Red Sox Set to Take on Josh Hamilton, Cruising Rangers

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Red Sox Set to Take on Josh Hamilton, Cruising Rangers Oh, what a difference a ninth inning can make.

The Red Sox were flying high on their way out of Toronto, leading 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth in the third game of a series in which they had already won the first two.

Thirty minutes later, Boston was hanging its heads as the team headed for the locker room following a walk-off victory by the Blue Jays.

Now, the Red Sox must rebuild as they head into Arlington to face the Rangers — no easy task.

Texas currently has a 7 1/2-game game lead over Oakland in the AL West, the largest division lead in baseball.

Led by AL hitting leader Josh Hamilton, Texas’ offense is scoring runs in bunches and getting quality starting pitching at the same time.

Like every series down the stretch for the Red Sox, the three-game set against the Rangers over the weekend is a crucial one. Luckily for Boston, it will miss out on facing Texas’ ace, Cliff Lee, in the series.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox will counter with a formidable rotation of their own, throwing Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka against the Rangers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

But as Joey Matschulat from Baseball Time in Arlington tells us, the potent Rangers offense is never intimidated by upper-echelon starting pitching.

NESN.com: What does the sale of the Texas Rangers to Nolan Ryan’s group mean to the organization and the fans?

Joey Matschulat: The one word that has been drilled most violently into everyone’s heads  — by both others and myself, mind you — is "continuity," and it sounds very cliché until you think about what it really means. The single biggest threat to the Rangers’ window of contention was massive front office turnover following the installation of a new ownership regime. With the Nolan Ryan/Chuck Greenberg-led ownership group, you know for certain that the Rangers’ core competency (or their "people," as general manager Jon Daniels often refers to it) will remain stable and hopefully grow stronger as time progresses. It should also signal a swift end to the Rangers’ sub-$60 million payrolls.

Oh yeah, and no more Tom Hicks. There’s been some (ridiculous, if you ask me) painting of almost-owners Mark Cuban and Jim Crane as "villains" in the Rangers’ ownership battle, but the only real villain was Hicks, a man who leveraged his domestic sports interests to the hilt in order to purchase Liverpool FC, then proceeded to do a whole lot of things to tick everyone off such as drastically slashing payroll, financially crippling baseball operations to the point that the Rangers couldn’t sign their first-round pick (Matt Purke) last summer and have had to lay people off, violating baseball’s collective bargaining agreement by failing to pay $40 million into a deferred compensation fund for the players and, amazingly, attempting to sabotage his agreement with the Greenberg/Ryan group in early 2010 by telling his creditors there was more money to be had from another ownership group. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Hicks, as a sports franchise owner, is detestable, and it’s fantastic that he’s gone.

NESN.com: Cliff Lee has been sensational for Texas since the team acquired him from Seattle on July 9. How vital is his success to a deep postseason run for the Rangers in 2010?

J.M.: Considering that the Rangers will manipulate their pitching schedule by whatever means necessary in order to ensure maximum postseason exposure for Lee (i.e., giving him the ball in as many Game 1s as possible), he’s the single most important cog in the Rangers’ playoff machine — provided they still get there, of course. I’d like to think that Texas could overcome one mediocre October start from Lee, but if he’s not pitching at a very high level in two months, there’s going to be a great deal less confidence about the Rangers’ chances of winning their first-ever playoff series, let alone winning the AL pennant.

NESN.com: Will the Rangers be able to re-sign Cliff Lee after the season, and if not, what will they do to replace him at the top of the rotation?

J.M.: Short answer: Probably not. Long answer: If you pressed a loaded gun against my temple right now and told me to render a prediction on the Rangers’ chances of bringing back Lee, I doubt I could go any higher than 15-20 percent in good conscience. There’s been a lot of columnist-bred talk in Dallas/Fort Worth about how Lee enjoys being a part of the Rangers and enjoys only being a sub-hour flight away from his Arkansas home and so on and so forth, but none of these ancillary factors will likely be enough to supersede an offer from the Yankees that’s, say, $5-10 million superior (or more) in terms of total present-day value. That, and it’s not immediately clear how well Lee — if signed at $20-25 million per year by Texas — would fit in with the new ownership group’s payroll projections.

If Lee departs, the Rangers are probably looking at a rotation of Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland and Scott Feldman with some wild-card depth in the vein of Neftali Feliz and Tanner Scheppers (both of whom are inordinately talented, but are also perceived as long-term relievers in some baseball circles) and less overwhelming types like Matt Harrison and Michael Kirkman. That could be a playoff rotation, but I certainly can’t say that it is one with any real confidence. In this case, the Rangers probably make a run at any potentially available top-of-the-rotation starter they believe to be worth the trouble (Zach Greinke?), or roll the dice on another high-risk, high-reward arm (like Rich Harden, only hopefully with better results). But I don’t foresee Texas making a multi-year commitment to a mid-tier free agent like Jake Westbrook. I’m betting that they know better than to go that route.

NESN.com: The Red Sox are scheduled to throw Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka at the Rangers in the upcoming three-game series. Do Rangers fans expect their team, which features one of the best lineups in baseball, to have any letdowns against upper-echelon pitchers?

J.M.: I think there’s a mild perception out there that top-flight pitchers aren’t all that insurmountable for the Rangers. Heck, they’ve already toppled the likes of John Danks and Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester this season. When this lineup is healthy and productive, I think most people are comfortable facing the crème de la crème of another team’s rotation. The problem is that Ian Kinsler is gone until September, Vladimir Guerrero’s still mired in a 40-plus-day slump, and the rest of the offense is, well, just OK right now. I’m not sure it can be a "letdown" if you’re already apprehensive about it beforehand.

NESN.com: Josh Hamilton leads baseball in hitting, Vladimir Guerrero is having a career resurgence and Nelson Cruz has played exceptionally well when he’s not hurt. Who is the Rangers’ MVP in 2010?

J.M.: Unquestionably Josh Hamilton. We certainly knew he was capable of doing something as special as rampaging through the American League at a .355/.403/.621-hitting clip, but perhaps the most shocking/pleasantly surprising aspect of his campaign has been him being able to remain reasonably healthy while still picking up quite a bit of the slack in center field from struggling rookie Julio Borbon.

What seems clear from my perspective is that he’s the current front-runner in the AL MVP race. What’s more opaque and hazy is whether he can continue terrorizing pitchers deep into October if his balky right knee should flare up yet again (he's already used up his allotted number of cortisone shots for the year). Also unclear is whether the Rangers will take a huge gamble by attempting to buy out some of his free agent-eligible years this winter when he’s coming off the season of his life and rolling into extension talks with enormous leverage in his corner.

Thanks once again to Joey Matschulat from Baseball Time in Arlington for his contribution to this article.

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