Of the four division series, the Rangers against the Rays might be the most interesting, and the hardest to call.
The two teams have similar styles, each wildly aggressive on the bases, each with left-handed aces and great bullpens. The Rangers have never won a postseason series, and the Rays know, with a possible roster dismantling ahead, that this is their best chance to win it all. This series also includes the story of Josh Hamilton, who the Rays made the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft. He never played a game for the Rays due to various personal issues, and now he returns as the possible 2010 MVP of the American League.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. How good are the two bullpens?
They are, statistically, the two best in the league. The Rays have the lowest bullpen ERA (3.33) in the AL, and they issued the fewest walks. Closer Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, the eighth-inning guy, have been brilliant. In the eighth inning this year, the Rays have outscored their opponents, 112-51, the biggest run differential of any team in any inning this year. "No team,'' one scout said, "has the eighth and ninth inning covered like the Rays.''
The Rangers have the second-lowest bullpen ERA (3.38) in the league, and the second-most strikeouts. "When that group is healthy,'' one scout said, "they are the best in the league. They have five guys that throw 95 [mph]. And they have three left-handers. That's crucial.'' Rookie closer Neftali Feliz broke the saves record (40) for rookies, "but he doesn't even have the best stuff in that 'pen,'' the scout said. "I think [Alexi] Ogando does.''
2. How important is the Game 1 pitching matchup?
It might determine the outcome of the series. David Price and Cliff Lee are two of the best pitchers in the game, but neither one is expected to pitch on short rest, making Game 1 even more important. Lee was 0-3 with a 4.52 ERA against the Rays this year, but struck out 25 and walked two in 23 2/3 innings.
The Rangers will follow him with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, with Tommy Hunter as the fourth starter, if needed. After Price, the Rays will go with James Shields in Game 2. He'll be followed by Matt Garza in Game 3 and then Wade Davis in Game 4 (he has been the Rays' second-best starter since the All-Star break). That would leave Jeff Niemann as the odd starter out, but that will add another power arm to a tremendous bullpen.
3. How strange is the Tampa Bay offense?
It finished third in the major leagues in runs scored, but has been held to two or fewer hits eight times, the fifth time in the divisional era (1969-on) that that has happened. The Rays and the 1991 Tigers are the only teams in history to score 800 runs in a season, and hit below .250. The Rays have the most strikeouts (1,292) of any team that has ever gone to the postseason.
So, how do they do it? How do they score so many runs? Well, they led the league in walks, they led the league in stolen bases, they went first to third and second to home better than any team in the league. They also led the league being picked off (15 times). Their plate discipline is so good, but it can also work against them because they take a lot of pitches, including called third strikes, in an attempt to get to deep counts.
4. How healthy are the big boys?
Josh Hamilton has played three games since Sept. 4. He says his fractured ribs are sore, but he can swing a bat without pain.
"It only hurts when I swing and miss,'' Hamilton said, "so I'm trying not to swing and miss.'' He has slid, and dived for a ball, without pain. It is unlikely that he will be 100 percent for this series, but Hamilton at 85 percent is still really good. Evan Longoria last played on Sept. 23 because of a quad injury. He had hoped to play the final weekend of the season in Kansas City, but the Rays didn't want to risk it. Longoria is Tampa Bay's best player; it cannot win without him being close to his best. And not just offensively, he is a brilliant defensive player, and the Rays win with their defense.
5. How good is the Rays' bench?
"It's the best in the league,'' said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "You can't match up against them. They can pinch hit from the seventh inning on, and there's nothing you can do.''
Eight different Rays have played at least three positions this year.
Their versatility in the infield and the outfield is unlike any team in the major leagues. They have a few everyday players, but they use their bench so often, they're all relatively fresh when they are used in the late innings. Former major league manager Davey Johnson used to say, "You win in the playoffs with bullpen and bench.'' The Rays have both.
PREDICTION: RAYS IN FIVE
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.