Week ahead: A's, Angels, AL West title?
The Texas Rangers return home to face the Oakland A's for four games and then welcome the Los Angeles Angels to town. It's the final homestand of the season and there's plenty on the line as Texas gets back in front of its hometown fans. Some things to watch this week:
* Magic number: It's at seven as play begins tonight. And since the magic number gets reduced by either a Rangers or an A's loss, that number can go down in a hurry if the Rangers win. If they sweep the A's, they win the AL West outrgiht and would celebrate after Thursday's game. If they win three of four, they would clinch at least a tie of the division title. A split would keep the division lead at four games, but it would also reduce the magic number to three. The A's really need to win at least three of four to put more pressure on the Rangers and have a chance to make the three-game series in Oakland next week matter.
* Josh Hamilton: Is the slugger back in the lineup tonight or are the issues with his vision still enough to keep him out? The offense needs Hamilton, but they also need him healthy and ready for the postseason. Stay tuned.
* No. 1 overall seed: Keep your eye on the scoreboard too. While the Rangers don't need to scoreboard watch for the division the next four nights, the race for the No. 1 seed in the AL is still very much a scoreboard-watching event. The New York Yankees take on the Minnesota Twins for three games and then have four against the Toronto Blue Jays. They are two games back of the Rangers in that race for the top seed. That No. 1 spot means facing the winner of the AL wild card game and starting the series on Sunday, Oct. 7. It's probable that the wild card team would have thrown its top starter in that game, so the Rangers would have another advantage heading into the series if they are the top seed. It matters and it's worth keeping an eye on.
* Starting pitching: Even in losses, the Rangers are getting good starting pitching, especially from the four guys that are frontrunners for the playoff rotation. If that continues this week and into the playoffs, the Rangers are going to be tough to beat.
* Catcher: The offensive production at catcher has steadily increased the past week or so. Mike Napoli has three home runs in his last six games and Geovany Soto has also found the power switch. We know that both of those guys can handle a pitching staff. But if the Rangers also get the benefit of added offense from that position, it makes the lineup even deeper.
* Bullpen: Last time Texas was at home, the bullpen was a bit depleted. But it's at full strength and should likely get chances to close down games this week. Mike Adams didn't mow through the Mariners' lineup on Sunday, but he got the job done and kept Texas' one-run lead for closer Joe Nathan, who got through the ninth without any hurdles.
* Rest: We saw last year that because the Rangers clinched with five days left in the season, they were able to rotate some players in and get some regulars some rest. And they were still competitive enough to win 14 of the final 16 and get homefield in the ALDS (and in the ALCS when the Tigers advanced). If they can find a way to clinch by this weekend, manager Ron Washington would get a chance to do that again. Any kind of rest this time of year, especially for a team that's played in two straight World Series, would be helpful.
* Crowds: The Rangers are expecting to break 3.4 million fans for the 2012 season. That's quite amazing and a testament to how well the club has played the past few years and how Rangers fans keep turning out despite hot weather.
103.3 FM ESPN PODCASTS
Play Podcast Rangers GM Jon Daniels joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to tackle the tough questions after his team failed to advance to the playoffs.
Play Podcast Nolan Ryan joins Galloway and Company to discuss having Nelson Cruz back in the lineup and how the Rangers are feeling heading into their wild-card play-in game against the Rays.
Play Podcast ESPN Insider and senior MLB analyst Jim Bowden joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the wild-card race and the Rangers' chances of making the playoffs.
Play Podcast Chuck Cooperstein joins Ian Fitzsimmons and Tim MacMahon to discuss why he feels Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish isn't an ace.
Play Podcast Elvis Andrus joins Galloway and Company to discuss the Rangers' stretch run and the morale level in their clubhouse.
Play Podcast Nolan Ryan joins Galloway and Company to discuss the latest Rangers news, including the team's struggles, Ron Washington's job security and a rumored trade with the Braves.
Play Podcast Ron Washington joins Ian Fitzsimmons and Tim MacMahon to discuss the Rangers' dismal September, who's to blame for their September struggles and his status as the team's manager.
Play Podcast Fitzsimmons and Durrett discuss how some people are calling for the Rangers to fire manager Ron Washington.