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What Should Indians Expect in Rematch with Rangers?

It’s all over but the crying for the Cleveland Indians, but as we’ve learned over the last few years, the season doesn’t just end when we’re out of the running. Tonight, the Tribe’s schedule moves forward again as they head to Arlington to face the Texas Rangers.

This three-game series might not mean much to Cleveland, but these will be huge games for the Rangers (83-64, 3 GA). The 2010 AL pennant winners and the heavy preseason favorites to win the AL West, they’ve played just .500 ball since August 17 while the scorching second-place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have narrowed the gap in the division.

As we get ready for a series that’s important to at least one team, I talked to LoneStarBall.com‘s Adam J. Morris about the Texas’ offseason plans, Neftali Feliz’ struggles, and how well the Rangers are built for another deep October run. Here’s what he had to say:

LEWIE POLLIS: Less than a month ago, the Rangers held a seven-game lead in the AL West; now that’s down to just three games. What happened there? Can Texas hold on and make the playoffs?

ADAM J. MORRIS: The short answer in regards to what happened to the Rangers lead is that they hit a very difficult stretch in the schedule, and Anaheim played well and took advantage of that. As of right now, Texas is three games up, with all their games against the Indians, M’s and A’s until the final series in Anaheim, by which point I believe Texas will have clinched.

LEWIE POLLIS: Assuming they make the playoffs, are the Rangers built for a deep October run? How does this team compare to last year’s on the eve of the postseason?

ADAM J. MORRIS: The biggest negative difference I see between the 2010 Rangers and the 2011 Rangers was that the 2010 team had a stacked 1-2-3 punch at the top of the rotation with Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson, and Colby Lewis. All three had outstanding 2010 seasons and pitched very well in the playoffs. The 2011 Rangers still have C.J. Wilson, who is pitching as well as ever, but Lee is in Philly and Lewis has struggled all season as he’s battled a hip problem. The #2 and #3 starters will likely be Matt Harrison and Derek Holland — both have mixed flashes of brilliance with flashes of not-brilliance, particularly Holland, who is among the league leaders in shutouts but who also has had more than his share of “disaster starts.”

On the plus side, by the time the 2010 Rangers got to the postseason, the bullpen was near collapse, with Frankie Francisco injured, Darren Oliver worn out, and several guys pressed into middle relief roles who weren’t able to handle it. The 2011 team’s bullpen is a lot stronger, due to the trade deadline additions of Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Mike Gonzalez. The Texas bench, as well, is better than it was in 2010, which should help in late game maneuvers.

LEWIE POLLIS: Reigning Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz got off to a rough start this season, and while his numbers have been better recently, his walk and strikeout rates are both significantly worse than what he did last year. What’s behind his struggles? Has this affected the possibility of him moving to the starting rotation in 2012?

ADAM J. MORRIS: Neftali Feliz’s problems this season have stemmed from a lack of command and an unwillingness to throw his offspeed pitches. He looked awful at times early in the year, unable to command his fastball or get his offspeed pitches over for strikes, and you’d see him pounding 97 mph fastball after 97 mph fastball over the heart of the plate, with hitters eventually catching up to it and punishing him. He seems to have turned the corner after a talk with Bengie Molina about six weeks ago — he’s shown much improved fastball command and a lot more confidence in his offspeed stuff. His struggles this year notwithstanding, I think the plan is for him to be in the rotation in 2012.

LEWIE POLLIS: Looking ahead to the offseason, what do you see the Rangers doing on the free agent and trade markets? Will we see another big spending spree in Texas?

ADAM J. MORRIS: As with last season, I think the Rangers’ offseason moves will depend largely on whether they keep their top of the rotation lefty starter. C.J. Wilson, like Cliff Lee last year, is a free agent, the top starter on the market other than CC Sabathia (who is expected to opt out of his deal) and someone in a position to command a huge salary. The Rangers want him back, and C.J. reportedly wants to stay, but if someone comes in and throws crazy money at him — a Jayson Werth contract, for example — I think the Rangers would be hard-pressed to match it.

If Wilson leaves — or even if he doesn’t — I expect the Rangers to be active in talking to other teams about top of the rotation starters who are still team controlled, such as Matt Garza and James Shields. In addition, with Mitch Moreland having struggled in his sophomore season, there’s been some talk that the Rangers might look for a veteran first baseman. I don’t know that they’ll necessarily seriously be in the mix for a Prince Fielder or an Albert Pujols, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they brought a veteran righthanded bat in.

LEWIE POLLIS: Who’s pitching for the Rangers this series, and what should Tribe fans look for from them?

ADAM J. MORRIS: Tonight’s Ranger starter is Matt Harrison, a lefty who came over to Texas in the Mark Teixeira trade. His reputation coming into the season was that he has good stuff but doesn’t trust it, and after a couple of bad early outings he seemed on the verge of losing his rotation spot, but he turned it around and has had a breakout season.

Derek Holland pitches Wednesday, and he’s been Jekyll and Hyde this season…when Holland’s command is on, he’s been dominant, mixing a mid-90s fastball with good breaking stuff. When his command is off, he’s been very hittable. Like Harrison, he’s seemingly turned a corner this year, and has been less prone to the meltdown inning he’s been vulnerable to in the past, but it should be clear early on whether we have good Holland or bad Holland for the game.

Alexi Ogando is currently scheduled for Thursday, but reliever-turned-starter has had a career-high (by a huge margin) workload, has struggled in the second half, and is showing signs fo fatigue. The Rangers gave him extra rest prior to his last start, and Texas could opt to skip him for Colby Lewis, or have Scott Feldman come in for a spot start.