This is a rematch of the American League Division Series last season that the Rangers won in five games behind the sheer brilliance of Cliff Lee. Lee, of course, is gone. The Rangers' rotation isn't as good without him, but the rest of the team is as good as, if not better than, it was last year. And the Rays, well, the story they have written so far is beyond remarkable. They lost their six highest-paid players from 2010 in the offseason. They lost their entire bullpen and they joined the 2005 Marlins as the only teams in history to lose a 15-game winner, a 25-homer man, a 40-save guy and a 40-steal guy in one offseason. The Marlins haven't recovered from that, and here are the Rays, back in the playoffs against Texas. Amazing.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. How much momentum do the Rays have?
Perhaps more than any team that has ever entered the postseason. They not only have won five games in a row, but they enter as the only team ever to come from nine games behind in September and make it to the playoffs. They became the only team in history to earn a postseason berth by overcoming a seven-run deficit in the final regular-season game, and handed the Yankees their first loss since 1953 in a game in which they led by seven runs in the eighth inning or later. This is the same team that lost its first six games of the season, and didn't hold a lead in the first 62 innings of the season. And now they're flying behind third baseman Evan Longoria, who joined Bobby Thomson in 1951 as the only players ever to hit a walk-off home run in the final regular-season game to put their teams in the playoffs. Longoria didn't drive in a run this year until May 7, but finished with 99 RBIs. And the pain in his left foot that endured for months isn't so bad now. And he is as good now as anyone.
2. How do the Rays win?
It's hard to tell sometimes. They finished eighth in the AL in runs scored, 168 fewer than the team that they beat out in the wild-card race -- the Red Sox -- and 148 fewer than the Rangers. Down the stretch, the Rays started some lineups with three hitters (sometimes more) hitting under .220. But it's also easy to see how the Rays win. They have the best starting pitching in the league, and the best defense. That will give them a chance in the playoffs, which are about pitching and defense even more so than in the regular season. The key will be getting David Price straightened out, and back to the dominating left-hander that he is. Price finished 12-13 in the regular season, and he didn't win any of his six starts (but had a 3.03 ERA) in September. His changeup was very good at one point this season, but it seems he went away from it in September. He's likely to start either Game 3 or Game 4. Rookie left-hander Matt Moore, who throws the easiest 97 mph you will ever see, will start Game 1. He got one start down the stretch, and became the only pitcher ever to strike out 11 Yankees in a start of five innings or fewer. James Shields will get the start in Game 2, while Jeremy Hellickson will start in either Game 3 or Game 4.
3. Who will win the bullpen battle?
One AL manager said at the trade deadline that the Rangers would win the World Series if they acquired Koji Uehara from Baltimore. They did, and they got Mike Adams and his killer slider from San Diego. Uehara hasn't been nearly as good as he was with the Orioles, but the Rangers have a deep, versatile bullpen they didn't have last year in the postseason. The Rays lost their entire bullpen from 2010, but rebuilt it as the season progressed. "We wouldn't be where we are without Kyle Farnsworth," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. Farnsworth has had his best season now that he has learned to control his emotions on the mound. He had a tender right elbow down the stretch, but pitched three games in a row to end the season and struck out six in 3 1/3 innings.
4. How good is the Texas offense?
Terrific. They finished third in the American League in runs scored, but now that they are healthy, there is not an out in their lineup. The return to health of right fielder Nelson Cruz and the hot finish by David Murphy gives manager Ron Washington all sorts of options, the best one being moving Josh Hamilton from left field to center field, which he really likes to play and can really play. The emergence of catcher Mike Napoli has turned this Rangers offense from very good to destructive. Napoli has been as good a hitter/slugger as there is in the American League in the second half of the season. Plus, he has caught nine shutouts, and Rangers pitchers rave about the feel he has behind the plate, reading hitters and reading his pitchers. "I love that team," said one AL manager. "They are a bunch of swashbucklers. They can beat you in so many ways. And they can do it five days in a row."
5. How much better is the Rangers' defense?
It may not show up on the stat sheet -- the Rangers have made the third most errors in the AL -- but their infield defense is so much better with Adrian Beltre at third base. Michael Young is a tremendous hitter, a great teammate and has done a nice job of moving around the infield this year, but Beltre is great, and is significantly better than Young was defensively last year at third. "Night and day," is how one Ranger put it. Plus, Elvis Andrus has great range at shortstop and second baseman Ian Kinsler "gets better defensively every day," Washington said. No second baseman makes the double play better than Kinsler.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN FIVE
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
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