While the short-term goal for Ryan Dempster is to continue finding a comfort zone with the Texas Rangers, the bigger picture is helping his team hold off the New York Yankees for the best record in the AL as the division leaders meet in the Bronx on Monday to start a crucial four-game series.
Both the Rangers (67-46) and Yankees (67-47) have comfortable cushions atop their respective divisions with Texas enjoying the largest margin, a 6 1/2-game bulge over Oakland in the West. New York owns a five-game advantage in the East over Tampa Bay.
Dempster (1-0, 6.35 ERA) was acquired by the two-time reigning AL champions prior to the trade deadline to shore up their rotation after a season-ending elbow injury to Colby Lewis. The right-hander bounced back from a horrific first start with the Rangers to pick up his first win with the team Tuesday, giving up three unearned runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 6-3 victory at Boston.
"He's a veteran and he's an easygoing guy to begin with, but I think as a man you want to earn your keep,'' outfielder David Murphy said of Dempster. "Obviously after not having his best stuff his first outing, he wanted to turn that around as quickly as possible.''
Having a familiar glove to throw to behind the plate could also help. Former Cubs batterymate Geovany Soto, acquired by the Rangers in a separate deal, is now the starting catcher after Mike Napoli was placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday with a strained left quad.
"It's a hard enough thing going to a new team. Then, all of a sudden, you have the guy that you've had for the last five years is there catching you," Dempster told the Rangers' official website. "It makes the transition a lot easier. We're obviously very comfortable with each other."
Dempster is 0-3 with a 6.45 ERA in four lifetime starts versus the Yankees, but a loss last year was his first start against them since 2001.
Texas took the final two of a three-game set with Detroit, including an 8-3 victory Sunday when Josh Hamilton homered and drove in three runs, giving him 32 and 99, respectively. The Rangers appear to have regained their offensive bearings, scoring 71 runs to win eight of 11 this month after totaling 81 while going 9-14 in July.
"I just hope we can maintain what we have been doing,'' said Hamilton, who has three homers and 15 RBIs in the 11 August games.
Hamilton will try to extend his surge against David Phelps (2-3, 2.42), who fills CC Sabathia's spot in the New York rotation after the Yankees ace went on the disabled list Sunday with a sore left elbow.
It will be the first start since July 4 for Phelps, who is 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA over 13 innings in his previous three appearances in that role. He allowed three runs and five hits - two of them home runs - over 2 1-3 innings of relief in his only appearance against the Rangers this season on April 25.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi is fully aware of the importance of this series, telling the team's official website, "We are playing in really important games to get more distance in our division, and you are trying to play for home-field advantage... They have the best record in the American League."
The Yankees were denied a three-game sweep at Toronto with Sunday's 10-7 loss that also ended a four-game winning streak. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter each homered, and Jeter is batting .375 during a modest eight-game hit streak.