Tigers, Rangers primed for success

BY foxsports • October 7, 2011

Very soon, one team will become the only American League franchise to reach multiple World Series over the past seven seasons.

No, it won’t be the Boston Red Sox.

And no, it won’t be the New York Yankees, either.

It will instead be the Detroit Tigers or Texas Rangers, who will open a somewhat unexpected AL Championship Series on Saturday in Texas (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET).

The most influential AL clubs will continue to be the Red Sox and Yankees — with their heated rivalry, superstar rosters, passionate fan bases, and vast revenue streams. Love them or hate them, they aren’t going away.

But where is it mandated that there must be two teams — and two teams only — in the AL power axis?

The Tampa Bay Rays have mounted their challenge, reaching the playoffs more often than the Red Sox over the past four years. But the Rays haven’t won a postseason series since claiming the pennant three years ago, and owner Stuart Sternberg recently hinted that the team’s poor attendance could prompt him to move the club out of Tropicana Field.

So, the opportunity is there for another AL club to become an annual October entrant — an organization with enough money, talent, and front-office smarts to be a consistent foil to the East Coast titans. In addition to the obvious — a World Series berth — that elevated place in the baseball firmament is another thing the Rangers and Tigers will play for the next week.

While they don’t have the budget of the Red Sox or Yankees, both spend more than enough to compete. The Tigers ranked 10th, and the Rangers 13th, in Opening Day payroll according to the USA Today salary database. And they play in the Central and West divisions, respectively, which seem to be tossups every year.

Given the recent downturns of the Twins and Angels, neither division has a perennial powerhouse. So what’s to stop the Rangers or Tigers from becoming one?

The Rangers arrive at this year’s ALCS with Texas-sized momentum. They are the defending AL champions. They were the only team to advance to this year’s LCS round in fewer than five games. Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli, acquired last offseason after the Rangers lost to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, starred in the Division Series triumph over Tampa Bay.

The Tigers tackled a more difficult task in the first round, winning twice at Yankee Stadium to prevail in a taut, five-game series. The postponement of Game 1 forced Detroit ace Justin Verlander to “start” just one game against the Yankees, meaning the depth of their pitching staff was tested under intense pressure. Outside of some soft spots in middle relief, the Tigers’ power arms performed quite well.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland was steadfast in his insistence that Verlander was not an option out of the bullpen in Game 5 against the Yankees, and on Saturday, Leyland will be rewarded for sticking to his convictions: Verlander will take the ball for the Tigers in the series opener against the Rangers’ No. 1 starter, left-hander C.J. Wilson, who struggled with command in his ALDS start against Tampa Bay. And by sliding Max Scherzer up to Game 2, Leyland has his best swing-and-miss pitchers in line to pitch at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark.

The Game 1 matchup favors Detroit, and it includes an historic subplot. While growing up in Virginia, Verlander’s pitching idol was the great Nolan Ryan. Verlander, who has thrown two no-hitters, has spoken (and not entirely in jest) about wanting to equal Ryan’s record of seven. On Saturday, Ryan, as the Rangers’ CEO and president, will watch Verlander pitch from his front-row seat at Rangers Ballpark.

Despite the power arms on both staffs, it won’t be a surprise if we see an 8-6 score or two. The Tigers went 31-20 against left-handed starters this year — a .620 winning percentage — and they should see three of them in this series: Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison. Similarly, the Texas hitters should be eager to face Detroit’s all-right-handed rotation. The Rangers went 70-45 against righties this year, a winning percentage of .609.

The Rangers and Tigers finished second and third, respectively, in ERA among AL teams after the All-Star break. If they pitch to an effective draw in the ALCS, the outcome could hinge on which superstar slugger awakens from what has been a relatively quiet postseason: Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton managed just one extra-base hit apiece in the first round. And if those two are pitched around in key situations, then Victor Martinez (Detroit) and Michael Young (Texas) must pick up the run production.

Is there a long-running, deep-seated hatred between the Rangers and Tigers? No. Not yet, at least. This is their first meeting in the postseason.

They haven’t even been serious contenders for the same AL wild card in previous seasons. At this point, about the only argument between Detroit and Texas baseball fans would surround which team is more closely tied to Kenny Rogers — who threw a perfect game in Arlington and became a postseason hero in Detroit.

But give this rivalry time to develop. The series hasn’t even started yet. And when it’s over, we’ll have to consider whether the winner has a legitimate chance to make the Fall Classic a regular October stop.

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