(Sports Network) - The Texas Rangers enter the season's second half in good position to end an 11-year playoff drought. The Boston Red Sox, on the other hand, still have some work to do in order to secure a fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.
The banged-up Red Sox resume that quest with tonight's opener of a four-game series with the American League West leading Rangers, who'll be entering Fenway Park seeking to end a surprising four-game losing streak.
Texas went into the All-Star break holding a 4 1/2-game advantage on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for first place in the AL West, but certainly didn't end its first half on a positive note. The Rangers lost four straight meetings at home to lowly Baltimore, which currently owns the majors' worst overall record at 29-59, and managed a mere two runs over the final two games of the series.
After mustering just four hits in a 6-1 loss on Saturday that spoiled the debut of newly-acquired ace Cliff Lee, Texas' powerful lineup was shut down once again in Sunday's 4-1 setback to the Orioles, with Baltimore rookie Jake Arrieta delivering 6 1/3 effective innings to nail down the win.
"[Baltimore's] young guys are hungry and they're swinging the bats well," said Rangers starter C.J. Wilson (7-5). The left-hander took the loss in Sunday's contest after surrendering three runs and issuing five walks in a shaky 4 2/3- inning stint.
Hunter has been terrific since being called up from the minors to join the Texas rotation in early June. The husky right-hander has gone 5-0 with an excellent 2.34 ERA in seven starts following the promotion, allowing two earned runs or fewer in all but one of those games, and the Rangers are 6-1 so far when he's taken the mound.
The 24-year-old was touched for three runs in a six-inning no-decision against Baltimore last Thursday, but did register a season-best seven strikeouts in the effort. Hunter did give up a pair of home runs in the start after permitting just one long ball over his first six outings of the year.
Hunter has faced the Red Sox twice previously and delivered six innings of one-run ball to beat them in Arlington last season. His lone career start at Fenway Park was a disaster, though, as the University of Alabama product was battered for nine runs and seven hits before exiting after 1 2/3 innings of a loss on August 14, 2008.
Boston currently sits three games behind Tampa Bay for the lead in the AL Wild Card standings and is five back of the rival New York Yankees in the race for the AL East's top spot. The Red Sox lost ground to both teams after dropping five of their final seven tests prior to the break, with a rash of key injuries taking their toll on Terry Francona's squad.
The Red Sox presently have a unbelievable 11 players on the disabled list, including three (catcher Victor Martinez, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, starting pitcher Clay Buchholz) who were named to this year's AL All-Star team. Starting pitcher Josh Beckett, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and longtime catcher Jason Varitek are also notable members on the shelf.
Boston did take two of three matchups from Toronto to close out its first half and earned the series win via a 3-2 verdict in Sunday's finale, with Darnell McDonald and David Ortiz both homering to back six solid innings out of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
McDonald broke a scoreless tie with a two-run blast off Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch in the top of the sixth inning, and Ortiz followed with his 18th homer of the season for the eventual deciding run. The Red Sox did not have a hit off Litsch until Marco Scutaro doubled in front of McDonald's go-ahead shot.
"We needed it," Francona told the Red Sox' official site of McDonald's homer. "And then to have David following up. It looked like a breaking ball up and he took a gorgeous swing. To that point we hadn't done anything -- that was big."
Matsuzaka (6-3) took a shutout into the seventh inning but was removed after giving up a two-run homer to Aaron Hill with none out in the frame. Daniel Bard took over and tossed two scoreless innings before closer Jonathan Papelbon finished off the win by keeping Toronto off the board in the ninth.
Ortiz continued his power surge by winning Monday's Home Run Derby and represented the Red Sox, along with third baseman Adrian Beltre and ace pitcher Jon Lester, in the AL's 3-1 loss in the All-Star Game. Lester worked a scoreless sixth inning in his first-ever appearance in the Midsummer Classic.
With Lester having pitched on Tuesday and Buchholz still sidelined, Francona will turn to Tim Wakefield to start tonight's opener. The veteran knuckleballer will be attempting to improve upon a rather poor first half in which he posted an unwanted 3-7 record and a 5.22 ERA in 18 games (14 starts).
Wakefield had a rough time in his most recent assignment, a July 7 loss at Tampa Bay in which he was tagged for six runs and walked six batters in 5 2/3 innings. The right-hander was sharp his previous time out, though, holding Baltimore to two runs over eight frames in leading the Red Sox to a 3-2 win on July 2.
The 43-year-old did allow six runs and walked five in a six-inning no-decision against the Rangers at Fenway Park back on April 20, and has historically struggled versus Texas throughout his career. In 34 lifetime meetings (27 starts) with tonight's opponent, Wakefield is just 10-15 with a 6.09 ERA.
Wakefield, who's given up 15 homers in 100 innings pitched for the year, will be taking on a formidable Texas lineup that ranks third in the AL in runs scored. The unit is anchored by outfielder Josh Hamilton and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, both of whom started for the AL in Tuesday's All-Star Game. Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus also participated as reserve, with Lee and closer Neftali Feliz rounding out the Rangers' six-man contingent.
These two teams squared off in Boston from April 20-22, with the Red Sox winning two of the three clashes. The Rangers have lost in 11 of their past 14 visits to Fenway Park.