(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Rays are back in the postseason for the second time in team history and will start their run against the Texas Rangers this afternoon in Game One of their American League Division Series matchup at Tropicana Field.
Battling the New York Yankees for the best record in baseball for most of the season, the Rays needed all 162 games to secure their second American League East title and did so on the season's final day with an extra-inning win in Kansas City.
The Rays are led by David Price, who emerged as one of the best left-handers in baseball this year, while third baseman Evan Longoria paced an offense that is very unlike its American League contemporaries.
This season, Price established himself as a legit ace in this league as he posted the best year ever by a Rays pitcher, going 19-6 with a 2.72 earned run average. Depending on how much emphasis Cy Young voters put on him pitching big games in September he may very well walk away with some hardware at the end of the season.
"It's the biggest game I've ever been a part of coming into tomorrow," Price said on Tuesday. "It'll be a lot of fun and hoping for a good game, offensively, defensively and pitching. Been playing pretty good baseball here recently and we never quit. You can't count us out of any game, whether we're up by however many or down by however many, this team doesn't stop."
Longoria missed the team's final 10 games with a strained left quadriceps, but should be ready to go tonight to lead an offense that produced the third most runs in the majors at 802 despite hitting just .248 as a team.
Texas, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years after capturing its first American League West crown since 1999. It is only the fourth time that the Rangers are in the playoffs, but this will be their first meeting against a team other than the New York Yankees.
"We know the past history, never winning in the playoffs, so we want to change that," said Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the Rays back in 1999. "It's the first step, obviously, get to the playoffs. That's a big step for us as an organization. We feel like we're moving in the right direction."
The Rangers spent the majority of the year atop their division, but became a serious threat for a World Series title when they acquired lefty Cliff Lee just before the All-Star break.
However, things turned sour for the Rangers in September when AL MVP candidate Hamilton went down with fractured ribs. He missed most of the final month before returning for the last weekend, but it will bear watching whether or not he is 100 percent.
"First of all, nobody -- if you ask anybody, nobody is feeling 100 percent right now, so that kind of puts things in perspective for me," said Hamilton. "You know, the ribs, I'd be lying to you if I said that it didn't hurt. It does. But mind over matter. When I think about the little bit of pain I'm in, I think about Christ on the cross and what he bore for us. So that puts things in perspective tremendously."
Lee will get the call this afternoon, as he tries to duplicate his postseason heroics from a year ago when he was with Philadelphia. The 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in his five playoff starts last season.
The 32-year-old hurler, though, hasn't been that effective since coming to the Rangers and was just 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA in 15 starts. He also lost four of his last six regular season decisions.
Lee lost all three times he pitched against the Rays this season, allowing 12 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings.
"They scored more runs than we did," Lee said of the Rays' success against him this season. "That's really it. They could have had all the success, whatever, I could have shut them down three games in a row, whatever. It has zero bearing on the game [Wednesday]."
Tampa Bay won four of its six regular season meetings with the Rangers this year, but both losses came in Arlington, where the Rays have won just twice in their last nine visits.
The Rays were 49-32 in their building this season, while at 39-42 Texas is the only AL playoff club with a losing record on the road.