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MLB Playoffs ALDS Rays-Rangers: Story Lines

(Sports Network) -- Here are three big storylines entering the series.

 

1) HEALTH CONCERNS

These teams are so eerily similar that they each even have injury concerns surrounding their best offensive players.

Tampa third baseman Evan Longoria missed the final 10 games of the year with a strained left quadriceps, while Texas' MVP candidate Josh Hamilton sat out most of the month of September nursing fractured ribs.

The Rays' offense desperately missed Longoria in the final week, as the team was shutout three times and was almost blanked for a fourth time before scoring two in the ninth on the season's final day.

Longoria, who hit .294 with 22 home runs and a club-leading 104 RBI for the Rays, took batting practice on Monday, fielded ground balls, ran the bases and then went up against pitcher Mike Ekstrom in a simulated game. He is apparently ready to go, as he hit the first pitch off Ekstrom over the left- center-field fence

Hamilton, meanwhile, returned to the Rangers' lineup for the final weekend of the season and after a pair of terrific catches in center field his first game back, he belted a home run on Saturday.

The former first overall pick of the Rays back in 1999, Hamilton, who hit a major league-high .359 this season with 32 home runs and 100 RBI, was full-go during the Rangers' workout Monday afternoon, and he expects to be in the lineup for Game 1.

 

2) WHICH BULLPEN WILL BREAK FIRST?

This series also features the two best bullpens in the American League, as the Rays ranked first in the Junior Circuit with a 3.33 ERA followed by the Rangers, who posted a 3.38 ERA from their relievers.

Both teams have excellent closers.

Rafael Soriano was brought in by the Rays to stabilize a bullpen that went with a closer by committee in 2009. Well, the move paid off as Soriano set a team record with 45 saves and pitched to a 1.73 ERA .

As good as Soriano was for the Rays, rookie right-hander Neftali Feliz proved to be just as effective for the Rangers, as he saved 40 games and pitched to a 2.73 ERA.

It could be a former Ranger, though, who has the biggest say in this series with regards to the bullpen. Right-hander Joaquin Benoit, who pitched the first eight years of his career with Texas, missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery and signed a minor-league contract this year with the Rays. He served as Soriano's main setup man and pitched to an AL-best 1.34 ERA.

Setting up Feliz, who should be the American League's Rookie of the Year, are righties Darren O'Day and Alexi Ogando, as well as left-handers Darren Oliver and Matt Harrison.

 

3) CHOOSE YOUR ACE: CLIFF LEE OR DAVID PRICE?

Everything is telling me that this series is going five games.

I don't think the Rays would throw Game 1 starter David Price on short rest in a Game 4 with a potential elimination game at home looming. And considering the fact that Cliff Lee has never gone on three-days' rest, it is a safe bet that the two Game 1 starters would go again if there is a deciding game at Tropicana Field.

So who do you like?

Price established himself as a legit ace in this league this season, 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.

Lee, of course, was incredible for the Phillies in last year's playoffs, as he went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts. Philadelphia's two wins in the World Series against the Yankees were from Lee.

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.

Photographs by cstreet.us, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.