Andrew Perna. 29th September, 2011 - 7:28 pm
Unlike an overwhelming majority of the baseball world, I think the Texas Rangers are very lucky to be facing the Tampa Bay Rays instead of the Boston Red Sox.
In the days leading up to the end of the regular season, while looking at both the roster and issues of the Red Sox, I realized that a five-game series played over seven days is exactly what they needed. It would have plugged their glaring holes.
Instead, thanks to a thrilling walk-off home run by Evan Longoria on Wednesday night, the Rays are in the postseason as the hottest team in baseball. Texas won five more games than Tampa Bay during the regular season, but more importantly they took five out of the nine head-to-head contests.
Individually and as a whole, the Rangers are the superior offensive team. They finished the regular season with an .800 OPS, second to only the Red Sox. Only the Yankees hit more home runs than Texas (210) and only New York and Boston scored more runs. The drop-off after the Rangers is vast. The Tigers, ranked fourth, scored 68 fewer runs.
While the Rangers ranked in the top three constantly in top offensive categories, the Rays fell in the middle of the pack. Tampa Bay had an OPS of .724 (14th), hit 172 home runs (T-10th) and scored 4.4 runs per game (15th).
Evan Longoria is a superstar and a premier hitter and Casey Kotchman has enjoyed quite a resurgence, but they have just three players with more than 20 home runs (Ben Zobrist had exactly that number), no players with 100 RBI (Longoria finished with 99) and Kotchman (.378) is the only regular player with an OBP north of .360.
The sample size is small, but Tampa Bay hitters struggled against Texas this season. Longoria had two home runs and a .378 on-base percentage in 30 at-bats, but B.J. Upton, Sean Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Desmond Jennings, Zobrist and Kotchman are hitting a collective .160 against the Rangers this season with 15 walks and 39 strikeouts.
The Rangers employ a much more dangerous lineup as five hitters clubbed at least 25 home runs.
Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler have killed Tampa Bay pitching this season with eight home runs and 13 RBI between them in seven and eight games, respectively. Napoli has been a complete hitter, with a .484 OBP and 11 hits in 27 at-bats, while Kinsler has been all or nothing. He has six hits against Tampa Bay, five of which left the field of play.
The Tampa Bay pitching staff may be only marginally better, but if they are going to advance to the ALCS they will have to dominate this series. The staff had a collective ERA of 3.58, a touch better than Texas (3.79). They have both leaned on their starters, with James Shields completing games as an amazing rate and Nolan Ryan teaching his pitchers to strive for lengthy outings.
Texas has shown better control (2.56 strikeouts per walk) this season. C.J. Wilson, the Game 1 starter has a rate of 2.78 and Colby Lewis has a three-to-one rate.
Rangers manager Ron Washington will trot out Wilson, Derek Holland and likely Lewis. In a fourth game, they could opt to start Wilson on short rest. The trio is 4-0 against the Rays in six starts and they allowed just 13 earned runs in 42 innings.
The Rays needed to win late and because of that David Price started on Wednesday against the Yankees. He threw 97 pitches over four innings and will not be available until Game 3 on Monday. That means Joe Maddon will probably go with Jeremy Hellickson in the second game.
Shields, Hellickson and Price were 2-2 against Texas in five starts. They allowed eight runs in 37 innings. While the Rangers might have an older starting rotation in this short series, Tampa Bay has one full of relative experience and confidence for their age.
Edge: Tampa Bay
The Rays are red-hot and I believe more in momentum that most when it comes to sports, but it will not matter in this series. Tampa Bay has had to play like men on fire for the entire month of September and it will eventually catch up with them.
Meanwhile, Texas ended the season with a 10-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West and they have been no slouches with nine wins in their last 10 games.
Maddon manages his players better than Washington and is getting more out of less. Unless Upton goes on a run like he did back in 2008, when he hit seven home runs in eight games en route to a World Series appearance, the Rangers are going to advance to their second-straight championship series.
Rangers in Four