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Updated: September 8, 2010, 2:13 AM ET

Rangers need to get healthy and get ready

By Bobby Valentine
ESPN
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The Texas Rangers have a comfortable lead in the AL West, but that doesn't mean they're sitting comfortably.

Cliff Lee is dealing with a strained back muscle and already has missed start. Josh Hamilton is going to miss time. Elvis Andrus has a tight hamstring, and the wins just aren't coming as easily. How should manager Ron Washington handle this team in the last month of the regular season?

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJosh Hamilton is just one of a host of ailing Rangers.

With a 6½-game lead, the Rangers can take some time to give their best hitter and pitcher a rest. With a full month before the playoffs start, they have 10 days to two weeks when they can be conservative in their approach to baseball and still have enough games to regain the form that they're going to need to be outstanding competitors in the playoffs. This cushion also allows Washington the opportunity to play the guys he might need in pinch-hit or substitution roles in postseason play.

For example, Jeff Francoeur, who recently joined the Rangers' roster in a trade with the Mets, will now have more chances to face American League pitching. These extra at-bats will keep him sharp and ready for playoff situations when he might be played in a platoon role or used as a pinch-hitter. It's also nice to have someone with experience getting playing time right now because you never know if injuries or slumps may pop up near playoff time.

The real challenge is, once the Rangers' banged-up players get back into the full swing of things, you have to get them in big-game condition so that they're peaking and ready to play playoff baseball once the postseason begins. Hopefully it will not be the calendar that determines when these players are playing again, but when Mother Nature says they're ready.

Lee was a true workhorse in Seattle and he's kept up that pace in Texas, so if fatigue caused his back strain then rest is just what the doctor ordered. From everything that I know about Cliff Lee, Texas is going to have to monitor his situation closely because he's going to want to pitch as soon as possible -- and pitching is a catch-22: When he pitches he'll be able to regain his touch for the postseason and his touch is what gives him great command (particularly the ability to get right-handed hitters out on the inside part of the plate). But trying to regain that touch without aggravating your back becomes a difficult line to walk.

Just as these individuals have to rehabilitate and get back into competitive modes to be able to perform at their highest levels, the team has to understand that their big lead might take their sense of urgency off the playing field. Ron Washington has to be careful in thinking that he can just turn the switch on when the playoffs begin. A large divisional lead is a blessing that allows your team to rehabilitate injuries, but it can be a curse when it comes to individual and collective competitiveness.

And when it's looking like you're going to face either the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs, you need all the competitive fire you can muster.

Bobby Valentine is an analyst for "Baseball Tonight"

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