Playoff preview: Rays vs. Rangers

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 29, 2011

Right now, the Tampa Bay Rays are a team that can do no wrong. Their starting pitching is October-worthy, their defense nothing short of supreme.

But here’s the Rays’ problem in the American League Division Series: They’re not chasing the Boston Red Sox anymore.

The Rangers went 19-6 in September while averaging 6.7 runs per game, second in the American League. Their bullpen, once the team’s weakness, had the league’s second-lowest opponents' OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) after the additions of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

This is a healthy, potent club, one that even the Rays struggled to contain offensively while losing the regular-season series, 5-4. True, the Rangers no longer have left-hander Cliff Lee, who won Games 1 and 5 in last year’s Division Series between these teams. But, overall, they are more balanced now.

So, do the Rays stand a chance, especially when they were unable to line up their starting pitching, choosing to go with rookie left-hander Matt Moore in his fourth major-league appearance in Game 1?

Yes.

The Rangers will start left-handers C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland in the first two games, and lefties in perhaps four of five games if the series goes the distance. The Red Sox, given their vulnerability to left-handed pitching, would have been an ideal opponent for Texas. The Rays, not so much.

Although the Rays’ offense is barely average for an American League team, it does match up better against lefties than righties.

Third baseman Evan Longoria, center fielder B.J. Upton and left fielder Desmond Jennings all are right-handed. Ben Zobrist, a switch-hitter, is better from the right side. Shortstop Sean Rodriguez and catcher Kelly Shoppach, two part-time players, hit lefties well. Designated hitter Johnny Damon, a left-handed hitter, actually was better against lefties than righties this season.

The Rays were 31-19 (.620) in games started by left-handers, 60-52 (.536) in games started against righties. Then again, the Rangers’ lefties are better than most. Wilson had a 2.08 ERA in two starts against the Rays. Holland was 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA in his last six starts overall, and Matt Harrison was 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA in his last five.

The differences in the bullpens, meanwhile, are pronounced, even with Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth back from an elbow issue. Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a 0.89 ERA in his final 21 appearances. The additions of Adams, Uehara and lefty Mike Gonzalez strengthened the Rangers’ setup corps markedly.

I can see the Rays losing Game 1 to Wilson and then winning Games 2 and 3 behind right-handed starters James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. Lefty David Price, the Rays’ Game 4 starter, has struggled in two starts since he was struck in the chest by a Mike Aviles line drive. But Shields would be available on normal rest for Game 5.

As young as the Rays are, inexperience will not be an issue. This is their third trip to the postseason in the past four years, and they have been playing the equivalent of playoff games for several weeks now.

Problem is, the Rangers’ starting pitching is nearly as formidable as the Rays’. And the Rangers’ lineup — Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and company — is too much of a 1-through-9 menace to go into a team-wide slump.

The Rays will miss chasing the Red Sox.

Prediction: Rangers in five.
 



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