Tampa Bay-Texas Tonight Keynotes Early Week MLB Schedule

The Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have met in the playoffs each of the last two years, with the Rangers winning both times en route to consecutive American League pennants. The October foes square off again to start the week, and while Texas is secure, 5.5 games up in the AL West, Tampa Bay is battling tooth and nail for a wild-card spot as well as keeping their eyes on the New York Yankees ahead of them in the AL East. The Rangers-Rays series in Arlington keynotes the opening half of the week in the race for the MLB playoffs.

Texas has won three consecutive series since being wiped out in the Bronx a couple weeks ago, when they lost three of four in a showcase series against the Yanks. But the Rangers are scoring more runs than anyone in the league this month, and those series wins have produced a 7-3 record. After these next three home games with Tampa, including ESPN coverage for tonight’s opener the Rangers go on a 10-game road swing that ends in Tampa. The overall stretch of 13 games that starts tonight could be the last real chance for a Rangers’ slide significant enough to jeopardize their division title.

Tampa Bay cooled on Friday and Saturday, losing to Oakland and then taking a rare Sunday off because of the Republican convention in their hometown. With the hurricane on the way, plus all the political windbags (don’t interpret that as a partisan shot—merely a shot at all politicians), the Rays are escaping town at the right time. David Price pitches tonight’s series opener on ESPN and James Shields is lined up tomorrow.

The last time the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles played a series this big was probably 1983, whenthe Orioles won a hard-fought ALCS en route to a World Series title. Certainly no one would have circled this series as one of the biggest in baseball back when the season began. But the White Sox just completed a 6-0 homestand, starting it with the Yanks and then sweeping the under-the-radar hot team in the Seattle Mariners. The Orioles won the first two of their series with Toronto before a Sunday rainout, including a big win from Zach Britton on Friday whom they need to have pitch well in September.

Baltimore also got veteran pitching help, dealing away a piece of their bullpen depth in Matt Lidstrom to Arizona for Joe Saunders, who was part of playoff teams for the Los Angeles Angels a few years ago and a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He’ll make his Oriole debut in the Wednesday finale here against Jake Peavy. The White Sox send Chris Sale to the mound on Tuesday, as the lefthander continues his own fabulous year.

The big series in the National League is the St. Louis-Pittsburgh battle on the confluence of the Three Rivers. It was only eight days ago that the Pirates won a 19-inning epic in St. Loo to take the rubber game of a series. But maybe it’s appropriate that a former Cardinal manager, Whitey Herzog once said that baseball is about how you react after the big series (I don’t know if Whitey was the first to say it, but I was about 10 when this happened so he’s the first person I heard it from). What’s happened since is that the Pirates have lost five of six to the Padres and Brewers. And the Cards came up with an enormous weekend in Cincinnati, where they took two of three from the division-leading Reds. Friday night’s opener, when St. Louis rallied from 5-2 down against Mat Latos to win set the tone for the weekend it’s why the Cardinals are still holding the lead in the race for the second wild-card spot.

As to the Pirates, I said prior to the weekend series that Wandy Rodriguez had been brought in to pitch games like Friday’s opener against Milwaukee, where the team needed him to stop a slide. He got knocked off the mound by a sub-.500 team. If he can beat St. Louis in the Wednesday finale, shown to the nation on ESPN, it would make amends for that. Pittsburgh is two back in the race, trailing both the Dodgers and Cardinals.

Other series involving contenders…

Cincinnati-Arizona: Because St. Louis is a rival the weekend series was a disappointment, but the Reds are still six up in the Central and they didn’t have 16-game-winner Johnny Cueto facing St. Louis, which tells you how important they thought the series was. Cueto will get the ball on Tuesday night here, bracketed by Bronson Arroyo on Monday and Latos on Wednesday. They face a Diamondbacks team that, rather than coming on strong like I’ve been waiting for, has folded up the cards. A stunning series sweep at the hands of San Diego has pushed them off the playoff radar and while Lidstrom was a nice pickup for the bullpen, the trading of Saunders indicates Kirk Gibson and company are quietly walking away from the table.

Washington-Miami: The Nats have finally cooled down, being swept by Philadelphia over the weekend and this two-game series wraps up a brief road trip. Stephen Strasburg goes on Tuesday night.

Atlanta-San Diego: San Diego has been the Seattle of the National League, getting on a couple different hot streaks and throwing a monkey wrench into the playoff race. The leveling of Arizona gives them seven straight wins. Atlanta’s coming off a nice series in San Francisco, including Tim Hudson’s gem last night for the ESPN audience, but Ben Sheets’ shoulder has finally acted up and sent him to the disabled list. He wasn’t scheduled to pitch until Friday so it won’t affect this series, but the pressure on the Braves just got a little tighter.

San Francisco-Houston: The Giants start a six-game road trip, but would you rather play the Astros and Cubs on the road or anyone else in baseball at home? At least Tim Lincecum, who had another bad outing last night, doesn’t have to be endured by Frisco fans until the weekend. The Giants are still plus-two on the Dodgers in the NL West, with both teams behind St. Louis for the wild-card cushion.

LA Dodgers-Colorado: Los Angeles is the talk of baseball right now after the weekend extravaganza of their trade with Boston. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember Chad Billingsley has gone on the disabled list, so even if Josh Beckett returns to form, it’s still a wash at the #2 spot in the rotation. Will Beckett return to form? We’ll get our first hint tonight when he makes his debut in Coors Field against Jeff Francis—ironically the same man he faced in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series.

Oakland-Cleveland: I suppose we should give the Indians credit for scraping out one win over New York this weekend, but they’ve still lost nine of ten and for an Oakland team that’s coming off the clutch wins in Tampa and is tied with Baltimore for the last wild-card, these four games are an ideal chance to make some headway. And perhaps cut into Texas’ lead in the AL West.

Toronto-NY Yanks: The Yankees have to be nervous. To only score eight runs in three games off Cleveland pitching is not a good sign, although seeing C.C. Sabathia deliver an ace-like outing in Friday’s win is a good sign. But they’ve slipped behind Texas in the race for the top seed in the American League and both the Rays and Orioles have cut the division lead down under five games. At least the schedule works out for New York. Toronto rolled over in Camden Yards on the weekend and put Jose Bautista back on the disabled list. And Sabathia is set to go in the Wednesday matinee finale.

Detroit-Kansas City: Detroit’s hanging in with red-hot Chicago, as the Tigers took two of three from the Angels and stayed within 2.5 games of the lead in the AL Central and a half-game back of Oakland/Baltimore for the second wild-card. The won the Angels’ series in spite of Justin Verlander, who pitches tonight’s opener, not being on the mound. Detroit’s pitching overall is third in the American League this month. Conversely, Kansas City has split its last ten and moved up to third place in the AL Central. At 56-70, the Royals can still finish with a halfway respectable record if they’re motivated to do so.

Boston-LA Angels: If both teams had lived up to expectations, the anticipation of tonight’s Jered Weaver-Clay Bucholz opener would be electric. As it is, we have to see what to expect from the Red Sox in the wake of their detonation of the roster. As far as LAA, all you can really say is that at least Zack Greinke finally pitched a good game, beating the Tigers 2-1 on Friday. But for this talented and desperate team not to win a must-win series when Verlander wasn’t on the slate is a huge disappointment. LAA is four back in the wild-card race and has to vault over Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland. The Angels need a sweep and an emotionally reeling Boston team is an ideal target.