Rangers the better team overall
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At first glance, the Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff for Games 3 and 4 -- David Price and Jeremy Hellickson -- appear to have an edge over Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison. But the playoffs aren't simply about regular-season résumés on the pitching mound. You still have to score runs. And few teams do that better than the Rangers.
Price put up a 3.49 ERA this season. Hellickson was even better at 2.95. They won a combined 25 games. Harrison had a 3.39 ERA and Lewis a 4.40 ERA, yet combined to win 28 games. Why? The Rangers' bats provided plenty of run support.
Price hasn't won a game since August and faces a Rangers team that beat him twice in last year's ALDS. In fact, the Rangers are the only AL team that Price is winless against in his career, going 0-3 with a 5.67 ERA in six starts. Lewis, meanwhile, was 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in four postseason starts last year, including wins in Games 2 and 6 of the ALCS over the Yankees and Game 3 of the World Series. So he can handle the bright lights of the playoffs. The battle of young pitchers in Hellickson and Harrison should be entertaining in Game 4. And Texas still has C.J. Wilson waiting in the wings for a shot at redemption in Game 5 should it get there. It's difficult to imagine Wilson not bouncing back from his rough Game 1 start.
But where the Rangers have the edge in this series is at the plate. Texas scored 148 more runs than the Rays this season. The Rangers led the AL with a .283 average, while the Rays were second-to-last at .244. This Rangers team, unlike the playoff editions in the mid-to-late 1990s, isn't just about power. They can certainly hit home runs, hitting the second-most in the league (210), but they can play small ball too. Manager Ron Washington has stressed aggressive baserunning and a fundamentally sound offense that is versatile. The Rays saw that firsthand in Game 5 of the ALDS in 2010 as the Rangers used their speed to score some early runs before adding power late.
It's a balanced offense that puts plenty of pressure on the opponent and can strike with a big inning at almost any time (see the fourth inning of Game 2).
If the offense can get a lead, the Rangers have a bullpen that can make it hold up. For the playoffs, they've added Alexi Ogando, a power arm who was a starter for most of the season. He's throwing 99 mph fastballs right now and will likely get more time in the seventh inning with Mike Adams in the eighth and flamethrower Neftali Feliz in the ninth.
Combine the Rangers' prolific offense, underrated starting pitching and solid bullpen and they've got the edge, despite having to play two of the next three games on the road. They are the more balanced team, and that will be enough to advance.
The edge goes to the Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay's run to the playoffs was so sudden and improbable that the team didn't have time to release the requisite merchandising slogan until the first day of the playoffs when Casey Kotchman came up with "Dumb Just Enough.'' But the Rays should last long enough this postseason to slap that slogan on T-shirts, caps, towels, billboards, bumper stickers, beach towels and tattoos everywhere from Raymond James Stadium to Dick Vitale's house.
Why will the Rays knock off the Rangers in the division series?
One, they're playing at home the next two games, which is always a big advantage. Tampa Bay is 20-6 at home since Aug. 8, and the Rays even expect sellout crowds, which make playing in a dome ever tougher for opponents.
Two, they have the better starting pitching. The Rangers' starters are underrated, but Tampa Bay's rotation is the best in the league, or at least until Detroit starts pitching Justin Verlander every day.
Only one American League team in the past 20 years had a better ERA than the Rays' league-leading 3.53 mark this season.
James Shields had an off night in Game 2, but Tampa Bay will still send out David Price (12-13, 3.49) in Game 3 on Monday and possible rookie of the year Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95) in Game 4 on Tuesday. If necessary, they can send Shields back for Game 5 on his normal rest, with September call-up and Game 1 winner Matt Moore available in the bullpen.
Price was winless in September -- he termed that "unacceptable'' -- but it's not like he pitched poorly (with the notable exception of digging the Rays into a 6-0 hole in the final game of the regular season): He left with the lead twice, but did not get a victory even though the Rays won each game.
He's never beaten Texas, including two losses in last year's postseason, but he had a 3.21 ERA in two starts against the Rangers this season. If he's on, he just needs the Rays to score some runs.
Speaking of which, Tampa Bay's offense has picked up. With Evan Longoria leading the way, the Rays have averaged almost a run more per game since Sept. 1. They've scored at least five runs in eight of their last nine games.
It won't be easy, but the Rays should get to the ALCS and extend the season long enough to proudly wear that "Dumb Just Enough'' slogan. Or other slogans under consideration, such as "The Not Ready for Mensa Players'' and "Boston Dumb Not Quite Enough."