The Tampa Bay Rays have recovered nicely from their uneven start, but adding to a growing win streak could prove challenging.
That's because the Rays will start a three-game road series against their playoff nemesis and the owners of the AL's best record, the Texas Rangers, on Friday night.
After reaching consecutive postseasons for the first time in franchise history, Tampa Bay got this campaign off to a 5-6 start. The Rays, though, have bounced back to win five in a row and seven of eight.
They earned their latest win on Brandon Allen's pinch-hit homer in the ninth inning Thursday against the visiting Los Angeles Angels. Allen, acquired off waivers from Oakland on April 19, recorded the go-ahead RBI in his first at-bat with the team Wednesday, drawing a bases-loaded walk in the eighth inning of a 3-2 victory.
Tampa Bay (12-7) is seeking its longest single-season win streak since a seven-game run July 24-30, 2010. The Rays won their final five games in 2011 and their first three this season.
"Obviously we have a ton of respect for them," Rangers infielder Michael Young told his team's website.
However, Tampa Bay will have to face the team that eliminated them in the opening round the last two years. The Rangers prevailed 3-1 in last year's series en route to their second straight AL pennant.
"That's one team you just can't take lightly," starting pitcher James Shields told the team's website. "If you make mistakes, they're going to hit you."
Texas appears poised for another trip to the World Series and ready to erase last season's disappointment. The Rangers (15-4) have won their first six series in a season for the first time and recovered from Monday's series-opening loss to the New York Yankees to win the final two games, including a 7-3 victory Wednesday.
The Rangers are among the major league leaders with a .295 average, 31 homers and 107 runs scored. Their pitching staff also boasts one of the best ERAs in the AL at 2.62 and their starters are a combined 11-2.
"We're just playing complete baseball," manager Ron Washington said. "Our mindset is let's try to play the best game we possibly can that day, try to do the things the game asks us to do, and you find out that you'll have more fun than that. And we're having fun."
The Rangers will send out one of their three unbeaten starters and the one with the best ERA for Friday's opener, Matt Harrison (3-0, 1.66 ERA).
The left-hander gave up a season-high three runs Saturday in Detroit but was also working eight an eight-run lead before his first pitch as the Rangers won 10-4.
Harrison won the clinching game of last year's division series, allowing two runs over five innings while striking out nine. He also won his only regular-season start against Tampa Bay on Aug. 16, 2008.
The Rays will counter with one of their two unbeaten starters in Shields (3-0, 2.76). Since giving up six runs in his season debut, the right-hander has a 1.11 ERA while winning three consecutive starts.
He allowed one run over eight innings Saturday and fanned a season-high seven during a 4-1 win over Minnesota.
Shields was tagged for seven runs over five frames during Game 2 of last year's division series in Texas and was the loser in Game 2 of the 2010 playoffs. However, the right-hander is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in the past three regular-season starts against Texas and tossed eight scoreless innings during a 4-1 win in Arlington on Aug. 31.