Rangers face Texas-sized AL challenge

The Texas Rangers have spent the past month filling the holes on their roster. Last week, they finally brought an end to an agonizing bankruptcy battle that resulted in Hall of Fame right-hander Nolan Ryan and his group becoming the official owners of the franchise.

And now comes the real challenge: getting ready to make a run deep into October. In the next two weeks, they will get a read on just how well they compare to the rest of the big boys in the American League.

Four of Texas’ next five series are against the AL East Big Three (Yankees, Boston, Tampa Bay) and AL Central contending Minnesota.

The one non-contender on the Rangers upcoming calendar is Baltimore and as bad as the Orioles may be, they not only have won four of six games against the Rangers this year, but they will be hosting Texas in two weeks. It will also be an emotional moment for Buck Showalter, the fired Rangers manager who last week started filling out the lineup card in Baltimore.

The Rangers are in control of the AL West. They have a 7 1/2-game lead on second place Oakland, the only division leader with more than a two-game cushion.

Winning the AL West isn’t easy, but it’s not the challenge this team faces. A franchise that has advanced to the postseason only three times in an existence that began as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961, the Rangers have been division champions three times (1996, 1998 and 1999).

And out of those three trips to the postseason, they have one victory — Game 1 of the 1996 AL Division Series against the Yankees — and then nine consecutive losses, all to the Yankees. Being the best in the AL West is nice but consider that as big a lead as the Rangers may have in their division this year, they still have only the third-best record in the AL behind the AL East leading Yankees (68-41) and the AL East second-place Tampa Bay Rays (67-44).

The Rangers have been in control in the AL West, going into Sunday 23-13 within the division. They dominated the NL in interleague play, going 14-4, but they also played those 18 games against five sub-.500 NL teams, which went into Sunday a combined 73 games below .500. They have the edge on the AL Central (18-13).

But when it comes to the AL East, the Rangers keep coming up short (9-16).

That, however, was compiled before a jubilant July in which the Rangers addressed their need for a veteran catcher by acquiring Bengie Molina from San Francisco, filled the void at the front of the rotation with the addition of left-hander Cliff Lee from Seattle, and then filled in the pieces by adding infielder Cristian Guzman from Washington and the right-handed run-producing bat of corner infielder Jorge Cantu from Florida.

The stretch begins with two-game against Texas on Tuesday and Wednesday with Lee getting the call in the series finale. Lee is only 2-2 with the Rangers, but his 1.91 in the five most recent of his six Rangers starts underscores how well he has been pitching.

After the Yankees visit, the Rangers host Boston for three games next weekend followed by a trip to Tampa Bay for three and Baltimore for four before returning to Texas for a four-game showdown with Minnesota.

WHAT’S ON TAP

The Rangers have the most challenging week of the contenders, but Minnesota, which is just 1/2 game back of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, gets a chance to take care of business for itself with a three-game visit to Chicago Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

There’s also a showdown of the two teams in the NL Central: first-place St. Louis goes to Cincinnati for three games beginning Monday. The Cardinals then go home for an emotional matchup against the Cubs while Cincinnati hosts Florida next weekend.

Tampa, which went into Sunday having lost four in a row and falling 1 1/2 games back of the Yankees, could get well with series at Detroit (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) and then comes home for three games with Baltimore.

San Diego tunes up for a three-game NL West showdown in San Francisco against the second-place Giants next week by hosting Pittsburgh for three games beginning Thursday while the Giants have a four-game tune-up against the Cubs at AT&T Park.

The fading Los Angeles Dodgers get a first-hand look at the NL East race with a three-game series at second-place Philadelphia beginning Tuesday and then at division-leading Atlanta next weekend.

ROSTER WATCH

Right-hander Rich Harden’s slot in the Texas rotation is up for discussion. It’s no coincidence that lefty Derek Holland’s turn at Triple-A Oklahoma City is lined up with the days Harden pitches for the Rangers.

Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena gave in to a torn plantar fascia ligament and went on the disabled list, allowing the Rays to activated right-hander Andy Sonnanstein, who got the start on Sunday.

Atlanta second baseman Martin Prado (fracture right little finger) could return next Sunday.

Minnesota closer Jon Rauch, sidelined by blisters on his hands, feet and mouth from an allergic reaction, could return as early as Thursday at Chicago.

Yankee left-hander Andy Pettitte could go out on a rehab assignment after his second bullpen session on Sunday. Pettitte (11-2, 2.88) has been out since July 18 with a left groin strain.

San Diego reliever Mike Adams was activated from the disabled list on Saturday, and the Dodgers could have shortstop Rafael Furcal back Monday night.

ADDING THEM UP

• St. Louis 1B Albert Pujols went 14-for-28 in the last week with five home runs and 11 RBIs. Second-best average among regulars went to Cardinals teammate Brendan Ryan, who hit .478.

• Tampa Bay All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria is in a 9-for-55 funk with 14 strikeouts and has two hits in 16 at-bats with one RBI during the four-game losing streak that Tampa Bay carried into Sunday.

• The Rays, by the way, are 4-14 on Friday nights.

• Colorado is fading the NL playoff race, but then the Rockies 29-28 against teams with losing records.

• First baseman Ryan Howard (sprained ankle) became the 15th Philadelphia player placed on the disabled list.

OOPS

The Chicago White Sox, in the midst of the AL Central race, called up lefty Chris Sale, their No. 1 draft pick in June, to provide bullpen depth. That’s the same Sale that Arizona’s amateur scouts wanted to draft but were overruled by the pro scouts who had been used to checking out draft picks, forcing the scouting department instead of draft right-handed Barret Loux of Texas A&M.

Arizona, battling Pittsburgh to avoid the worst record in the National League, backed off signing efforts because of medical reports questioning the health of Loux’s right shoulder. The Diamondbacks could have saved themselves headaches if they had read the report of the area scout, who expressed similar concerns.

Loux, however, claims he is healthy and that the problems found in the exam were nothing new. He’s not looking at playing for an independent league team instead of returning to Texas A&M for his senior season.