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Rangers-Tigers Preview

AP - Sports

It's been six months, but the Detroit Tigers might still have nightmares about Nelson Cruz's performance for the Texas Rangers in last season's AL Championship Series.

In an early matchup of division leaders, the Rangers and Tigers open a four-game series Thursday night with their first meeting since Cruz carried Texas to the AL pennant in October.

Much of the talk heading into last season's ALCS revolved around Justin Verlander, the league Cy Young Award winner and MVP. When the series ended with the Rangers winning their second straight AL pennant in six games, Cruz had stolen the spotlight.

Cruz had six home runs and 13 RBIs - both records for a postseason series - and not surprisingly, was named the ALCS MVP.

The right fielder is off to a slow start in 2012, batting .234 with two homers, six RBIs and 17 strikeouts, but it hasn't hurt Texas (10-2) as Josh Hamilton and Michael Young are pounding the ball.

Hamilton, who hit .308 with four doubles and five RBIs in last season's ALCS, is 11 for 18 (.611) with three home runs and nine RBIs in the last four games.

Young is batting .520 with two homers and eight RBIs during a six-game hitting streak, and had a home run and seven RBIs against the Tigers in the postseason. He sat out Wednesday's 6-3 win over Boston - Texas' sixth straight - because of a stiff back, but is expected to play against Detroit.

Mike Napoli hit a two-run homer and drove in four Wednesday for the Rangers, whose starting pitchers improved to 8-0 for the first time in club history.

"We know we've got a team,'' said Napoli, who has four home runs and nine RBIs in the last three games. "We've got some good starters that can throw strikes and keep us in games.''

The Rangers also have a pretty good offense, one that leads the AL with 69 runs and the majors with 22 homers.

In an effort to improve their lineup, the Tigers (9-3) signed Prince Fielder in the offseason.

Fielder drove in two runs in Wednesday's 4-3 victory over Kansas City - Detroit's fourth straight - and is batting .356 with two homers and eight RBIs. In six career games against Texas, Fielder is 7 for 27 (.256), but five of those hits have left the park.

Fielder isn't the only new addition from last season's postseason matchup, as neither scheduled starter Yu Darvish (1-0, 4.76 ERA) nor Adam Wilk (0-1, 3.60) were part of the ALCS, either.

Darvish, the Rangers' prized offseason acquisition, has been shaky in his first two starts. His opponents' .450 on-base percentage is second-worst in the majors among pitchers with at least 11 innings.

Against Minnesota on Saturday, the right-hander gave up two runs, nine hits and four walks along with a hit batter and a wild pitch in 5 2-3 innings of a 6-2 victory, though he didn't receive a decision. The Twins twice loaded the bases against Darvish with two outs, but the Japanese sensation managed to get strikeouts in each situation to escape.

"That's what good pitchers do,'' manager Ron Washington said. "Still have to work on getting ahead of hitters quicker. But he was much better today with his command.''

Wilk, who made five relief appearances last season, was solid in his first start Saturday against the Chicago White Sox, but was ironically knocked out by his own teammate. The left-hander departed as a precaution after being hit in his pitching shoulder by a Fielder foul ball while sitting in the dugout in the sixth inning.

He allowed two runs on solo homers and one other hit while striking out four and walking one in a 5-1 loss.

"It was disappointing,'' Wilk said. "I'd like to keep going out there and keep the team in the game where it was, but you might as well be safe at this point. Getting hit in your throwing shoulder isn't always a good thing.''

Wilk threw two innings of relief against the Rangers on June 8, surrendering a homer to Adrian Beltre.

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