"This is it (what?!), luchini pourin' from the sky ..." - Camp Lo, "Luchini (AKA This Is It)"
Okay, so maybe that isn't the smoothest transition from hip-hop to baseball that I've ever made, but the pounding "this is it" refrain has been stuck in my head for days, and now it feels especially germane within our own little corner of the baseball universe as the Rangers and Angels prepare to tee it up for four very important games over the next 90 or so hours. At absolute best, the Rangers could build up a near-insurmountable eight-game lead, and at absolute worst, there could be two AL West teams sharing first place come Friday morning, but it's far likelier that Texas is protecting a two-, four-, or six-game lead by that point in the week.
Here's the thing: Clearly, these games are more important than "one out of 162" would suggest, in that a Rangers win also guarantees an Angels loss and assured ascension in the standings. A nice, clean split down the middle in Anaheim would maintain the Rangers' four-game edge going into a fresh round of three-game skirmishs at the end of this week, and for a team with sole possession of first place and what most would consider to be a more talented roster than the Angels, keeping that four-game lead intact is a fine and wonderful thing. Sure, you'd like it to be even more substantial, but maintaining the lead while the Angels continue to run out of opportunities to square up the division and/or take the lead ... well, that's kind of the entire point, isn't it?
The problem for the Rangers, however, isn't so much that they have to play four key games in a hostile environment as it is that the next 3 1/2 weeks are absolutely brutal from a scheduling standpoint, whereas the Angels get a decidedly softer draw. From now up until September 7th, the Rangers will play the Angels (twice), the Red Sox (twice), the Rays (twice), and the White Sox (once), all part of a 23-game-in-24-day run through the American League gauntlet ... and if you demand a more nuanced look at how, exactly, that looks from a statistical standpoint, you're probably going to cringe just a bit:
Weighted road opponents' winning percentage (13 games): .546 (88-win pace)
Weighted home opponents' winning percentage (10 games): .568 (92-win pace)
Weighted opponents' winning percentage (23 games): .556 (90-win pace)
To put that into simpler terms, the Rangers will have to play the next 15 percent of their season against a collection of opponents who have averaged a 90-win pace this season, with the pressure being ratcheted up even higher at home. The Angels, by comparison, will play 22 games between now and September 7th (15 of which will be played at home), and their opponents during that period have averaged a substantially less intimidating 78-win pace (.479 winning percentage) this season. That's more home games for the Angels, and a far weaker schedule. They may not be as good as the Rangers, but the scheduling inequities over the next several weeks could very easily permit the Angels to draw within just 1-2 games, if not tie up and/or overtake the Rangers outright.
Fortunately, there's more left to the season than the next three and a half weeks, and the Rangers will get the opportunity to compensate for whatever ground they may lose in that span with a healthy 12 games against the Athletics/Mariners between September 7th and season's end. If Texas can muster even a .500 clip over their final 40 games, they'll finish with an 89-win season and require the Angels to play ball at a .600 clip over their final 40 games just to force a one-game playoff. Up the win total even further, and the uphill battle becomes even more desperate for the Angels down the stretch.
I'm not scared of the Angels, per se ... but I am concerned, particularly since we know that anything can (and will) go down in a relatively small set of games, and I'm not going to be surprised in the least if the Angels are breathing right down the Rangers' necks come the second week of September, or even protecting a slim divisional lead. If that transpires, the more reactionary Rangers fans out there will likely flip their collective lids in spite of there still being several more weeks of much easier games ahead on the docket. I don't begrudge anyone concern, but panic would just be silly.