ARLINGTON -- Third baseman Adrian Beltre left Wednesday's game in the fifth inning with a strained left shoulder. His replacement, Mike Olt, was forced out in the seventh after aggravating the inflammation in his right heel. Josh Hamilton missed the final two innings with a sore left knee."It's mid-September," outfielder David Murphy said. "The last two years at this time, it didn't feel like mid-September. This year, it really does feel like mid-September." The Rangers have been feeling it all season, or at least since mid-May when their pitching staff started getting hit by injuries. But it goes beyond just the injuries. This is the third straight season that the Rangers have been leading their division into September, and it may lead to a third straight trip to the World Series. They have the best record in the American League and still aren't even assured of a playoff spot just yet. The Athletics and a thick Wild Card race threaten that. "It's been a grind," Hamilton said. "Back-to-back years in the World Series, not getting as much rest in the offseason. You'd just like to have more of a cushion in the standings. We just don't have a cushion." Manager Ron Washington said this has been the Rangers' "toughest season" of the past three, and it's likely going to go right down to the end. "It has been tough," Washington said. "We're trying to accomplish something for the third time. Trying to get back to the big dance for the third time is not easy, especially getting there the past two years and not winning it all. It has been more of a grind. "We have a lot of guys who are not having their best years and they are still finding different ways of getting it done. A decimated pitching staff, the offense being in a slump for awhile, Mike Napoli going through what he did ... all of those things have not made it easy. But all through that, these guys find a way to get things done." The Rangers, as of Friday morning, have 19 games left on the schedule, all against division opponents. Seven of the last 10 games will be against the Athletics, including the final three in Oakland. The Rangers may not have even hit their toughest part of the schedule yet. "This has been a more competitive division and a more balanced and deeper American League," general manager Jon Daniels said. "That plays into what we've been through. We've had two key pitchers -- Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz -- lost for the season. We haven't dealt with that before. We lost our most consistent pitcher, especially in postseason, and arguably our best arm." The Rangers' season didn't start out looking like it would be tough. Back then, they seemed to make it look easy. The Rangers were 17-6 in April and already had a 6 1/2-game lead in the division. The talk back then was just how good the Rangers just might be, not in comparison to the rest of the division or the rest of the league, but against the best teams in baseball history. Those comparisons have disappeared but not the expectations for a team burdened with a "World Series or bust" mandate. Those expectations have not made anything easier. "The expectations are up and with those expectations come more attention, pressure and scrutiny," Daniels said. "Everything is always a first in some ways. It's not our first time in contention and not our first time dealing with all this, but the expectations are what they are, internally and externally. "From the clubhouse, management, ownership, media and fans, there is more attention, more questions and more demands on our time. It's not our first time dealing with it, and hopefully we'll be dealing it with it for the next 10 years. But there is a learning curve and an adjustment to the new norm." The Rangers showed up in Spring Training with everybody asking about the possibility of a "World Series hangover." Their fast start to the season seemed to dispel that theory, but possibly overlooked was the physical and mental toll taken by playing an extra month of high-intensity games in each of the past two seasons. "Yeah, definitely it wears you out," outfielder Nelson Cruz said. "But at the same time, Wash has done a good job of giving us rest and giving us days off from batting practice, whatever we need to rest." Washington said physically the Rangers should be in good shape going down the stretch. Beltre and Hamilton are fine after coming out of the game on Wednesday. The inflammation in Olt's heel remains a concern, but the Rangers are also expecting Napoli back this weekend after he completes his rehab assignment at Double-A Frisco. He has been sidelined since Aug. 11 with a strained left quad muscle, an injury that has bothered him almost the entire season. Setup reliever Mike Adams is dealing with some tightness in a muscle in the back of his right shoulder, but the Rangers are also getting left-handed reliever Robbie Ross back this weekend. He missed two weeks as a precaution because of tightness in his left forearm. Roy Oswalt, who may prefer to forget this season faster than anybody, is throwing again. "Physically we're as good as we can be," Washington said. "Everybody has nagging injuries, but physically we're fine. We've been helped by the weather. If we had played in the same weather as last year [record-setting heat], it might have been a problem. But the weather has been real nice down the stretch." Now the Rangers have 19 games left to the regular-season finish line. Their toughest season is not over yet, but Washington remains confident that the Rangers will prevail over any remaining obstacles as they have all year. "I know the character of this team," Washington said. "They've shown they're professional. They don't let much bother them. They play well together and they pick each other up. They don't want days off, because they feel they have an obligation to each other. They're all thinking about the team. "We'll handle these games like we have all year, just come out and play baseball. We're not going to put any more emphasis on it. Just come out and play."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.