SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Texas Rangers will attempt to become the first team to go to three straight World Series since the New York Yankees did it four consecutive seasons (1998-2001). But those Yankee teams won three Fall Classics. The Rangers are still looking for their first. And the last time a team lost two straight World Series and then won it the following year: 1923 (the Yankees lost in 1921 and 1922 and then won it in 1923, beating the New York Giants).
Key home games: New Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura comes to town for opening weekend and he won't have to watch any replays of his memorable fight with Nolan Ryan on the stadium's videoboard. ... The Rangers play only four AL West games the opening month -- in a series with the Mariners April 9-12. ... The New York Yankees come to Texas just once, Monday, April 23 through Wednesday, April 25. ... The Tampa Bay Rays come to the ballpark twice, including the final three home games of the month.
Key road games: The club's first road trip is a three-city, 10-day tour through Minnesota, Boston and Detroit. ... It means Yu Darvish will make his road debut against Minnesota and then probably in Detroit before the club returns home. ... The Rangers will get their first look at Prince Fielder in a Tigers uniform, too.
Scheduling tidbits: ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" opens in Texas as the Rangers play the White Sox at 7:05 p.m. on April 8. ESPN is scheduled to return to Arlington on April 29 for the final game of the Tampa Bay series. ... The opening weekend series coincides with The Masters, the first golf major of the year. ... NASCAR comes to Texas Motor Speedway while the Rangers are in Minnesota (April 13-15). ... Should also be a fun month with the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars vying for the postseason.
Players to watch: DH Michael Young had 38 hits in April a year ago (second-most in the league), batting .342. ... Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz each had seven homers, tied for the third-most in the league for the month. ... Beltre's 22 RBIs were the second-most in the AL. ... How will Colby Lewis do? He got off to a slow start last year, going 2-3 with a 5.70 ERA in five starts in the month.
2011 rewind: The Rangers got off to a torrid start, going 9-1 in the first 10 games, including a three-game sweep of Boston at home in the opening series. ... Texas finished the month 16-11, snapping a stretch of four straight losing records in the opening month. ... The Rangers were in first place by a game over the Los Angeles Angels when April ended.
Prediction: 13-10. It's tough to imagine the Rangers will start the season as well as they did in 2011, but they'll be solid enough to stay consistent and win their share of series, getting off to a good beginning to 2012.
Key home games: The Angels, with former Ranger C.J. Wilson and newly-signed Albert Pujols, come to town May 11-13 in the first series between the two clubs in 2012. ... Texas plays 13 home games in the month and eight are against AL West foes.
Key road games: The Rangers go from a short trip to a long one when they play three in Houston May 18-20 and then fly all the way to Seattle for three against the Mariners. ... The club plays Toronto, Cleveland and Baltimore in a 10-game, 11-day road trip to start the month.
Scheduling tidbits: ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" returns to Arlington for the third time in the season for the Angels-Rangers finale May 13. ... PGA Tour golf comes to the Metroplex with the HP Byron Nelson Championship May 17-20 (the Rangers are in Houston that weekend) and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial May 24-27, when Toronto is in Arlington.
Players to watch: Ian Kinsler usually picks things up in May and 2011 was no exception. He had 17 runs and seven doubles in the month, with 15 walks (to just nine strikeouts). ... Beltre continued after his solid April with 21 RBIs. ... Alexi Ogando was 2-0 with a 2.36 ERA in five starts in the month, including a complete game.
2011 rewind: Texas was 13-15, yet still held the AL West lead by a half-game over the Mariners and one game over the Angels. ... The rotation posted a 3.53 ERA, the fourth-lowest ERA in the AL for the month.
Prediction: 19-9. Texas takes advantage of the schedule, with three against the Astros, six against Seattle and four against Baltimore. By the time May is over, they'll be in the lead -- barely -- over the Angels.
Key home games: The Rangers finish the month with nine home games, and 15 of their last 18 in the month are at home against Arizona, Houston, Colorado, Detroit and Oakland.
Key road games: Texas will stay in San Francisco for a week -- four against the A's followed by three against the Giants -- as part of a 10-game road trip that starts with three in Anaheim against the Angels.
Scheduling tidbits: With the Rangers in San Francisco for an afternoon affair with the Giants, the IndyCar Series will be at TMS for a night race on that same Saturday, June 9. ... The Houston game June 16 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is on Fox, as is the June 30 game against Oakland.
Players to watch: Nelson Cruz tied for the AL lead in extra base hits with 16 in June last year and had eight homers. ... Josh Hamilton returned to the lineup and had a productive month with 23 RBIs. ... Yorvit Torrealba led all the Rangers with a .338 batting average, good enough for 12th in the AL. ... Matt Harrison had a 3.38 ERA for the month, yet was 1-3.
2011 rewind: Texas was 14-13, the fourth time in the last five seasons they had a winning June. Just like the previous two months, the Rangers were in first place -- barely. They were one game ahead of the Angels.
Prediction: 14-14. It won't be easy to go .500 with a long road trip and interleague games. This is one of those grinding months that the club must get through and still stay afloat.
Key home games: The Boston Red Sox make their only visit to Arlington July 23-25. ... The Angels begin a four-game series in Texas the final two days of the month, ending Aug. 2.
Key road games: Unlike the last few seasons, the Rangers will spend July 4 out of town. They'll be in Chicago for a three-game series with the White Sox. ... After the All-Star Game in Kansas City on July 10, Texas has eight road games in 10 days, with off days in Oakland and Anaheim as part of the trip against AL West foes. They only play two games in Oakland.
Scheduling tidbits: Nolan Ryan Snow Monkey day is July 1 against the A's, the finale of a four-game set. ... Outside of the All-Star break, the Rangers are off four days in July, more than any other month. ... Manager Ron Washington will once again be the skipper of the AL club in the All-Star Game.
Players to watch: When healthy, July has usually been a good month for Cruz, whose bat heats up with the weather. He led the AL with 26 RBIs in July 2011 and batted .326. ... Mike Napoli began his incredible second half last July, returning from injury to hit .443 for the month, the highest mark in the majors. He ended up batting .383 for the second half of the season. ... Derek Holland began to really assert himself in 2011 in July, going 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA.
2011 rewind: It was a big month for the club as it went 18-9, trailing only Boston and Philadelphia for the best record in the big leagues that month. ... The Rangers hit .313 in July, 15 points higher than the next closest team (Boston). ... Despite that, the club gained just one game on its division lead, finishing the month ahead of the Angels by two games, though creating separation with the rest of the AL West (Oakland was 11 ½ back and Seattle 15 behind).
Prediction: 13-10. A dozen games at home helps, though five games against the Angels (including three on the road) won't be easy. The off days and All-Star break should have them rested and ready for a good month, though.
Key home games: Prince Fielder and the Tigers make their final trip to Arlington Aug. 10-12. ... The club has one of its longest homestands of the season, a 10-game span in 10 days against Baltimore, Minnesota and Tampa Bay.
Key road games: There's a stretch of 13 road games out of 16 played early in the month. That includes trips to Kansas City, Boston, New York and Toronto. It's a four-game set in Yankee Stadium and three in the other cities.
Scheduling tidbits: The timing of the long homestand means lots of games in the oppressive Texas heat, though that could certainly be an advantage. It's also important with plenty of key road trips in September.
Players to watch: Besides Napoli, who just kept on hitting, Kinsler was one of only five players in the big leagues to score 20 runs, hit five homers and drive in at least 19 runs in August 2011. His 19 RBIs led all Rangers. ... Michael Young led the Rangers in batting average at .336 with Yorvit Torrealba not far behind (.326). ... Mike Adams had a 1.88 ERA.
2011 rewind: The team ended a three-season skid of losing months in August by going 16-12. ... Texas added 1 ½ games to their AL West lead, jumping out to a 3 ½-game edge on the Angels. ... The pitching staff had a 4.48 ERA, the highest of any month all season.
Prediction: 14-15. It's a total of 29 games in the month and it's not easy with three at Fenway, four at Yankee Stadium and home series with Detroit and Tampa Bay.
Key home games: The club has 13 home games with 10 of them against the AL West. That includes the final three home games played the weekend of Sept. 28-30 against the Angels. ... The only team not in the division that comes to Arlington in September is Cleveland.
Key road games: Most of September is played away from Texas with games against Cleveland, Kansas City and Tampa Bay in an early road trip and the Angels and Mariners late. ... The final three games of the season are in Oakland on Oct. 1-3.
Scheduling tidbits: Assuming the race is tight, the Rangers will have to find a way to get it done on the road. ... Six head-to-head meetings with the Angels (three at home, three on the road) should be entertaining and meaningful. ... Both Sunday games at home are day games at 2:05 p.m. (Seattle, Angels). Of course that's subject to change based on TV.
Players to watch: Napoli shined in September last year, hitting .429 (tied with Miguel Cabrera for the highest average in the big leagues with at least 70 at-bats in the month). ... Beltre had 29 RBIs, tops in the majors. ... Harrison was 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA, and Derek Holland was 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA in 10 combined starts.
2011 rewind: The Rangers made sure there would be no late drama in the AL West, thanks to a huge month. They were 19-6 and, in doing so, beat out the Tigers by one game for the No. 2 seed in the AL, meaning they had home-field advantage against those Tigers in the ALCS. ... The Rangers hit .320 as a team, the third-highest average for any month by any team since 1946. ... The 49 homers set a club record for homers hit in the final month of the season.
Prediction: 20-11. Just like in 2011, the Rangers play well the final month to hold off the Angels.
93-69 (first in the AL West):
We saw last season that when it mattered most, the Rangers team had an ability to bear down and do what needed to be done. Even when they already had the division clinched, they didn't let up and were able to secure home-field advantage for the division series and eventually the ALCS.
As always, the question for the Rangers is health. They didn't stay particularly healthy last year (see Hamilton, Beltre, Cruz), yet still won a club-record 96 games.
The pitching staff must come together with the addition of Darvish and the subtraction of Wilson, and I think it will.
That's why the Rangers win the division for the third consecutive year despite an improved Angels squad.