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Verlander, Hamels duel on opening day for Astros, Rangers

By Steve Habel, The Sports Xchange
Verlander, Hamels duel on opening day for Astros, Rangers
Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first inning of the 2017 MLB World Series Game 6 on October 31 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

There will be no love lost between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros when the Lone Star State rivals meet Thursday afternoon at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas on opening day in Major League Baseball.

The Astros won their first World Series championship in 2017 but had to go through the Rangers to win the American League West, even though Texas ended up fourth in the division and lost 84 games last year.

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When Houston was unable to play at home in an August series because of the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey, a plan to switch home series with Texas was not accepted by the Rangers, forcing the teams to play the three games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Some of the Astros, and especially their owner Jim Crane, still hold a grudge over the situation.

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"We had a few problems with Texas last year, not wanting to switch games with us," Crane told KRIV of Houston. "There's plenty incentive to want to try to beat up on Texas, that's for sure."

But that was last year and opening day brings nothing if not renewed hopes for all MLB's teams.

The fact is that the Astros have done plenty in the offseason to bolster their roster and give legitimate credence to their attempt to be the first club to win consecutive titles since the Yankees won three straight (1998-2000).

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Houston returns nearly all of its core players from their 2017 title team and are poised to repeat with arguably the deepest starting pitching rotation and the deepest offense in the major leagues.

Among the Astros' everyday players are reigning American League MVP Award winner Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer and budding superstar shortstop Carlos Correa.

"Most people will ask you about contentment, complacency, any of those big, ugly words that can tear down a team when they have success," Houston manager A.J. Hinch told mlb.com.

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"Our approach has been directly the opposite. We work a little bit more, take a deeper dive into what we're doing. Our whole organization is built around trying to find a competitive edge when we can."

On the other hand, Texas looks like it will struggle to contend after back-to-back division titles in 2015-16. The Rangers made no real flashy roster moves, with the highlights being the acquisition of pitchers Mike Minor, Doug Fister, Tim Lincecum, Jesse Chavez and Bartolo Colon and the signing of second baseman Roughned Odor to a six-year contract.

The Rangers understand that nobody expects them to win the American League West or even earn an AL wild-card spot. They will use those low expectations as fuel, beginning immediately against the defending champs.

"I like when people say that," Odor said. "That makes us play better and harder."

Rangers manager Jeff Banister said the message to his team is to get back to the style of baseball the team played when it won back-to-back division titles.

"A relentless style of baseball that puts pressure on the other team," Banister said. "It's not always pretty, but do whatever is necessary to win the baseball game. Don't care who gets credit, it's an all-in Texas mentality."

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The season begins with a marquee pitching matchup between the Astros right-hander Justin Verlander and Rangers left-hander Cole Hamels.

Verlander will be making his 10th Opening Day start in the past 11 years and his first for the Astros. He was acquired from the Tigers on Aug. 31, won all five of his starts in September and was 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA in six postseason outings on the way to a World Series title.

"We won the World Series last year, and we got better this year," Verlander said. "That's a pretty good recipe for success. I'm excited to be here for a whole season."

Verlander (15-8, 3.36 ERA last season) is 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in his past six starts against the Rangers.

Hamels (11-6, 4.20 ERA last season) will be making his fourth career opening day start and his second in three years for the Rangers. He is 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in his past five starts against Houston.

The Astros went 12-7 against the Rangers last season to win the Silver Boot Trophy for only the third time in the last 14 years.

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"We have a really good rivalry going," Hamels said. "I know we played them really hard the last couple years since I've been here, but last year not so much. So what we have at stake is some really fun, competitive baseball, and that's something to look forward to for the whole season."

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