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Rangers preparing for another photo finish with A's

With 23 games left, AL West race coming down to wire for second straight year

OAKLAND -- So now, after 139 games played, the Rangers and the Athletics are still even at the top of the American League West, in a division race that feels different than the past few years.

This one feels different because with 23 games remaining, there exists a real possibility the Rangers could miss the playoffs altogether. There was never really that feeling in the previous three seasons, even with the late-September collapse of 2012.

In each of the past two seasons, the Rangers had a 4 1/2-game lead after 139 games. In 2010, Texas had a seven-game lead on the way to its first division title in 11 years.

"Regardless if you are 4 1/2 games up or 4 1/2 games behind, every year is the same," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "There are no breaks. You have to be ready to win every day. It doesn't matter how you go about it. You have to pitch well, score runs and play defense."

This time, though, there is no countdown to a celebration. This time, the Rangers don't carry the swagger of having been to the World Series before. The Athletics are the defending division champions. Yes, there is the fallback position of an AL Wild Card spot, but Texas and Oakland are only 2 1/2 games up on Tampa Bay. The Rangers also found out last year that a Wild Card berth guarantees only one extra game. They would rather not think about that possibility.

A breakdown of the remaining schedules of the Rangers and A's:
Category Rangers Athletics
Home games 13 11
Opponents at Angels (10-2) Astros (12-3)
  Pirates (0-0) at Twins (0-0)
  Athletics (9-6) at Rangers (6-9)
  at Rays (2-1) Angels (9-4)
  at Royals (2-1) Twins (0-0)
  Astros (14-2) at Angels (9-4)
  Angels (10-2) at Mariners (6-10)
Opponents +.500 13 3
Opponents -.500 10 20
Opponents' win pct. .504 .453
Off-days Sept. 5, 12 Sept. 9, 26
August record 20-7 14-13

"Nobody said this is going to be an easy thing to do," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "People don't realize how hard it is to get into the playoffs in baseball. There is another good team in this division. It's going to be a fun month."

At least the Rangers don't have to worry about going back to Oakland. Texas is done with the Coliseum for at least the regular season. But the Rangers do have a three-game series with the Athletics next weekend at the Ballpark in Arlington.

That is part of a treacherous 17-day stretch against some pretty good teams. Texas surged back to the top of the division by feasting on teams with losing records in August, but that is no longer the case.

It starts with the Angels this weekend in Anaheim. The Halos do have a losing record, but as of Thursday morning, they had won nine of their last 12 games. After that comes the Pirates and Athletics at home, and the Rays and the Royals on the road.

"You can say what you want to about the Angels, but they're talented and they are a tough team. It's the Major Leagues," outfielder David Murphy said. "You can what you want about any opponent, but it's still tough. I bring up the Mariners. Yeah, we swept them last week, but they've played us extra tough the last two years. We just need to worry about ourselves and get back to playing baseball the way we want to, and be consistent doing it."

The schedule suggests the Athletics have the easier path to the finish. As of Thursday morning, the Rangers' remaining opponents have a combined .504 winning percentage. The Athletics' opponents had a .453 winning percentage.

Both teams have two series left with the Angels and one with the Astros. But while the Rangers have to deal with the Pirates, Rays and Royals, the Athletics have two series left with the Twins and one with the Mariners. Those two teams have been looking to the future, as Minnesota recently traded first baseman Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh and Seattle sent Michael Morse to Baltimore.

"It has been a dog fight since Day 1," manager Ron Washington said. "We took a substantial lead and lost it, Oakland took a substantial lead and then lost it. Now, going down the stretch, we just have to continue to play good baseball and not worry about who has the lead. That will take care of itself at the end."

The Rangers are going to see some tough pitching in the next 17 days. The Royals and Athletics are 1-2 in team pitching in the AL, and the Pirates are second in the National League. Texas is third in the league in team pitching. But the Rangers are also on pace to score 731 runs this season, which would be their lowest output since 1985.

"[The offense] has been a little more inconsistent than it has been in the past, but it's still capable," Washington said. "We find a way. That's the thing I'm more concerned about is we find a way."

Overall, this has not been an easy season for the Rangers. Opening Day starter Matt Harrison went down for the season with a back injury after two starts, Alexi Ogando has been on the disabled list three times and the fifth-starter spot remains a revolving door currently held by Travis Blackley.

Pierzynski, Kinsler, first baseman Mitch Moreland, outfielder Craig Gentry and designated hitter Lance Berkman have all spent time on the disabled list. The crowning blow was losing outfielder Nelson Cruz -- who was having possibly his best year -- to a season-ending 50-game suspension.

The Rangers -- between the young players promoted and trades for pitcher Matt Garza and outfielder Alex Rios -- have strained their once-abundant farm system to the limit. Only their stalwart bullpen has made it through the season relatively unscathed.

"We've got young kids breaking in and guys trying to find where they fit in," Washington said. "It has been very trying, and in a way it has been a great feeling with the way we've held it together, with the adversity we've faced. Through all that, the guys have not stopped grinding and they haven't stopped battling."

The battle continues. The AL West race -- the best one going in baseball right now -- is coming down to the final 23 games. The two teams are even again. October is no longer a certainty for the Rangers.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.
Read More: Texas Rangers, Ian Kinsler, David Murphy