The Texas Rangers are starting to get comfortable atop the AL West.
The Tampa Bay Rays are anything but content, but they could change that very soon.
While the Rangers attempt to continue building their division lead, the Rays will try to stay close in the AL East race in the opener of this three-game series Friday night in St. Petersburg.
Texas (82-55) owns the league’s best record and has a 5 1/2-game lead on second-place Oakland in the West thanks to an 11-4 run. While the A’s were swept by the Angels this week, the Rangers took advantage by taking three of four at Kansas City following Michael Young’s run-scoring single in the 10th inning of Thursday’s 5-4 victory.
Texas is aiming to reach the postseason for a franchise-record third straight year, but so is Tampa Bay (75-62).
The Rays are two games behind East co-leaders Baltimore and New York while sitting 1 1/2 back of Oakland for the AL’s second wild-card slot.
While the Orioles and Yankees square off this weekend, the Rays have a heavyweight matchup of their own to worry about against Texas. After that, Tampa Bay visits Baltimore for three games before three more in New York.
The Rays won the first two at home against the Yankees earlier this week before falling 6-4 in Wednesday’s finale.
“I still like the idea about winning two out of three against a very good baseball club,” manager Joe Maddon told the Rays’ official website. “We weren’t going to win the rest of our games from now until the end of the season, but if we play with that kind of intensity, intent and effort, God bless it; I’ll take it.”
The Rays have split six season meetings with the Rangers, all in Texas, and most recently lost two of three Aug. 27-29.
Derek Holland (10-6, 4.79 ERA) opened that series with a 6-5 win for the Rangers, allowing five runs - three earned - in six innings.
That’s part of a streak of five starts by the left-hander that have ended in Texas wins. He’s 3-0 with a 3.51 ERA in that stretch, getting 8.37 runs of support per nine innings.
Holland got much more help than he needed Sunday in an 8-3 victory at Cleveland. He allowed two runs and scattered seven hits in seven innings.
Josh Hamilton’s recent success at the plate may give Holland another large margin for error. He’s hitting .346 with five homers, 14 RBIs and seven walks in his last 14 games, as half of his six hits over the past five have left the park.
Hamilton hasn’t come close to being that productive at Tropicana Field, batting .167 with one homer and 12 RBIs in 20 career games, five of which have come over the last two postseasons as Texas has eliminated the Rays each time.
Adrian Beltre, however, has a .341 average with six homers and 17 RBIs over his last 22 visits to Tropicana Field. That includes the Rangers’ last visit in Game 4 to clinch of the AL division series, as the third baseman connected for three homers - with two coming off Jeremy Hellickson, Friday’s starter.
Beltre enters this series as the hottest player in baseball over the past few weeks, hitting .443 with 11 homers and 21 RBIs in his last 15 games.
Hellickson (8-10, 3.41), who was pulled after four innings in Game 4 last fall, hasn’t faced Texas since, and he’s again had issues at home in the past three months. The right-hander is 1-5 with a 6.29 ERA in his last seven starts in St. Petersburg.
He’s pitching better overall of late, though. Hellickson has a 2.88 ERA in his last four outings, but is 1-3 due to a lack of run support.