The Tampa Bay Rays may have momentum on their side, but that’s just about the only edge they’ll take with them heading into Tuesday’s ALDS Game 5 with the Texas Rangers.
After taking a commanding 2-0 lead by sweeping the Rays in the series’ first two games in Tampa Bay, the Rangers seemed poised to move on to the ALCS for the first time in club history. But by allowing the Rays to even the series with two losses at home, the Rangers have left themselves no room for error in Game 5.
Luckily for Texas, they have both pitching and history on their side.
C.J. Wilson has had a phenomenal first year as a starter, Colby Lewis has been a free-agent steal, and youngsters Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland have taken big steps forward in their development.
A pivotal playoff game like Game 5, though, is exactly the reason the Rangers acquired Cliff Lee from the Mariners shortly before the July 31 trading deadline. The Rangers probably had a deep enough rotation to win the AL West before they traded for Lee, but after a disappointing year by Rich Harden, the Rangers lacked a true No. 1 pitcher until they added Lee.
Lee, who shut down the Rays with 10 strikeouts through seven innings of one-run ball in Game 1, validated the move in his first postseason start. Lee moved to a career 5-0 in the postseason thanks to the victory, and will take the mound again for Texas in the series’ finale.
That’s bad news for the Rays, as aside from Ben Zobrist — who homered off Lee in Game 1 — none of their prominent hitters have experienced much success against Lee.
Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena — the Rays’ two best power hitters — are both batting below .200 against Lee. Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett hit .250 and .273 respectively against Lee, but with no power. And while B.J. Upton has held his own against Texas’ ace with a .292 average, he’s also struck out in seven of his 24 at-bats.
Unless the Rays force Lee to exit the game early with a high pitch count, Game 5 figures to be another long night for Rays’ batters.
The Rays will counter with their Game 1 starter and this year’s AL All-Star Game starter, David Price. While Price is just as capable of dominance as Lee is, he lacks postseason experience as a starter, and looked shaky at times in the series’ first game, allowing four runs on nine hits in 6 2/3 innings.
Price is also handicapped in that he faces a lineup littered with batters who hit him well. Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Bengie Molina have all hit above .333 against Price, and all have done so with power. Elvis Andrus and Jeff Francoeur have few at-bats against Price, but also bat at or north of .300. And Vladimir Guerrero, the Rangers DH, has reached base at a .455 clip against the Rays’ ace.
It’s true that Price will have the luxury of pitching at home, where he boasted a 1.88 ERA this season, but based on the series’ first four games, homefield is no advantage at all. Plus, the Rays finished 49-32 at Tropicana Field this season, which is tied for the worst regular season home record among all playoff teams in baseball.
In addition to combating Lee and a suspect homefield advantage, the Rays are up against history as well.
As Boston fans happily learned from the Red Sox’ 2004 campaign (and were not so happily remained of by the Bruins last season), it’s not impossible for teams on the brink of elimination to win postseason series, but it’s very rare. Several teams have come back to tie 5-game series after trailing 2-0, but only one – the 2001 Yankees – have then gone on to win the series and advance to the ALCS.
If the Rays want to become the second, they face an uphill battle on Tuesday.