MLB Postseason Preview: Rangers vs. Rays

Texas Rangers (90-72) at Tampa Bay Rays (96-66)

OVERVIEW

Two teams that missed the playoffs last year face off in a series where, amazingly, the Rays are the “Goliath” in a David vs. Goliath matchup. The Rangers are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, have only one playoff win in their franchise’s history, and have never appeared in a League Championship Series, let alone a World Series. Meanwhile, the Rays won the pennant just two years ago with more or less the same roster that they have now, and finished this year with the best record in the AL.

LINEUPS

How the Rays scored 802 runs this year I’ll never know. By most metrics, they are a pretty mediocre offensive team: They have the worst team batting average in the league (if you don’t include Seattle, which you shouldn’t), they have the worst team OBP of the four postseason teams, and their regular lineup includes someone who finished the year hitting under .200 (Carlos Pena). In their whole lineup, only Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria had good years offensively. But the team is deep—with guys like Matt Joyce, Reid Brignac, and now Brad Hawpe adding some skill on the bench—and fast—they lead the league in stolen bases, with a 79% success rate. I guess that goes a long way.

The strength of the Rangers lineup obviously hinges on Josh Hamilton, the likely MVP until he broke two ribs crashing into a wall in the outfield on September 4. Though the ribs are still fractured, he pronounced them “healthy enough” (which is totally badass, by the way) and went 2-for-4 with a home run in the regular season finale. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Hamilton and his 1.044 OPS to this lineup, but it would still be a mistake to overlook the rest of the lineup. Nelson Cruz lost some power but generally improved on a great 2009 and Vladimir Guerrero had a much better season than many people (included me) expected the veteran slugger to have.

THE ROTATIONS

Tampa Bay’s rotation has been a huge strength for them this season. They were second in the AL in ERA, and David Price was as good as any ace in the league not named Felix Hernandez. Surprisingly, though, the Rays have tapped James Shields, who finished 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA, as their Game 2 starter behind Price. Though Matt Garza and Wade Davis have each had better years than Shields, the Rays likely want to avoid starting Shields who has surrendered 34 home runs this year and has an ERA of 5.82 on the road, in the homer-friendly Ballpark in Arlington.

The Rangers made it clear that they were serious about not just making but advancing in the playoffs this year when they went out and traded for Cliff Lee in July. Lee seemed to provide Texas with the dominant starter it lacked, but Lee has been less than dominant (4-6, 3.98 ERA) since coming over from Seattle. Having said that, reports of Lee’s demise have been greatly exaggerated: Since September 1, Lee is 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to rely on one starter to win even a short division series (just ask the 2004 Twins, or the 2005 Padres, or the 2009 Cardinals), so it was probably a wise decision for Ron Washington to ditch his plan to start Lee on short rest in a possible Game 4. The fact is that the back of Texas’ rotation has been pretty reliable as well. C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Tommy Hunter all have double-digit win totals and ERAs under 3.75.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

TIM: No seriously, John, how did the Rays score 800+ runs?

JOHN: I don’t really know. I’m going to say “stolen bases and good base-running,” because that seems like the standard answer, but you wouldn’t think speed would make up for a lineup that includes more hitters with an OPS under .700 (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Brad Hawpe, Reid Brignac, Willie Aybar) than over .800 (Longoria and Crawford). The Tampa Bay offense really does look like smoke and mirrors.

TIM: What, uh, what happened to Carlos Pena? That guy used to be good.

JOHN: Pena still is pretty good—well, if not “good” then at least not that bad. His OBP is .325, which isn’t going to win him any awards but is actually fourth-best on the team. And his 28 home runs still him make him the biggest power threat in the lineup, so as bad as that batting average was this year, he’s still one of the few guys in the lineup opponents have to consistently worry about. As for what happened to him, it’s really not that surprising. This is the third straight year that his batting average has plummeted dramatically, which indicates he hasn’t made adjustments to the league learning how to pitch him.

TIM: Isn’t it kind of weird that, with all their speed, the Rays’ usual leadoff hitter is catcher John Jaso?

JOHN: It is weird. Jaso’s got a good OBP (.372—tied for the team lead), but you’d think that with the way the Rays like to steal, they’d put Crawford or Upton in that spot. It probably speaks to the fact that the Rays are willing to steal from any spot in the lineup, and not just the leadoff position.

TIM: Who on the Rangers is most likely to repeat Juan Gonzalez’s 12-home run performance from the 1996 ALDS?

JOHN: I’m pretty sure it was only 8 home runs for Gonzalez. I mean, Hamilton is the most likely candidate, since he, like Gonzalez, was the Texas MVP candidate for the season. There’s also Nelson Cruz, who plays the same position as Gonzalez. But, obviously, nobody’s going to do what Gonzalez did.

TIM: Is there a way in which you can distinguish among Wilson, Lewis, and Hunter? I knew their first names were C.J., Colby, and Tommy, but I probably couldn’t have matched first names to last names.

JOHN: Well, C.J. is the lefty and the team’s former closer/set-up man. Before this year, Colby hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2007 and hadn’t started more than three games in a season since 2003. And Tommy is the youngest of the group, having never pitched a full season—he also looks like he should be competing on a Real World/Road Rules Challenge.

TIM: How many free tickets will the Rays have to give away to pack the Trop?

JOHN: Well, it took 20,000 to fill the stadium last week, but that was against the Orioles. It’s obviously easier to get people to come out to see the great Brian Matusz. For this series, figure about 25,000.

TIM: What are your feelings on The Ballpark in Arlington?

JOHN: Having never been, my only feelings about it are as a Yankee fan, which obviously means they are positive. Never losing there in three playoff series in ’96, ’98, and ’99 made me always look forward to road games.

TIM: As a Yankees fan, who would you rather see in the ALCS?

JOHN: Probably Texas. The Yankees have already beat a team with Cliff Lee pitching as well as he can pitch in a seven-game series, so that doesn’t really scare me. Meanwhile, we lost the head-to-head matchup to Tampa Bay 10-8, and Texas hasn’t played a meaningful game in forever, having pretty much locked up the division back in May.

TIM: Who ya got?

JOHN: The Rangers have a good shot at the upset if they can steal one of the first two in Tampa—the Rangers are a great home team, so if they go back to Texas tied 1-1 they are in great shape—but that most likely means either Lee dominating or Shields imploding. I don’t see either happening (Lee may be great, but I see Price winning that duel). I’ll give the Rangers one game, but the Rays take it in four.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] to be led by MVP-candidate Josh Hamilton and veterans Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Young (not that anyone would be foolish enough to think that), then you were probably surprised by the ALDS: Those three combined to hit .175 with only two […]

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