Twins-Rangers Preview

Despite an ugly seven-game road trip, the Texas Rangers return
to Arlington having lost just one-half game of their sizable
division lead.

The Minnesota Twins would prefer to build on their cushion.

The Twins’ stellar play versus the AL West should give them a
good chance as they embark on their own seven-game trip, which
begins with the first of four Monday night against a Texas team
they’ve already swept.

The Rangers (69-54) arrived in Tampa on Aug. 16 with an 8
1/2-game lead on the Angels, and they’re still up by eight even
after a trip Ron Washington’s club would soon like to forget. Texas
was swept by the Rays, then dropped two of its first three games in
Baltimore.

Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero made sure it would salvage
Sunday’s finale. Hamilton hit a three-run homer in the first inning
and Guerrero followed with a three-run shot in the fifth to lift
the Rangers to a 6-4 win.

“It’s nice to see those two guys come through. That’s what we
needed,” Washington said. “Any time you can get a win it’s good,
especially this one because we’ve got to fly. We can fly having
fun, and it’s nice to hear the music in the clubhouse.”

Texas’ lead is the largest division gap in the majors, and it’s
about to get a look at a potential playoff opponent with the Twins
(72-52) coming to town.

Minnesota led the White Sox by one at the beginning of its
nine-game homestand, but is in a much more comfortable spot as it
heads to Texas and Seattle. The Twins capped a 7-2 stretch by
beating ace Jered Weaver and the Angels 4-0 on Sunday.

“It doesn’t matter who we play. If it’s Texas, Kansas City,
Baltimore, whoever, they’re all big games right now,” said first
baseman Michael Cuddyer, who drove in three with his fifth-inning
double.

Minnesota hasn’t lost a road series in the second half, and has
a great chance to extend that run this week. The Twins are 17-6
against the West, including a three-game sweep of the Rangers from
May 28-30.

Winning Monday’s opener may be difficult, however. Nick
Blackburn (7-7, 6.66 ERA) makes his first appearance in the majors
in a month after being called up to replace the injured Kevin
Slowey.

Blackburn went 1-4 with a 10.92 ERA in his last seven games –
six starts – before being sent to the minors July 30.

He’s 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in two starts against the Rangers, whom
he hasn’t faced since 2008. Blackburn has surrendered 13 homers in
43 1-3 road innings this season, allowing opponents to hit .401
overall.

Even if Blackburn struggles in his return, there’s no telling
what Rich Harden (4-4, 5.45) will give Texas in his first start
since Aug. 7. Harden lasted only 2 1-3 innings in that 6-2 loss at
Oakland before hitting the disabled list with right shoulder
tendinitis.

“I’ve been looking forward to getting back out there,” Harden
said after allowing an unearned run over six innings and striking
out 10 for Triple-A Oklahoma City on Wednesday. “I felt good in the
last start. I’m ready to go.”

Harden is 1-1 with a 2.30 ERA in five starts versus Minnesota,
though only one has been since 2006. Joe Mauer is 2 for 11 with a
homer against Harden.