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It has become a card game

Sox need to deal with Rangers, not Yankees

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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Just pretend the Yankees don’t exist, because the Red Sox cannot see pinstripes right now. Don’t even bother watching the late highlights of their games in Seattle this weekend.

They don’t matter.

There’s too much of a gap between first and second place to think about divisional matters.

All that’s important right now is the wild card.

“That’s true,’’ said Mike Lowell after a 2-0 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Fenway yesterday. “For us right now, what’s real important is facing Texas. That’s the wild-card race right now. That’s who we’re battling with for the playoffs, so we’d better get down there and put together some wins. That’s the most immediate focus for us right now.’’

It’s mid-August, and we’re surprised that Texas is just a half-game behind the Red Sox for the wild card. Usually the Texas heat has boiled their bats and wilted their pitching staff by now. Or their lack of depth has done them in. Not so this year.

The Rangers are a pretty tough team, especially at home (37-21) and especially against the Red Sox. They have won five of six against Boston, and the Sox have averaged only three runs per game against them.

There will be no excuses for the Red Sox, though they will be missing one of their best hitters, Kevin Youkilis, who is serving a five-game suspension for his role in the brawl at Fenway Tuesday night. They must win.

“I think it’s very exciting,’’ said manager Terry Francona. “I think we look forward to this series. This will be fun. Last time we went down here, we didn’t do a very good job.

“I’m sure they’re feeling pretty excited about where they are. This will be a fun series.’’

He used the words “fun’’ and “exciting,’’ but what about “critical’’?

“I’m not going to say the team that wins this series is the team that’s going to make the playoffs and the team that loses won’t, but it’s important,’’ said Lowell. “We can’t go down there and lose any more ground. It’s not too early to be thinking we’re in must-win situations. This will be a playoff atmosphere for us. That’s the way we have to approach it.’’

Victor Martinez, just thrust into this Red Sox/playoffs thing, took a calmer approach.

“For our team, I think it’s just another series,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter what team we’re playing. We just go out and go after each team the same way.’’

Not really, Victor. Everything is magnified now.

Yesterday’s game mattered, too. In addition to Youkilis, the Sox played without Dustin Pedroia, who Francona thought needed a day off to prepare for the weekend series. And, while there are some who will believe the Sox gave this game away, Pedroia may not have made a dent in Justin Verlander, who was throwing 100 miles per hour on his 122d and 123d pitches.

Under team president Nolan Ryan, the Rangers have become a team that can pitch. Since the All-Star break, they have the lowest ERA in the American League at 3.38. They made a bold move by designating troubled righthander Vicente Padilla for assignment right in the middle of a playoff race.

They’ve done it with veteran Kevin Millwood and kids such as Tommy Hunter, who went 7 2/3 innings in a 5-0 shutout of Cleveland Wednesday night. The Sox will miss Hunter, who has a 1.97 ERA in eight starts since his recall June 28, but they won’t avoid lefty Derek Holland, who shut out the Angels Sunday night. The Rangers lead the AL with eight shutouts.

“They definitely have some young pitchers who have worked out for them,’’ said Lowell. “This is a team that when you come in and play them, you’ve got to be ready to face good pitching.’’

While the Texas starters have been effective, the bullpen has added an interesting component in 100-mile-per-hour-throwing Neftali Feliz, who has a 1.35 ERA and has retired 19 of 20 batters with 13 strikeouts in four major league appearances.

One of the best things about their just-concluded 5-5 road trip was Josh Hamilton coming out of his doldrums. Hamilton, who had four hits yesterday, batted .486 with a homer and eight RBIs on the trip, raising his average from .220 to .260.

“We always look forward to Boston,’’ Hamilton told reporters after yesterday’s game. “They’ve been good for a few years. Everybody gets fired up for the guys who’ve been there the last couple of years.’’

The Rangers’ Ron Washington has done one of the best managing jobs in baseball.

“It’s an important series,’’ said Washington. “We want to win the series, just like they want to win the series. They know how to win. They’ve been around. They’re not going any place.’’

Circumstances have created a much tougher road to the playoffs for the Sox than they ever imagined. While the Rangers are the team that could, the Sox are becoming the team that should. There’s no denying that the Yankees are always foremost on the mind in Sox Nation, but they must be given their due - they are red-hot and firmly planted in the driver’s seat in the AL East.

“You almost have to view it like Texas is in our division and we have to beat them to win the division,’’ said Lowell. “That’s really the way we have to look at it.

“We have to be realistic about things, given where we are right now. We’d love to be in first place and watch the Yankees battling for the wild card, but that’s not what’s happening right now. Hopefully we’ll get to that point.’’

Until they do, forget the Yankees. Or “misremember’’ them, as one former Red Sox and Yankee pitcher once said. At least until next Friday at Fenway.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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