Friday, September 30, 2011

AL Playoff Preview: Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Rangers: Power-Packed

Ian Kinsler
Texas clinched a few days before the end of the season, so they are rested and have their starting rotation in order. Pitching is not a priority for Texas, as they possess one of the most talented lineups in the game, starting with leadoff hitter and second baseman Ian Kinsler, who caught fire late in the season, ending up with the team lead - tied with Adrian Beltre - in home runs at 32. Kinsler socked 11 long balls in September, providing even more punch to a murderer's row type of lineup. Always a threat to steal, Kinsler swiped 30 bases in 2011. He also led the Rangers with 121 runs

Adrian Beltre
Michael Young, the most versatile of all the Rangers, had a banner year, leading the team with a .338 batting average - third highest in the AL - and 106 RBI. Young can play just about any position in the field, and has been used at first base, third base and in the outfield.

Third baseman Adrian Beltre had a very productive season with a .296 batting average, 32 homers and 105 RBI. Shortstop Elvis Andrus normally bats second, hit .279 with 37 steals and 96 runs. Catching duties are handled either by Mike Napoli, who batted .320 over the course of the season, or Yorvit Torrealba, a less-potent batter.

The outfield is manned by Josh Hamilton in center, Nelson Cruz in right and David Murphy in left. All three have solid hitting credentials and can hit for power. Mitch Moreland will share first base and DH duties with Young and also has power to spare. The Rangers had 210 home runs as a team, second in the majors to the Yankees (222).

Josh Hamilton
Despite the lack of emphasis on pitching, the Rangers had the fifth-best ERA in the league, at 3.79. The Rangers have enough live arms in their starting rotation for the short, five-game series to announce four starters. C.J. Wilson (16-7, 2.94 ERA) will go in game one, Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95) in game 2, Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40) in game 3, and, if a game four is needed, Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39) gets the nod.

The Ranger's bullpen was strengthened with the addition of Mike Adams, acquired from San Diego at the trading deadline. Adams is one of the best middle men in the game. He worked 27 games for the Rangers with a 2.10 ERA and 25 Ks in 25.2 innings. Closer Neftali Feliz saved 32 games in 38 chances.

Texas lost in the 2010 World Series to the Giants, 4 games to 1, and looks to repeat their initial trip to the fall classic with a better result.

Rays: Pitching and Defense

The Rays won the right to proceed into the playoffs on Evan Longoria's dramatic 12th inning home run, knocking off the Yankees, 8-7, just moments after the Red Sox lost to the Orioles, 4-3.

James Shields
Due to Tampa needing to use the best of its pitching staff in the wild card race, the Rays' starting rotation will not be as effective as it might have been in this opening-round series, but the Rays have battled adversity all season long, so they deserve a small vote of confidence for their grit and determination.

Tampa's starting pitching is their strength, but due to the schedule, Matt Moore, who started only one game for the Rays, will open in game 1. Moore was effective in his start, giving five innings of shutout ball on four hits and 11 Ks in a September 22, 15-8 win over the Yankees.

Evan Longoria
The Ray's best starter, "Big Game" James Shields, goes in Game 2. Shields had an amazing 11 complete games in 2011, and was 16-10 with a 2.82 ERA and 225 Ks in 249.1 innings. David Price (12-13, 3.49), who was a complete flop in the Rays' final regular season game, will go in game 3, and Jeff Niemann (11-7, 4.06) will start game 4, if needed.

Kyle Farnsworth is the Rays' closer, saving 25 of 31 opportunities. Middle relief falls to Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz and Alex Cobb. Long relief has been a bright spot for the Rays, effective in close, low-scoring games, of which there were plenty during the season.

Tampa Bay had the second best team ERA in the league - 3.58 - right behind the Angels' 3.57.

Around the horn, Tampa is led by Casey Kotchman at first who had significant late-season contributions, but whose numbers overall are not impressive. Kotchman batted .306 with 10 homers and 48 RBI. Versatile Sean Rodriguez should also see time at first, DH and second base.

Matt Joyce
Second base is manned by Ben Zobrist, a streaky hitter who batted .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBI. Zobrist also swiped 19 bases and is solid in the field. Shortstop Reid Brignac is one of the smoothest of all major league shortstops, though he leaves much to be desired at the plate, Brignac finished up with a .193 batting average, but is key to the Rays' strategy as a sure-handed infielder.

The top slugger on the team is third baseman Evan Longoria, who put up outstanding numbers - .244, 31 HR, 99 RBI - despite missing nearly 30 games at the start of the season. A healthy Longoria gives the Rays a fighting chance if the Rangers don't pitch around him.

Kelly Shoppach will do most of the catching and bat either 8th or 9th. Like Brignac, he's in for defense, because his .176 batting average just doesn't cut it. Shoppach has power, however. He hit 11 home runs in 221 at-bats and provided some key hits during the stretch run.

Johnny Damon will either play right field or DH. Damon, the team elder statesman, had a decent year with a .261 batting average, 16 homers and 73 RBI. Center fielder B.J. Upton catches anything hit his way, led the team in steals with 36, hit .243 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI. Left field is a sore spot. Desmond Jennings has been in a horrible slump, Sam Fuld tailed off after a hot start, but Matt Joyce (.277, 19, 75) has been solid and will likely get most of the playing time in left.

Conclusion: If Tampa's pitching isn't already worn out, the Rays can hang in with the Rangers, but the overall power of Texas with pitching that's good enough to compete might make this short series even shorter. The first two games are in Arlington, a big edge for the Rangers. Tampa is tthe site for game three, and four, if needed. Should the series go five, it's back to Texas. Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist need to produce for the Rays to be successful.

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