September 2010 was a relatively pressure-free month for the Texas Rangers, even though they felt the weight of chasing the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1999.
But not once did their lead in the American League West dip below seven games. Each time they hit a funk, they had a nice big cushion to soften the fall. The three teams chasing them were very cooperative, too.
Twice the West lead hit 10 games before the Rangers clinched Sept. 25, and they finished the season nine games up.
That's not going to happen this year.
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The lead entering Monday was three games. While Oakland and Seattle have reprised their roles as Larry and Moe, Los Angeles isn't acting anything like Curly.
Big games are ahead for the Rangers. While they didn't play any in September 2010, they played 16 in October. When the Rangers need to dig deep over the next 27 games, they'll dip into their October memory bank to give themselves a chance at another playoff run.
"There's something riding on every single pitch," second baseman Ian Kinsler said about October baseball. "It's one thing to watch it or experience on TV or in a stadium. Until you're out on the field and you experience the intensity of every single pitch, it's hard to know what it takes. To be able to draw on it is huge."
The Rangers won a big game Sunday night, rallying from a 4-1 hole to beat the Angels 9-5. A loss -- which was a very real possibility much of the game -- would have cut the Rangers' division lead to one game.
They knew prior to the series that the Angels weren't going anywhere. The three-game series only further convinced the Rangers that the West race could very well come down to the final three games of the season, Sept. 26-28 at Angel Stadium.
"We're not taking anything for granted, but at the same time there's no reason for us to be playing scared," outfielder David Murphy said. "We respect the Angels. They know how to win. They're a competitive team. But we feel like it's our division to win again. We have to prove that in the way that we play."
Record: 76-59, +3.0 games in AL West
Games remaining: 27 (12 home)
Opponents' winning percentage: .515
Key player: Adrian Beltre, 3B. With Nelson Cruz hurt, Beltre must return as a lineup force to keep the offense churning. His numbers before suffering a strained left hamstring -- .276 average, 20 homers, 76 RBIs -- suggest that he will.
Key pitcher: C.J. Wilson, LHP. The Rangers are keeping their No. 1 starter on a strict five-day schedule. He needs to pitch like an ace -- to help offset the Angels' three aces -- and can't show signs of fatigue that others in the rotation have flashed.
Key number: 28-14 vs. AL West. Manager Ron Washington believes that a team must play well within the division to win it. The Rangers have mopped up against Oakland (9-4) and Seattle (10-3), and doing enough against the Angels (9-7). LA, meanwhile, is 20-21.
Remaining schedule: vs. Tampa Bay, today-Thursday; at Boston, Friday-Sunday; at Tampa Bay, Monday-Sept. 7; vs. Oakland, Sept. 9-11; vs. Cleveland, Sept. 13-15; at Seattle, Sept. 16-18; at Oakland, Sept. 20-22; vs. Seattle, Sept. 23-25; at Los Angeles, Sept. 26-28.
Record: 72-61, second in AL West, -3.0 games
Games remaining: 29 (15 home)
Opponents' winning percentage: .481
Key player: Mark Trumbo, 1B. The Angels don't have a hitter who can carry them offensively. Though a rookie, Trumbo finds himself locked in the No. 5 spot behind Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter -- veterans who know how to get on base. Trumbo can't fade late.
Key pitcher: Joel Pineiro, RHP. Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana can't pitch on three days' rest all the time, nor can they and Dan Haren win every time out. Pineiro is a veteran starter who needs to shore up one of the remaining two rotation spots.
Key number: 19. If the Rangers just match their 90 wins from 2010, the Angels must win 19 of their final 29 games to win the West. That's a .655 winning percentage. That's not impossible, as their .700 winning percentage the past 10 games suggests, but it's a tall task.
Remaining schedule: at Seattle, Monday-Thursday; vs. Minnesota, Friday-Sunday; vs. Seattle, Monday-Sept. 7; vs. New York, Sept. 9-11; at Oakland, Sept. 12-14; at Baltimore, Sept. 16-18; at Toronto, Sept. 19-22; vs. Oakland, Sept. 23-25; vs. Rangers, Sept. 26-28.
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760