Five Keys: Rangers vs. Rays
Ace Cliff Lee has returned to form and could carry the Rangers' rotation this month
Josh Hamilton, the likely AL MVP, is still recovering from a serious rib injury
Closers Rafael Soriano and Neftali Feliz had excellent years but are playoff rookies
The AL East champion Rays are the consensus favorite to advance to their second ALCS in two years, but don't overlook the Rangers in what should be a long, grinding series. Texas has the power pitchers to shut down an inconsistent Tampa Bay offense. Expect low-scoring games, intriguing bullpen battles, and a lot of shots of Nolan Ryan on the edge of his seat in the owner's box.
First things first: a little love for the itinerant ace, Cliff Lee. The left-hander isn't going to win the Cy Young, but he did make baseball history this season, posting a 10.28 strikeout-to-walk ration that is the lowest ever over a full season. In case you didn't notice, the Rangers ace was splendid in September (1.94 ERA in four starts), and looks like he's rediscovered his mojo --- he's locating his fastball after struggling to do so in the aftermath of his arrival from Seattle in an early July trade. The Rays should be considered the favorite against Texas but Lee, who won two World Series games for the Phillies last year, is the kind of pitcher who can take over a five-game series. Texas manager Ron Washington has Tommy Hunter slotted for Game 4 --- but would he tap his ace, who has never pitched on three days rest in his nine-year career, in a do-or-die situation?
Joe Maddon's speedy, athletic players treat the base paths like the Autobahn: they swiped a major league high 172 bases, with a very good 78.5 percent success rate. The Rays don't have a power-laden lineup; they ranked sixth in the American League in home runs and eighth in slugging. But they can cause serious issues for the other team with their aggressiveness on the bases. As Maddon likes to say, "Speed and running never take a vacation." Tampa's aggressiveness is particularly troublesome for a team that was not very good at handling base runners: Texas catchers threw out 35 of 151 base stealers this season, a 23.2 rate. Carl Crawford (47 steals), B.J. Upton (42), Ben Zobrist (24), Evan Longoria (15), Sean Rodriguez (13) and Jason Bartlett (11) are all threats. Texas needs to contain Tampa's aggressive running attack --- and their pitchers can't let all the running get to their heads.
The likely AL MVP has shown he can single-handedly carry the Rangers offense through stretches, and if he gets hot, the Rays will be in trouble. That's a big if, though: Hamilton isn't 100 percent --- after returning to the lineup last Friday from a rib injury that caused him to miss almost a month, he said on Monday that he was "really, really, really sore" after playing three games. The Rangers offense, not exactly a juggernaut, relies on the power core of Hamilton and Nelson Cruz (Vladimir Guerrero's production has tailed off in the second half as he's been slowed with back and leg problems), so it's critical for Texas that Josh Hamilton is Josh Hamilton in this series.
The Cliff Lee-David Price faceoff to open the series is the best pitching matchup of the first round. But don't call it a must-win for Texas. Beyond the aces, the Rangers are actually more rock solid in the rotation, with the two most unlikely starters of the postseason: closer turned starter C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, who spent the last two years pitching in Japan, are strikeout pitchers who can shutdown the Rays lineup. James Shields and Matt Garza of the Rays both have top-tier potential but both have been maddeningly inconsistent. Pitching at Texas will be a big challenge for rookie Wade Davis in Game 4 -- Davis was actually better this season on the road than at home, but in his start at Rangers Ballpark in June, he had by far his worst outing of the year (eight runs in 3 1/3 innings).
Both bullpens are deep, versatile and talented --- Rangers and Rays relievers ranked first and third in the league, respectively, in ERA -- and both are anchored by closers coming off outstanding seasons. Texas rookie Neftali Feliz, who the Rangers are still considering making a starter in 2011, was the most dominant closer in the American League, while the Rays counter with Rafael Soriano. Neither of those two All-Stars have appeared in a postseason game. The Rays should have a slight edge in the late innings because of the presence of excellent set-up man Joaquin Benoit.
THE PICK: Rangers in five