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08/22/10 6:37 PM ET

Twins, Texas meet in possible playoff preview

Monday night's opener of a four-game series between the Twins and Rangers could very well foreshadow October baseball.

Both teams, atop their respective divisions, boast similar records and have a little breathing room over their immediate competition. That being said, while the two squads appear to have converged at nearly the same statistical plateau, they seem to be trending in different directions.

For the 69-54 Rangers, they return to Arlington after a disappointing 2-5 road trip against the Rays and Orioles. Over their last 12 games, all against American League East teams, the Rangers -- who beat Baltimore, 6-4, on Sunday to return home on a good note -- have gone 5-7, but the AL West-rival Angels and A's couldn't take advantage to inch their way back into playoff contention.

"We could have come off the road trip a lot worse than we did -- what did we lose, one game [in the standings]?" Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton pointed out. "But it could have been a lot worse. It was good we hung in there."

Despite missing second baseman Ian Kinsler -- who will undergo an MRI on his left groin Monday -- and outfielder Nelson Cruz for the bulk of the AL East stretch, the Rangers' potent offense continued to produce ample run support. Through the 12-game span, Texas averaged 4.42 runs per game, and surprisingly, scored six runs on three different losing occasions.

Attempting to curb that trend and build upon Tommy Hunter's quality start on Sunday will be right-hander Rich Harden. He will make his first start since being placed on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis Aug. 8. In his last outing vs. Oakland, Harden lasted only 2 1/3 innings, yielding three runs.

"I've been looking forward to getting back out there," Harden said. "I felt good in the last start [in Triple-A Oklahoma City on Wednesday]. I'm ready to go."

Harden added just how important this upcoming series is for the slumping Rangers.

"Sometimes the toughest teams to play are out of it," said Harden, after his team split a four-game series with the well-below-.500 Orioles. "Every game is important, and you treat it like that, but sometimes it's easier to get that intensity and that focus when you're playing a better team."

The Twins, who have won eight of their last 10, will counter with right-hander Nick Blackburn, who will be called up to start on Monday after he posted a 2.49 ERA in four starts with Triple-A Rochester.

"He threw the ball well for a couple outings in a row, and the sinker was good," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "His last outing through all of his travel [back and forth from home] was so-so. Ground balls rolling through and all those things, but his sink has been sinking good. So we'll see what happens."

The Twins also have the comfort of mind in knowing that they've gone 17-6 against the AL West this season. But Gardenhire is also happy that in September, his club's only road trips will come against AL Central teams.

"I do like that," Gardenhire said. "I'd rather be playing inside our division. That's where you have a chance to make up ground or distance yourself inside the division. When playing other divisions, you never know what luck of the draw you are going to get out of it. Inside your division, you are familiar with it."

Twins: Liriano's next start delayed
Left-hander Francisco Liriano has been battling dead arm recently and had his scheduled start on Monday pushed back to Thursday against the Rangers as a precaution. "This is actually good," Gardenhire said. "We talked to Liriano, and he likes the idea too."

Rangers: Hamilton asks, 'What slump?'
Batting title candidate Josh Hamilton has been particularly good as of late, hitting .500 with two home runs and seven RBIs over his past three games. Hamilton went 2-for-4 in Sunday's contest, improving his season average to .357.

Worth noting
In their three meetings this season, back on May 28-30, the Twins went a perfect 3-0 against the Rangers, outscoring Texas, 16-7. ... Twins shortstop J.J. Hardy had the day off on Sunday and Alexi Casilla started in his place. Hardy is expected to have the occasional day off after playing a couple days due to the soreness that he has been battling in his left wrist. ... Sunday marked the third anniversary of the Rangers' 30-3 blowout win over the Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader, which set the American League record for most runs in a game. ... Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, at 22 years and 109 days, became the youngest player in Major League history to record 30 saves in a season when he picked up his 30th on Friday night. He surpassed the previous record of Oakland's Huston Street, who was 23 years and 36 days when he got his 30th save on Sept. 8, 2006.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.