager Mike Scoiscia is expected to pitch Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver on short rest in the series. We'll see how that strategy works and how it may impact the Angels even after the series.
* Early runs. The Rangers fell behind early to Boston in each of the last three games, all lopsided losses. They can't afford to do that against the Angels with the way LAA's pitching has been. Texas needs to stop this streak with some early momentum. The team that gets on the board first could have a nice advantage, especially tonight as the series starts.
* Offenses going in opposite directions. The Angels offense has struggled to get the clutch hits and extra runs all year. But in this 6-game winning streak, they've surged. The team is batting .314 with 10 homers and has scored an average of 6.5 runs per game. The Rangers have played eight games in that same span, starting with the 2-1 loss to Anaheim last week, and are hitting .197, averaging just 2.6 runs per game. They've had eight hits or less in all of those games.
That's worth pointing out again: Including the final game of last week's 4-game set with LAA, the Angels' batting average is 117 points higher and they are scoring nearly 4 more runs per game. That trend clearly has to change for the Rangers to win the series.
* Fatigue. The Rangers starters say they're not tired, but they don't look fresh out there lately. That's especially true of the young guns. Derek Holland's job tonight is to show he isn't fatigued -- or if he is to fight through it -- and pitch well against the Angels again. Colby Lewis, who struggled in his last start, will get another shot to do the same on Sunday.
* Crowd. The first week of school, not to mention the heat and premium pricing, impacted the crowds at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for the Boston series. And they didn't have much to cheer about the final three games. Big crowds are expected this weekend and the Rangers need those fans to get into it and make the ballpark a real home advantage for them.
* Defense. Last week, the Angels kicked the ball around against the Rangers, helping Texas in the process. Executing in the field is critical as neither team can afford to give runs away.
* Speed. Watch the basepaths in this series. Both these teams know how to play small ball and they know how to run. And they'll get aggressive when they can. The Rangers need Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus to get on base. Kinsler did his job in the three Boston losses, going 4-for-12 with a walk. But Andrus was 0-for-12 and 0-for-1 on stolen base attempts.
* Momentum. It can change quickly. The Angels didn't appear to have any as they went to the plate in the 9th inning of last Thursday's game, staring at a sweep. But they pulled the game out and haven't lost since. The Rangers have hit a rut. One big inning or great pitching performance could turn those trends around.