Races show clarity ahead of month's final week

Races show clarity ahead of month's final week

As if the Rangers didn't know it already, this week it'll be right there in front of them, right there on their front lawn.

In the course of three crucial series at the Ballpark in Arlington, the Rangers will be reminded once again that they will have to earn the right to represent the American League in the World Series for a second consecutive October.

This week, the Rangers will host two teams that could offer resistance in that daunting quest of back-to-back pennants -- something that hasn't been accomplished since the 2000-01 Yankees.

First, a four-game visit from the Red Sox, who for the last few weeks have traded the top spot in the AL East -- and the league's best record -- with the Yankees. After that, another tussle with their AL West foes, the Angels, this time on Texas soil.

Then, once they get through that seven-game gauntlet, the Rays -- winners of five straight games entering Monday -- come to town, and they're not to be taken lightly either.

"You're always playing against tough teams -- that's what the game's about," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said.

The Rangers saw their lead in the division shrink to four games after they dropped two of three to the White Sox in Chicago, yet another contender they're facing in a string of tough matchups. They're currently in a run of 23 games against the Angels, Red Sox, White Sox and Rays -- as tough of a run as any team in the game has going into the first week of September.

As the Red Sox and Yankees push and pull their way for the top record, the one without remains the AL Wild Card leader. That means the Red Sox head into this week one-half game behind the Yankees, but leading the Wild Card by 7 1/2 games over the Rays and nine over the Angels.

Elsewhere as the races unfold this week:

• The Majors' only race with three teams inside five games, the AL Central, continues to be led by the team seemingly best positioned to make the run to October. Even with their sweep of the Indians this weekend, the Tigers can't quite shake the upstart Tribe or the White Sox. As the three-way tussle continues, the Indians get what the standings will say is the easier road this week, playing at home against the Mariners and Royals -- both last-place teams. The Tigers draw the Rays and Twins on the road, while the White Sox visit the Angels and Mariners.

• That blue dot getting smaller ahead in the distance is the Brewers, who have turned a four-horse NL Central race into the largest division lead in the game. Now ahead by 8 1/2 games over the Cardinals with the Reds and Pirates scratching for .500 now, Milwaukee has reeled off 22 of 25 games and is firmly in the driver's seat.

"Hey, I love where we are," says first-year manager Ron Roenicke. "But it's far from over."

The rolling Crew heads to Pittsburgh for a four-game set that will start with a Monday doubleheader, followed by a visit to Miller Park by the rival Cubs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are coming off another tough weekend at Wrigley Field by hosting the Dodgers and Pirates.

• The D-backs and Giants continue to duke it out in the NL West by taking on sub-.500 teams from other divisions. But, as the struggling World Series champs found out over the weekend, the Astros won't be pushovers for anyone -- it took extra innings in the finale for the Giants to squeeze out one win in three games. Maybe playing those sub-.500 teams this time of year isn't such an advantage?

Arizona gets to test the theory by visiting the Nationals and hosting the Padres. The Giants begin their longest homestand of the season with two against the Padres, followed by four with the Astros and three with the Cubs.

• With four consecutive wins, the Braves are taking control of the NL Wild Card race, which may stand as their fate in the NL East considering the Phillies are still surging toward the Majors' best record. After taking some wind out of the Giants' sails by taking three of four at home, the Braves hit the road to visit the Cubs and Mets this week. They enter the week with a 6 1/2-game division deficit that is their shortest since July 31 and an eight-game edge over the Giants in the Wild Card, 8 1/2 over the Cardinals.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.