Rangers facing tough stretch against contenders

BOSTON -- In the not-so-distant past, a stretch of games similar to the next 12 on the Texas Rangers' schedule would have been used to measure how high the bar was to compete in the American League and how far below it the Rangers were.

Players looked forward to seeing how they stacked up against the league's top teams. A group that was trying to improve its also-ran status wanted a chance to show the rest of the baseball world to not take the Rangers lightly.

Now, though, the Rangers don't need to prove their worth to anyone or raise their level of play to match the abilities of their next four opponents -- playoff contenders Boston, Detroit, New York and Tampa Bay.

If anything, those clubs have some catching up to do against the two-time defending AL champions.

"They're chasing us," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "The AL championship goes through us. I think everyone understands that.

"You expect the best from your opponent every day. When you have a target on your back, when you're the two-time defending AL champions, the focus of the other team might be raised. It just makes it harder for us."

Kinsler conceded that the next dozen games should be good ones, as all four opponents have the ability to score runs and be backed by strong pitching.

But the key for the Rangers is to build on what they did in their first 10 games. Their pitching staff entered the off day Monday with the best ERA in the AL, and the offense was tied with Cleveland and St. Louis for the most homers (15) in the majors.

The Rangers also have been playing stellar defense, something that was on display throughout their three-game sweep of Minnesota over the weekend.

That formula adds up to victories, no matter who they play.

"Our game plan is not going to change," manager Ron Washington said. "We're going to be aggressive. We're going to pitch; we're going to play defense, and we're going to see what happens after nine innings."

The Rangers might be catching Boston at the right time. The Red Sox just lost one of their main components, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, to a shoulder injury, and have been without left fielder Carl Crawford (elbow, wrist).

Their bullpen is in disarray after closer Andrew Bailey had thumb surgery, and new manager Bobby Valentine created a stir Sunday when he said that Kevin Youkilis lacks passion.

Not only is Youkilis considered by some to be the heart of the Red Sox, but he's also Tom Brady's future brother-in-law.

Maybe fried chicken and beer -- the ingredients talked about in discussions of the Red Sox's clubhouse woes last season -- weren't the worst things.

Even if the Red Sox are struggling, they're not Chicago, Seattle or Minnesota. The Rangers opened the season 8-2 against three teams that lost a combined 287 games in 2011.

"It doesn't matter who you play, you can't take them lightly," said left-hander Derek Holland, who is scheduled to start Wednesday. "They're getting paid to hit and pitch, just like we are. To take them lightly will just come back to bite us."

The Rangers will be in Detroit this weekend for a rematch of the 2011 AL Championship Series, which the Rangers won in six games.

The Tigers added Prince Fielder in the off-season to pair with slugger Miguel Cabrera in a potent lineup. The reigning Cy Young winner and MVP, Justin Verlander, is scheduled to pitch Saturday.

The Rangers will return home Monday for two three-game series next week against the Yankees and the Rays, who have lost to Texas the past two years in the AL Division Series.

"We don't really look at the schedule and think, 'Hey, this is a big month,' and I'm sure they do the same thing," Holland said. "That's not us. We worry about what's in front of us now."

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

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