(Sports Network) - After struggling badly during one of their most challenging stretches of the season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now find themselves faced with what could be a make-or-break three-game series with the Texas Rangers that begins this evening at Angel Stadium.
The three-time defending division champion Angels trailed the Rangers by five games for first place in the American League West when they entered a critical 12-game sequence against the New York Yankees, Texas and Boston on July 20. That deficit has since grown, as Anaheim has lost seven of the first nine tests of this portion of the schedule and enters tonight's showdown mired in a four-game losing streak.
With the Rangers defeating Oakland last night, Texas now holds a comfortable nine-game advantage on the third-place Angels in the division standings.
The Angels could have an even tougher climb after the team sustained a key injury prior to Wednesday's game with the Red Sox. Starting pitcher Joel Pineiro suffered a left oblique strain while warming up prior to the contest, and the 10-game winner is expected to be sidelined between six-to-eight weeks.
"Halfway through my warmup I threw a curveball and it felt like a cramp," said Pineiro. "Just a freak thing to happen, I can't explain it. It's really frustrating and when I heard how long I'll be out, my heart sunk to the ground."
With Pineiro unavailable, Boston completed a three-game series sweep with a 7-3 victory on Wednesday, with Marco Scutaro belting a tie-breaking grand slam off reliever Fernando Rodney in the top of the eighth inning.
Scot Shields made an emergency start in Pineiro's place and allowed a pair of runs in just 1 2/3 innings, but relievers Francisco Rodriguez and Rich Thompson combined for five frames of one-run ball to keep the Angels in the game. The Red Sox loaded the bases against Rodney (4-1) with none out in the eighth, however, and Scutaro smacked a 1-2 pitch just inside the left-field foul pole to break a 3-3 deadlock.
Reggie Willits went 2-for-3 with an RBI single for Anaheim, which had lost three of four bouts with the Rangers in Texas prior to the Boston series.
The Angels' lone victory in the Texas series came with Ervin Santana on the mound, and the hard-throwing right-hander will attempt to duplicate last Saturday's effort when he takes the ball this evening. The 2008 AL All-Star delivered eight excellent innings in Anaheim's 6-2 win that night, yielding solo homers to Michael Young and Nelson Cruz and just five hits total while striking out eight.
Santana also fired a seven-hit shutout against the Rangers last September in Anaheim and owns a 9-6 record in 17 career starts versus tonight's opponent, although he's registered a suspect 5.77 earned run average over the course of those games.
The native Dominican comes into tonight's clash having worked at least seven innings in four straight starts and has posted a 2.30 ERA during that solid stretch. Santana is just 1-2 over that span, however, as the Angels have scored two runs or less in three of the four games.
Santana may have to be on top of his game again tonight, with the Rangers slated to send out the still-unbeaten Tommy Hunter. The surprising young righty ran his season record to 8-0 in Sunday's 6-4 win over the Angels, a game in which he surrendered three runs on only three hits in 6 1/3 innings.
Hunter fired seven shutout innings and allowed just three hits in his previous start, an 8-0 besting of Detroit on July 20, and has registered an excellent 2.31 ERA in 10 games since joining the Texas rotation in early June. He's also the only pitcher in Rangers history to win his first eight decisions in a season.
The 24-year-old will be out to atone for one of the worst showings of his big league career when he toes the rubber tonight. Against the Angels in Anaheim last September, Hunter was tagged for seven runs (six earned) and seven hits before exiting after 2 1/3 innings of an 11-0 loss. In three lifetime starts versus the Halos, the Alabama product is 1-2 with a 7.24 ERA.
Texas extended its lead in the division by winning two of three tilts with second-place Oakland earlier in the week, including a 7-4 triumph in Thursday's rubber match. Michael Young went 4-for-4 with three runs scored to pace the Rangers' 14-hit attack, while teammate Josh Hamilton collected three hits to raise his AL-leading average to .362.
Taylor Teagarden added a two-run homer and David Murphy had a solo shot to help the Rangers record their 10th victory in their last 14 games. Ex-Angel Vladimir Guerrero also knocked in two runs on the evening.
Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz contributed an RBI single to Thursday's win and extended his hitting streak to 17 games. The standout slugger is batting .400 (28-for-70) with three homers and 17 RBI during his career-best tear.
The Rangers added another proven bat to their already-potent offense prior to last night's game, acquiring infielder Jorge Cantu from Florida in exchange for a pair of minor league pitchers. The 28-year-old, who hit .262 with 10 homers and 54 RBI for the Marlins this season, is expected to serve as Texas' primary first baseman.
Texas has prevailed in six of the nine previous meetings between these AL West rivals, but is just 2-5 in its last seven visits to Angel Stadium.