The Rays eked out a division title, but their season will most likely end within a week.
Despite ending up with the AL's best record, the Rays backed into home-field advantage and now face the dangerous Texas Rangers.
Texas finally reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and the team is hungry to win its first playoff series in franchise history. While the Rays won the season series between the two teams 4-2, the Rangers are built for a short series and should win in four or five games.
Evan Longoria's health could be worrisome for the Rays. He's been out of the lineup since Sept. 24 with a quad injury, and will see his first action against Cliff Lee. Without him in the lineup and fighting for the division crown, the Rays only averaged three runs per game, down from their average of five. Moreover, those 10 games came against Seattle, Baltimore and Kansas City. Other than Longoria, only Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton offer real offensive support. Carlos Pena can still hit homers, but his .196 average hurts. If Longoria goes down again or takes a few games to recover, the series could be over fast.
Meanwhile, the Rangers' star hitter, Josh Hamilton, also suffered a September rib injury. Gone for a month, the rest of the Rangers stepped up in his absence and kept their run average virtually dead even at about 4.9. Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young can all slug, and their middle infielders, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler both have speed. With Hamilton back in the lineup, the Rangers should get even more of a surge and feast on the Rays' rotation.
If the Rangers can't distinguish themselves on offense, they can rely on the strength of their pitching.
Wednesday's matchup will feature two dueling aces — David Price for the Rays (19-6, 2.72 ERA) and Cliff Lee for the Rangers (12-9, 3.18 ERA). Both pitchers dominated in September with scary ERAs of 1.93 and 1.67 respectively, but Lee looks to have the edge in the postseason. His fantastic pitching in the playoffs last year for the Phillies earned him both of their World Series wins. Meanwhile Price has yet to start a game in the playoffs. No matter how good Price looked during the year, Lee looks like the new Josh Beckett — don't pick against him in the playoffs.
The real separation for the Rangers could be their next two starters, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Wilson (15-8, 3.35 ERA) faces James Shields (13-14, 5.18 ERA) in Game 2, a matchup that clearly favors the Rangers. Wilson has only given up 10 home runs all year, while Shields has served up 34 long balls. Pena likely won't be able to help the Rays with his power here, while Hamilton and Guerrero should be teeing off.
In Game 3, Lewis (12-13, 3.72 ERA) faces Matt Garza (15-10, 3.91 ERA). Don't be fooled by the records–most of Lewis' losses came in well-pitched games in which he didn't receive much run support. Garza on the other hand, has been inconsistent. He pitched brilliantly in August with a 1.27 ERA but then took a step back in September with a 5.88 ERA. Both pitchers give up a lot of home runs, and as this game will be played in hitter-friendly Arlington, the game should be high-scoring. But Lewis' power (196 strikeouts to Garza's 150) gives him the edge.
If the series goes to Game 4, Wade Davis (12-10, 4.07 ERA) is scheduled to start against Tommy Hunter (13-4, 3.73 ERA). Hunter has a bit of an edge here, especially with his 7-0 record at home, but it's quite possible that Price and Lee face off again on three days rest.
Regardless, the Rangers have advantages with both their offense and starting pitching, so even if Price wins Game 1 and 4, the Rangers should be able to win the rest and fans in Arlington will celebrate with a real Texas toast.