Among the things I learned yesterday from listening to local sports talk radio all afternoon (aside from the availability of a wide range of "male enhancement" products and guaranteed, lock bets...up to 10,000 stars!, whatever that means... from football prognosticators in Las Vegas) is that a number of people have a downright gloomy outlook for the Rays as they prepare to face the Rangers in the ALDS. According to some of these people, in spite of the best record in the American League (second best in the majors), the Rays damn, goofy, new-agey/non-old schooly management, through either an over or under reliance on statistics (depending on the argument of choice), has put this team in a position that would make it difficult to hang with the Pittsburgh Pirates for five games, let alone the Texas Rangers.
Well, I don't know about that. I don't think the Rangers will be a pushover (my personal prediction: Rays in five) but I think the Rays have certainly done well enough to deserve enough benefit of a doubt to not be declared dead before the first pitch is even thrown. With that in mind, I'd like to offer five reasons why.
Granted, the Rays lack of experience was a non-factor when they made it all the way to the World Series after qualifying for the postseason for the first time in 2008. But their first opponent, the Chicago White Sox, was in the playoffs for the first time in three years. And while their previous appearance had resulted in a world championship, the roster had undergone significant changes since winning that title; more than half the hitters, three of the five starting pitchers and the entire bullpen. The Rays handled the White Sox in four games before moving on to the ALCS against the Red Sox, a team with which the Rays were extremely familiar.
While the Rays roster has undergone changes since '08, the core of that group remains basically intact with significant upgrades in the bullpen. And as far as familiarity, the Rays and Rangers met six times in 2010 (with the Rays winning four of those games) while the Rays and Red Sox played each other 25 times between the regular season and ALCS in 2008.
2. Evan Longoria is healthy
I wouldn't like the Rays chances much in this series, or any series for that matter, without Evan Longoria at third base. He hasn't played since suffering a strained left quadriceps muscle on September 23rd in a game against the Yankees. The injury was deemed not serious at the time but he was kept out of action in all the Rays remaining games as a precaution anyway. However, during that time, he was working out and staying ready. After workouts yesterday at the Trop, manager Joe Maddon says he's ready to go.
"He's fine. He's ready to roll. He had really good at-bats, he really did. He looked good, he wasn't jumping at the ball. Catching, throwing, hitting, fielding, running, he came through fine."
Well, okay then!
3. Home Field
The significance of winning the division versus merely settling for a wildcard spot should be apparent immediately with the first round being a short series of five games. Whether or not you put much stock in the motivation provided by a boisterous home crowd, there's no denying that having the last at bat is a considerable advantage. To have that on your side in the first two games, when you can jump on an opponent and almost bury them before they even have a chance to play at home and then have it again in the event of a series-deciding game five is a major factor.
4. James Shields starting game 2
This is the one that seems to be inspiring the most doomsday predictions. Our own Cristina Ledra questioned whether or not he should even be on the postseason roster. No doubt, Shields has struggled mightily this season, especially of late. His last outing saw him give up seven runs (six earned) in five innings with two walks and a strikeout in a loss to the Kansas City Royals. That's not good. In spite of that, however, you had to know he would pitch in the postseason for Maddon. For one thing, he has experience (and past success) pitching in the postseason and there is value in that. For another, there are statistics that show that Shields is not as terrible as you might think. For instance, his walk rate is only 2.26 per nine inning with a strikeout ratio of 8.28. Where he has gotten himself in trouble this season has been with giving up home runs, at a rate of 1.5 per nine innings when his ratio has been no higher than 1.19 since he posted a 1.3 in 2006, his rookie season. Whether this is a run of bad luck that eventually has to run its course, which many believe, or something else, if a guy is having problems with giving up the long ball, you'd certainly rather have him pitch for you in Tropicana Field (where he has just been better, generally, in all categories this year) than on the road. Especially in Arlington, a notorious haven for home run hitters.
5. Cliff Lee
Lee was the most coveted player in baseball at the trade deadline. The kind of pitcher who changes the outlook of an entire franchise, getting him (much to the chagrin of the Yankees) was an absolutely huge accomplishment for the Rangers. And he's 0-3 against the Rays this year.
In a season filled with more than their fair share of quirky circumstances, probably the most bizarre and baffling quirk of all for the Rays is their performance against big-name pitchers...and not-so-big-name pitchers. For whatever reason, the Rays generally do pretty well against the likes of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay (well, when they used to see him on a regular basis). It's when they face a Dallas Braden or Brandon Morrow that things get dicey. Cliff Lee? Twice? Please. Bring him on. Now, if the Rangers were running Bruce Chen out there...