The Texas Rangers return home to face the Minnesota Twins in a potential playoff preview when the division leaders square off tonight in the first of four straight games at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Texas, vying for its first postseason appearance since 1999, comes into tonight's matchup holding an eight-game lead on both the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Oakland Athletics in the American League West, while the Twins sit five games in front of the Chicago White Sox in the Central.
After getting swept in a three-game series by the Tampa Bay Rays to start their seven-game road trip, the Rangers managed a split in their four-game affair with the lowly Baltimore Orioles after capturing Sunday's finale at Camden Yards.
Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero hit three-run home runs in support of Tommy Hunter's eight effective innings as Texas topped Baltimore, 6-4, on Sunday. Hamilton finished 2-for-4 with two runs scored while Guerrero, Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus each added a pair of hits for the Rangers, who despite the poor trip, lost just a half-game to their competitors in the standings.
"We could have come off the road trip a lot worse than we did -- what did we lose, one game [in the standings]?" Hamilton pointed out. "But it could have been a lot worse. It was good we hung in there."
Hunter (10-2) permitted three runs on five hits without a strikeout or a walk and was followed by Neftali Feliz, who allowed a ninth-inning home run but managed to earn his 31st save for Texas, which improved to 8-11 in August.
"He was hitting his spots," said Rangers manager Ron Washington in grading Hunter's outing. "He had his cutter working, he had his changeup working, everything was down in the zone. He was spotting his fastball and getting quick outs. When he does that, you'll get the performance you got out there [Sunday]."
Heading to the hill for the Rangers tonight will be right-hander Rich Harden, who hasn't pitched since August 7 because of tendinitis in his right shoulder. Harden had lost three of his last four starts before being put on the disabled list and is just 4-4 with a 5.45 ERA on the year.
Harden is 1-1 with a 2.30 ERA in five starts against the Twins.
Minnesota, meanwhile, continues to be one of the hottest teams in baseball, winning eight of its last 10 games after taking two of three from the Angels over the weekend.
On Sunday, Michael Cuddyer hit a three-run double to back Scott Baker's solid performance on the mound as the Twins rolled to a 4-0 victory in the rubber match of that set at Target Field. Danny Valencia hit a solo homer for the Twins, who ended a nine-game homestand with a 7-2 record.
"They're all big games right now," Cuddyer said. "You've got to win each and every game. It was a good homestand for us. Hopefully we can go play well on the road."
Baker (11-9) pitched seven scoreless innings to win his fourth straight decision. The right-hander struck out four and walked two to beat Los Angeles for the first time in his career. He came into the game with an 0-5 mark in eight career starts against the Angels.
The Twins have gone 17-6 against the AL West this season.
Hoping to keep the Twins in the win column this evening will be right-hander Nick Blackburn, who hasn't pitched in the majors since July 25 but was recalled in place of the injured Kevin Slowey. Francisco Liriano was actually supposed to start tonight's tilt, but has been pushed back a day to give him extra rest.
Blackburn, who is 7-7 with a 6.66 ERA on the year, is 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in two starts versus the Rangers.
Minnesota swept the Rangers in a three-game set at Target Field earlier in the year and has won seven of the last nine matchups in the series.