Rangers face difficult road ahead, Verlander's dominance; more Cuts

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1. Rangers clip the Angels' wings. In the eight days leading up to this weekend's series between the top two teams in the AL West, the Rangers had seen their division lead shrink from seven games to two, but they won two of three to halt the Halos' progress, including Sunday night's 9-5 victory.

It was important for Texas to take advantage of this head-to-head opportunity, given how their remaining schedules favor the Angels. While they both have home-and-road series with division rivals Oakland and Seattle and finish the year with a three-game series against each other, the season finale is in Anaheim and there is a significant discrepancy in the opponents they do not have in common.

• The Angels have road series in Baltimore and Toronto, two teams that are a combined 26 games under .500 and are among the six AL teams with a losing record at home. The Rangers have road series in Boston and Tampa Bay; those two clubs are a combined 43 games over .500.

• Their respective home series are more comparable. The Angels have home series against the Twins (56-77) and Yankees (79-52). The Rangers host the Rays (73-59) and Indians (65-65), who have three more combined wins than the Twins and Yankees.

• Overall, the average winning percentage of the Angels' remaining opponents is .470; for the Rangers it's .502.

• The Angels, who trail the Rangers by two games in the loss column and four in the win column, have two extra games on their schedule. While all nine of the Rangers' remaining series are three games apiece, the Angels have two four-game series. Both are on the road, but against at Seattle (.424) and Toronto (.496).

On top of that, Rangers rightfielder Nelson Cruz pulled up lame rounding first base Sunday with what was later deemed a strained hamstring. If he misses significant time, it's doubly imperative for Adrian Beltre to return to Texas' lineup. The third baseman has missed about two months with his own hamstring strain, which he re-aggravated a few weeks ago. If all goes well in a few Triple-A rehab games, he could return to the Rangers' lineup next weekend and mitigate the loss of Cruz. If Beltre takes longer to return, Texas' lineup could be very shorthanded going into a difficult road trip at Boston and then Tampa Bay.

L.A., meanwhile, gambled that the importance of this series was akin to the playoffs. Manager Mike Scioscia started both Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver on three days' rest. Neither was at his best -- Santana got the win after pitching seven innings of four-run ball while Weaver gave up seven runs over six innings -- but both weren't just pitching on short rest but also in extreme heat (100-plus each game), against a tough opponent (AL's third-best offense) and in a hitter-friendly venue (the majors' most homer-happy ballpark). Now the Angels, who don't have an off-day until Sept. 8, will have to hope the short-rest starts don't have any residual negative effects on their big starters.

2. Justin Verlander won his 20th game before the calendar flipped to September. In improving to 8-0 in his last eight starts, the Tigers' ace notched his 20th win of the season Saturday. It's his first time reaching the season milestone after four previous years in which he won between 17 and 19. Notably, he became the majors' first pitcher to be a 20-game winner before the end of August since Arizona's Curt Schilling in 2002.

With 215 2/3 innings under his belt over 29 starts and a possible six more turns in the rotation this season, Verlander is on pace for as many as 260 innings, a threshold surpassed by only Randy Johnson (1999 and 2002) and Roy Halladay (2003) in the last 13 seasons. Only 18 times has a pitcher won as many as 25 games in the last 50 years and none since Oakland's Bob Welch won 27 in 1990.

At the All-Star break, Verlander explained his evolving pitching philosophy that had benefited him so well this season.

"It's more in the zone but it's more quality zone -- on the outer thirds," he said. "That's the way I've been pitching. I've talked about slowing down early in the games, establishing a rhythm and establishing a platform to build off of for myself in the course of the game. I really feel like I've been able to throw not only strikes but quality strikes a lot more often."

Data on FanGraphs.com suggests that he's actually throwing a career-low 41.5 percent of his pitches in the strike zone -- compared to as many as 54.2 percent just two years ago -- but that only counts within the rigid lines of its strike zone, rather than the extra inch or two a pitcher, particularly one of Verlander's stature, may receive from the home-plate umpire. More importantly, even if he is missing, he's missing by so little that opposing hitters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at the highest rate of his career, 33.9 percent, which is up from a 28.0 percent career average.

Asked whether his throwing more in the quality part of the strike zone was more of a matter of intention or execution -- after all, simply choosing to paint the black isn't as easy as it sounds -- he said, "Both. A lot of this has to do with my maturation as a pitcher, getting innings under my belt, but it's definitely something I've been doing on purpose."

3. "Rock You Like a Hurricane." The major-league schedule took a beating over the weekend thanks to the threats and subsequent damage of Hurricane Irene, which took its sweet time moving north and battering the Eastern Seaboard. Consider the havoc left in her wake, both on and off the field:

• Both the Braves and Mets and the Marlins and Phillies played only one game (Friday) in their respective three-game series.

• The Red Sox and A's altered the schedule to move up Sunday's game to Saturday and played two games that day despite deplorable rainy conditions in Boston.

• The Yankees and Orioles, set to play five games in Baltimore this weekend because of a previously rescheduled rain postponement, had a doubleheader Saturday rained out with one game rescheduled for a Sunday doubleheader and the other for a Sept. 8 mutual off-day.

But there was more to the New York-Baltimore story as the Yankees reportedly called the Orioles on Thursday to request a Friday doubleheader to improve the chances of getting the extra game in, given the Saturday forecast. According to a story on mlb.com, however, that call was only made 24 hours before the series was to start and the Orioles said it'd be too difficult to arrange given the short notice and the loss of gate receipts in playing a weekday afternoon game. The O's suggested doubleheaders on Sunday and Monday, but that wasn't an appealing option for the Yankees, who have a series against the Red Sox looming on Tuesday.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi and team player rep Curtis Granderson both expressed disappointment in the scheduling through the media, as they weren't keen on consecutive doubleheaders and lost one of their two remaining off days, which was already one more than some teams such as the playoff-chasing Indians have the rest of the season. O's manager Buck Showalter fired back through the media, denouncing New York's comments as "disrespectful" for trying to steer decisions being made by other franchises and for doing so at a time when the club was reeling from the loss of former pitcher, general manager and broadcaster Mike Flanagan, for whom a tribute was planned before Friday's game.

Verbal barbs aside, all four series affected by the storm involve a team in the thick of the playoff race. Though each of the four -- Braves, Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees -- are in good shape to make the postseason, seeding remains up in the air, particularly in the AL East, reinforcing how meaningful every game can be.

4. Streaky snakes increase division lead. The Diamondbacks took their biggest lead of the season Sunday, extending their advantage in the NL West to four games over the Giants thanks to starter Ian Kennedy's league-leading 17th win. For Arizona, it was their sixth straight win after losing the previous six, which was preceded by seven straight wins. Since May 8 the D-backs have had seven winning streaks of at least four games but also six losing streaks of at least three games.

Why the streakiness? Much of it seems to be scheduled-related. Few teams play to the level of the competition quite like the Diamondbacks, who routinely dismiss weaker teams but struggle against the better teams. This season Arizona is 52-30 (.722) against teams that have a losing record and 23-29 (.442) against teams with a .500 or better record.

The D-backs' play over the past three weeks reinforces this notion. Starting Aug. 9, Arizona won seven straight with sweeps of the Astros (.328) and Mets (.477), followed by one win over the Phillies before losing six straight -- two to the Phillies (.643), three to the Braves (.594) and one to the Nationals -- and now winning six more in a row with three wins against the Nats (.470) and now three straight against the Padres (.448).

5. Infield singles. Rays starter David Price threw the best game of his young career Sunday afternoon, striking out a franchise-record 14 batters while allowing only three hits in a 12-0 victory over the Blue Jays. Rookie leftfielder Desmond Jennings went 4-for-5 with two homers, three RBIs, a walk and a steal as Tampa Bay temporarily cut the Yankees' wild-card lead to six games. . . . Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg threw five perfect innings before allowing a sixth-inning single in a Triple-A rehab start Saturday. It was his best outing since returning from Tommy John surgery and, when asked how his elbow felt afterwards, Strasburg told reporters in Syracuse, "I'll let the numbers do the talking." . . . Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter played game No. 2,402 of his storied Yankees career in the first half of Sunday's doubleheader. That moved him past Mickey Mantle for first place in the franchise record books. . . . The Orioles' six-game winning streak, which ended in the second half of Sunday's doubleheader, was their longest of the season. Baltimore's longest winning streak in 2010 was four games. . . . The Brewers' Zack Greinke stole his first career base in a rare straight steal by a pitcher. . . . Jim Thome, back with the Indians after a waiver trade, hit home run No. 602 on Saturday. His last homer with Cleveland was No. 334 back in Sept. 2002.