Texas Rangers

Rangers aim to be thorn in Astros' rise as best in the West

The Texas Rangers are no longer battling the Houston Astros for American League West supremacy.

No, that seemingly has been decided by the Astros’ extraordinary 2017 start that has them sitting pretty, 12 games ahead in the division and looking every bit as good as their major league-best 38-16 record.

The question no longer is whether the Astros will win the West, but by how many games and how soon will they clinch? At the moment, it feels like it should come right around the All-Star break.

The Rangers are reeling again from a stomach-churning loss Wednesday night in which their bullpen — first closer Matt Bush in the ninth, and then Sam Dyson in the 10th — let another win evaporate with a barrage of Tampa Bay Rays’ homers.

Instead of getting back to .500, the Rangers fell two games under and limp gingerly up against the Astros for their second meeting this season and first at Globe Life Park. The series opens Friday with each club’s ace — the Rangers’ Yu Darvish facing the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel.

The Astros come to Arlington with the second-best ERA in the majors and lowest in the AL (3.45), the best batting average in the majors (.277) and 82 home runs, which led the majors until the Rays moved ahead by one Wednesday after belting three in the final two innings against the Rangers.

Astros pitchers have struck out more batters than anyone else (537) and their offense has scored more runs than anyone (292).

“They’re playing good baseball, they’re a good team. They’ve shown it,” Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli said. “When they get here, we’re going to have our game plan and go out there and try and beat them.”

The Astros’ rotation, which gave some pause before the season, has been outstanding through the first two months. Led by Keuchel (8-0), the 2015 Cy Young winner who has rebounded from a down season in ’16, Houston’s rotation leads the AL with a 3.52 ERA, second only to the Cardinals’ 3.22 for tops in the majors.

The Rangers’ rotation, despite a rough 10 days and injuries to Cole Hamels and A.J. Griffin, still ranks seventh in the majors with a 3.99 ERA. Keuchel, who is second in the majors with a 1.81 ERA, has allowed just 14 earned runs in 69  2/3 innings. The Rangers’ bullpen has three pitchers who have each allowed 14 or more earned runs in a combined 61  1/3 innings.

So if this is such a mismatch, a forgone conclusion, and lost cause for the Rangers, what do they have left to play for?

Everything.

This three-game set, along with three more in Houston June 12-14, could decide whether the Rangers as currently constructed are worth keeping together or if general manager Jon Daniels needs to start rethinking his long-term strategy.

The Rangers ran roughshod over the Astros the past two seasons, going 28-10, and catapulting that dominance into division titles. It got to a point where the Rangers seemed to have a mental edge on the young Astros.

But the Astros aren’t so young anymore and they seem hellbent on knocking down any real or perceived mental roadblock the Rangers might represent. They took three of four at Minute Maid Park in early May and did it in demoralizing fashion.

They rallied for five runs in the seventh and eighth innings in the first two games for comeback wins and outscored the Rangers 16-2 in the final four innings en route to winning the first three. The Rangers salvaged the series finale with a 10-4 win but the gauntlet had been thrown. There was a new sheriff in town.

If the Rangers can put a small dent in the Astros’ swagger, perhaps not with the idea of overtaking them, but to send a reminder that the West won’t go down without a fight, and in turn, revitalize their own postseason hopes as a wild card candidate, then we may still have and interesting summer of Lone Star State baseball.

Stefan Stevenson: 817-390-7760, @StevensonFWST

Rangers vs. Astros

7:05 p.m. Friday, FSSW

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