While having won their second AL East title in three years may not make them grizzled veterans of playoff baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays will not be wandering wide-eyed into unfamiliar territory when they host the Texas Rangers in the best-of-five American League Division Series that begins Wednesday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
Two years ago, the Rays made their first appearance in the postseason, going from worst-to-first in the AL East. They proved to be ready for prime time when they took out the Chicago White Sox in four games in the ALDS and beat division rival Boston in a seven game series to clinch the AL pennant before succumbing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Many of the key contributors from that team, such as Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, BJ Upton, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena as well as pitchers David Price, Matt Garza, James Shields and Grant Balfour. New additions who've made an impact include closer Rafael Soriano, set-up man Joaquin Benoit plus rookies Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, John Jaso, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson.
While pitching and defense have been relatively reliable strong points for the Rays all season, offensive production has been streaky and largely undependable. Middle-of-the-pack numbers in offensive categories like slugging percentage (.403, 15th out of 30 teams), home runs (160, 12th) and OPS (.736, 14th) are less an indication of consistent mediocrity than a tendency to run off streaks of extreme hot or cold. They were the victims of two no-hitters and three one-hit games this season. Oddly enough, the Rays scored more runs this season (802) than every team in baseball except the Yankees (859) and Red Sox (818).
The Rays do not fit the stereotype of AL bashers that rely on three-run homers, preferring to play so-called "small-ball", as evidenced by the fact that they led the majors in stolen bases (172).
Thankfully, the Rays pitching has been much more dependable...and dominating. The Rays led baseball in OBA (.308), were third in WHIP (1.26) and 4th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.49). In addition to solid pitching from the starting rotation and the bullpen, they were eighth overall in fielding percentage (.986).
Before the season began, most "experts" had relatively low expectations for the Texas Rangers. They finished second in 2008 and 2009 but were not expected to challenge the Angels, perennial favorites in the AL West. But two key things happened to take the Rangers to the top:
- Former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton continued to develop into one of baseball's true superstars, the kind capable of carrying a team by himself for long stretches at a time.
- At the trade deadline, they swept in, seemingly out of nowhere, to snag pitcher Cliff Lee before the Yankees (and maybe the Rays, if you believe certain rumors circulating at the time) could get him from the Seattle Mariners.
The Angels were beset by injuries and sub-par performances and the Rangers ran away with the division. They took over first place for good on June 8th and held no less than a six game lead in the division from July 22nd (the night Lee won his first game as a Ranger),
While Hamilton and Lee are clearly the Rangers biggest stars, the contributions of others on the roster should not be ignored. Particularly rightfielder Nelson Cruz, designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero and third baseman Mike Young as well as starting pitcher C.J. Wilson and closer Neftali Feliz.
In many ways, the two teams are built along similar lines. Anchored by a left-handed ace and young, multi-talented players, the Rangers have gotten away from the slugger-heavy lineups they've favored in the past and have adapted a reliance on the fundamental elements of pitching, defense and timely hitting. Here's a snapshot of how the two teams fared when they faced off during the 2010 regular season:
2010 Record: Rays won season matchup, 4-2
Batting average: Rays .283, Rangers .278
Home runs: Rays 7, Rangers 7
RBIs: Rays 40, Rangers 27
ERA: Rays 4.67, Rangers 6.35
Strikeouts: Rays 54, Rangers 57
Walks: Rays 19, Rangers 28
SCHEDULE, with probable starting pitchers
Game 1: Wednesday, October 6th 1:37 p.m. @ Tropicana Field. Cliff Lee (TEX) vs David Price (TB)
Game 2: Thursday, October 7th 2:37 p.m. @ Tropicana Field. C.J. Wilson (TEX) vs James Shields (TB)
Game 3: Saturday, October 9th 5:07 p.m. @ Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Matt Garza (TB) vs Colby Lewis (TEX)
Game 4 (if necessary): Sunday, October 10th TBA @ Rangers Ballpark in Arlington
Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, October 12th TBA @ Tropicana Field