OAKLAND, Calif. -- It was just Friday morning that the Texas Rangers held a four-game lead and had a third AL West crown nearly in their grasp.
Now, all of a sudden, they have just one game to make sure it doesn't slip away completely. Just one game to be sure the Oakland Athletics don't swoop in and snatch the division title from a club that has owned it for nearly three seasons.
The Rangers haven't played up to their capabilities down the stretch. They aren't hitting the ball with any consistency and are struggling to come up with key hits with runners in scoring position. They've run into a few outs on the bases and have made some costly defensive mistakes. The starting pitching has been up and down and they have dealt with injuries of late, too.
Put it all together and the Rangers have lost eight of their past 12 games (and four of five) and must win Wednesday afternoon against the surging and improbable A's to avoid a win-or-go-home, one-game AL wild-card game on Friday.
It's amazing to think that a club that has led the division by itself since April 9 is now tied with the A's with just one game left in the 2012 regular season. This same A's team was once 13 games back of Texas in the AL West, but slowly and surely chipped away at that lead. They've now pulled even.
Rangers manager Ron Washington knew he needed to say a few quick words to his team after Tuesday's 3-1 loss.
"We just lost two straight ballgames," Washington said. "If you're a baseball player, it hits you in the gut. I just want to let them know that I'm still proud of them. We've still got something to play for. I wanted them to keep their heads up and let them know that I still have their back and I'm still proud of them. We have to come out tomorrow and play one more game."
It was a relatively quiet clubhouse, but not a depressing one following a game in which the Rangers couldn't get anything going offensively. They torched Travis Blackley last week and knocked him out of the game after the first inning. On Tuesday, the bats couldn't catch a fire of any kind against the young left-hander. He gave up one run in six innings and left the rest in the hands of the solid A's bullpen.
The Rangers know that if they want to have another raucous celebration in the visiting clubhouse in Oakland -- the same place where they clinched the AL West in 2010 -- they must find a way to grab some momentum and beat A.J. Griffin and the A's on Wednesday.
"The season is not over," veteran Michael Young said. "We haven't lost anything. We have an opportunity tomorrow to win a ballgame and put ourselves in better position. We like games like that. We've played in big games before. We love it. Those games are about all heart and grit and competitive fire. That's what baseball this time is all about."
But the fact that it's come to this is surprising. The Rangers appeared to have the AL West in control almost since the season started. They built as much as a 6½-game lead at the end of April and stayed in front the whole year. The only question after taking two of three in Anaheim on Sept. 20 was when the clincher would come.
The Rangers are still waiting. And there's only one more chance left.
"We're a talented group of guys and we haven't played up to our standards lately," outfielder David Murphy said. "If we can get the offense going a little bit early, that would definitely help. I'm sure it's going to be a close game and a good battle tomorrow. It's a huge game. It should be a lot of fun."