Rangers, Rays on familiar path

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It took nearly all of April, but the Texas Rangers finally lost a series.

That was inevitable. They had won the first six series, including road wins at Boston and Detroit and a home series victory over the New York Yankees. But on Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Rays notched a 5-2 win that ended the streak.

Still, it was an impressive swing for the Rangers through the AL contenders. It showed Texas remains the class of the American League in the early going, but also revealed that perhaps for a third straight season, the path toward a World Series for Texas will go through Tampa Bay.

The Rays, the best facsimile of these Rangers, won the weekend series in Arlington behind a formula the Rangers have perfected in the AL the past few seasons. The Rays got great starting pitching from James Shields on Friday and David Price on Sunday, played solid defense and got the clutch hits they needed.

Tampa leaves town 14-8, tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the top mark in the AL East. The Rangers boarded a plane for Toronto at 16-6, the best record in the AL and tied for the most wins in the majors. They've already distanced themselves from the Angels, thought to be their toughest competition when the season began. Los Angeles is nine games behind Texas. There's plenty of baseball left, but it's a steep hill for the Angels to climb.

Both the Rays and Rangers have professed a respect for the other. And while it's just a weekend series in April, it sure seems like these two are doing the same things they did last year to make the playoffs.

It's difficult to talk about the two teams creating a rivalry when they play just three series a year. But the similarities of the teams and the fact that they've squared off in the ALDS the past two seasons give the series some punch.

"I think you are seeing the beginnings of something like that [a rivalry]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's great because I have so much respect for them and what they have done, and I like to believe they feel the same way about us. I think at the end of the day, the thing that stands out to me is that you get two teams that truly, truly fight for everything on a nightly basis. I really appreciate that about them, and I think that's where the rivalry can be born.

"The fact that they have taken us out of the playoffs the last couple years, and last year we had some hard fought games. I like it. I think it's great. It's good for us, it's good for them, and I think it's good for baseball."

Rangers manager Ron Washington, who turned 60 years old Sunday, sees a familiar team when he watches how the Rays play.

"I think we get the most out of what we've got," Washington said. "I think they've got tremendous pitching. They catch the ball. They run the bases. They are very aggressive. They do a lot of things outside of the box. They don't care about what people think of them, they just go play their style of baseball. That's something that we do, too."

On Sunday, Price beat the Rangers for the first time in his career. He was 0-6 with a 5.30 ERA, which included an 0-3 mark in the past two postseasons. But Price showcased an impressive changeup and wasn't afraid to throw his off-speed stuff, making him even more dangerous.

Tampa Bay doesn't have the Rangers' depth in its lineup, though no one in the league does. But the Rays have more power than they did a year ago, and they have a penchant for delivering the crucial hit with runners in scoring position in tight games. They are fourth in the AL in runs scored and fourth in homers.

"That's a good team over there and it starts with pitching," Rangers reliever Mike Adams said. "I think the pitching overshadows the offense. They can score and get key hits."

So can Texas. The Rangers score more runs than anybody else, have the top batting average, boast the lowest ERA and are tied for first in fielding percentage. Texas is the most complete team in baseball.

They've dismissed any notion that there could be a World Series Game 6 hangover, something the manager stopped before it could get started.

"I told them in spring training that we're not going to let any outside sources come up in here and tell us how we should feel," Washington said. "We're going to feel the way we want to feel, not how they feel we should feel. That's the impression I got from the outside: that they wanted to tell us how we were supposed to feel after we lost Game 6. You weren't on the field. You weren't in the dugout. You weren't in our clubhouse. How do you know how we feel? I wasn't going to let them come up in here and plant anything."

He also made it clear that no one is going to give the Rangers an invitation to the postseason party in 2012. They have to earn that.

"We understand that we have to play 162 games before we can even think about anything," Washington said. "We have to win as many games as we can and at least give ourselves a chance to play for it again and see what happens. But you can't think that far ahead in Game 23 or 24."

For now, they'll take their April success and try to build on it as they get into more division games in May, including a weekend series against the Angels on May 11-13 that's expected to feature more sellout crowds. Texas played to six straight full houses on this homestand. They were loud crowds, too, clearly into the games.

"It's a different ballgame here now and we feed off our fans," Michael Young said. "There's a long way to go. This is the American League and every team is good, every team is talented, every team is deep. We're happy with the way we're playing. Everybody's healthy, we're pitching, playing good defense and getting hits when we need them."

So are the Rays. It could mean a third straight postseason matchup.