(Sports Network) - The Texas Rangers may still enjoy a comfortable lead atop the American League's West Division, but the Oakland Athletics have been able to hang around in the race due to a strong recent stretch. Whether or not the A's can remain a contender could come down to how they fare in a three-game set between the teams that begins tonight at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Though still 8 1/2 games back of the Rangers in the division standings, Oakland has kept its hopes alive by winning six of the past nine contests. Bob Geren's squad began a current nine-game road trip with back-to-back victories at Cleveland, but couldn't complete the sweep in last night's finale with the Indians.
The Athletics took a one-run lead into the bottom of the sixth inning in Thursday's matchup, but Cleveland's Matt LaPorta hit a go-ahead homer off Oakland starter Vin Mazzaro during the frame that lifted the Tribe to a 3-2 triumph.
Oakland threatened in the top of the eighth by drawing two walks against reliever Joe Smith with one out, but closer Chris Perez came on to pitch out of the jam before tossing a scoreless ninth to seal the win.
Kevin Kouzmanoff went 2-for-4 for the Athletics and snapped a 1-1 tie with an RBI double in the top of the sixth.
Despite the loss, Mazzaro (6-6) gave Oakland its 18th straight quality start after allowing three runs over 6 1/3 innings of work. That ties a club record initially set in 1927, when the franchise was located in Philadelphia.
"I went pretty well, got through the first few innings," Mazzaro said. "It was a battle, came up a little short. It happens."
Mazzaro's effort also marked the 24th consecutive game an A's starting pitcher lasted at least six innings.
Brett Anderson will attempt to extend that mark and get Oakland closer in the standings when the youngster toes the rubber for tonight's opener of this critical series. He'll be making his fifth start after returning from a lengthy stay on the disabled list and has gone 1-3 with a 3.34 earned run average since being activated.
Anderson has failed to notch a victory in each of his past three trips to the hill, although a lack of run support is partly to blame for that drought. The sophomore left-hander yielded just one run through five innings in a tough- luck 1-0 loss at Seattle on August 10, and received a no-decision versus Tampa Bay last Saturday despite giving up just two runs and fanning a season-best eight hitters over seven sharp frames.
The 22-year-old, an 11-game winner as a rookie last season, has been limited to only 11 starts this year due to inflammation in his throwing elbow and has yet to face the Rangers in 2010. Anderson started four times against Texas during his debut campaign and went 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA, but was tagged for six runs and eight hits -- including a pair of homers -- in just four innings of a 14-1 loss at Arlington on May 30, 2009.
Oakland figures to face a tough challenge this evening from Tommy Hunter, as the Texas scheduled starter has yet to lose at home so far this season. The stocky right-hander sports a 6-0 record with a 3.10 ERA in his eight assignments at Rangers Ballpark, in addition to a 10-2 overall mark in 15 starts for the year.
Hunter reached the double-digit win mark by holding Baltimore to three runs and just five hits over eight effective innings last Sunday at Camden Yards, which helped atone for back-to-back poor showings against AL East powers Boston and Tampa Bay in which he was rocked for eight runs and four homers over a combined six innings.
The 24-year-old is 2-0 with a 6.00 ERA in three career starts against the Athletics, with both wins taking place at the Oakland Coliseum last season.
Texas had ripped off four straight victories, the last three of which took place against AL Central-leading Minnesota, before falling to the Twins by a 6-4 score last night. Vladimir Guerrero went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer for the Rangers, who weren't able to overcome an early 5-0 deficit and another rough start from struggling ace Cliff Lee.
Lee (10-8) surrendered five runs and seven hits in a five-inning stint to suffer his third straight defeat. During that time, the All-Star southpaw has been shelled for 26 hits and 19 runs over 18 1/3 innings.
"I haven't been locating pitches as well as I expect myself to, and [opponents] haven't missed them," Lee said. "There really hasn't been that many [bad] pitches, it's just a handful of pitches, but they just happened to capitalize them. I have to do a better job of staying out of the heart of the plate."
These two AL West rivals have split 12 meetings so far in 2010, with the Rangers taking four of the six matchups held in Arlington.