It was a little surprising on July 31 when the Rangers dealt for lefthander Cole Hamels. Texas was seven games back of the rocketing Astros and didn’t fit the profile of a legitimate postseason squad.

The landscape, however, changed over the next several weeks. The Rangers turned it on and is 24-15 since the trade. At the same time, the AL West has tightened up significantly.

Texas (74-67) is only 1½ games behind the Astros (76-66) in the division. The Angels (72-69), led by the surging Albert Pujols, are 3½ games behind Houston, two back of Texas and one back of the Twins. The Twins’ path to the postseason will involve catching one team from the West while holding off another.

The Twins (73-68) are one game back of the Rangers for the second wild-card spot. Both teams are 6-5 though 11 September games. Both teams are struggling to score runs, as the Twins scored 42 runs in those 11 games while the Rangers mustered just 28 runs over a 10-game road trip.

“We need to get back to being tough outs,” Texas manager Jeff Banister said. “And we need to do it pretty quickly.”

Both teams have key players trying to get healthy. Phil Hughes and Glen Perkins have back issues, and rookie slugger Miguel Sano is playing on a bad hamstring. Texas has missed leadoff hitter Delino DeShields Jr. because of a sore knee, and outfielder Josh Hamilton had surgery on his left knee Friday in hopes of being able to pinch hit by the end of the season.

It will be worth tracking the Rangers and Angels as the Twins look for their finishing kick in the postseason race. And Houston could make things interesting with a late slide — and the Astros’ back-to-back 3-2 losses to the Angels on Friday and Saturday dropped them to 15-20 since Aug. 2.

Texas knows what it’s like to give away a postseason spot. In 2012, the Rangers led the AL West by 13 games at one point and still led the Athletics by five games with nine to play but finished 2-7, blowing a four-run lead on the final day of the regular season to fall into the wild-card game, which they lost to the Orioles.

So keep these matchups in mind:

The Rangers and Astros open a series Monday and will play each other seven times the rest of the way.

The Angels, who will try to sweep the Astros on Sunday, still have three games at Houston and finish the season with a four-game series at Texas.

And, in what has become a tasty matchup, the Twins, in their final nondivisional series of the year, play host to the Angels in a four-game series that starts Thursday. The Angels have the biggest hill to climb, but Pujols has been telling teammates about the 2011 Cardinals who won 16 of their final 21 games to reach the postseason, then won the World Series.

September baseball viewing is fun again in the Twin Cities.

Central Intelligence

Maybe the American League Rookie of the Year will come out of the Central Division after all. Houston’s Carlos Correa has leveled off, while Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor entered Saturday batting .309 with eight homers and 34 RBI while playing smooth defense. And he leads all rookies with 3.4 WAR.

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Things have not been clicking for Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, who was batting only .232 through 101 games.

So manager Brad Ausmus has dropped him from the cleanup spot to No. 5 in the batting order. Ausmus said, however, that Martinez won’t be dropped any further.

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One move that has worked out well for the Royals has been the addition of Ben Zobrist, who, entering Saturday, batted .315 since the trade and had a hand in both of Kansas City’s runs on Thursday in its loss to the Twins. “He’s just been a great addition to the team,” manager Ned Yost said.

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White Sox slugger Jose Abreu is closing in on joining Albert Pujols as the only players to hit at least 30 home runs and drive in at least 100 runs in his first two seasons.

Abreu entered Saturday with 27 homers and 86 RBI. Last season, he won AL Rookie of the Year honors while batting .317 with 36 home runs and 107 RBI.

Three observations …

•  Congratulations to Seattle righthander Tony Zych, who debuted last week and has moved into the final spot on baseball’s alphabetical list of players. He took over for Dutch Zwilling, who played from 1910 to ’16.


•  If you think the MVP award should be the player of the year award, then Bryce Harper is the man in the National League. If you feel a player has to help his team win, then Yoenis Cespedes enters the conversation, even in only two months with the Mets.

• The Red Sox have been a huge disappointment, but several young players have stepped forward this season, and Boston could be a dangerous club in 2016.

… and two predictions

• Nelson Cruz will beat Chris Davis for the AL home run title.

• Toronto will win the AL East by at least four games.