No Yankees, no problem. The American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers has all forms of star power, firepower, power pitching and storylines. The Rangers are trying to defend their AL championship as the Tigers attempt to return to the World Series for the first time since 2006.
Here are five questions about the series:
1. What is the status of the Rangers' rotation?
It's all good, except for ace C.J. Wilson. He was pounded in Game 1 of American League Division Series by the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing three home runs, two by Kelly Shoppach. In his past four postseason starts, Wilson has gone 0-3 with a 6.26 ERA and seven home runs allowed. That is distressful given how good Wilson has been the past two years, and how stingy he has been with the home run ball. He can be a free agent after the season, he is the premier starting pitcher on the market, and he's not helping his case with his recent starts in the playoffs. But Wilson is due for a big start, and the Rangers have plenty of starting pitching besides him. Colby Lewis is 4-0 lifetime in the postseason. He has made five postseason starts, and allowed two or fewer runs in all of them; only Sandy Koufax (six such starts) has a longer streak at the start of a postseason career. Derek Holland has continued his good work from the regular season, and in the clinching game of the ALDS against Tampa Bay, Matt Harrison became the second pitcher in postseason history to strike out nine in a start of only five innings.
2. In what shape is the Tigers' rotation?
Very good if for no other reason than ace Justin Verlander could start Games 1, 4 and, if needed, 7. Tigers manager Jim Leyland chose not to use Verlander in relief in Game 5 of the ALDS (the Yankees used ace CC Sabathia in that game), meaning Verlander will be fully rested for Game 1 in Texas. Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, who won Game 5 of the ALDS, are better than average No. 2 and No. 3 starters. Fister was sensational down the stretch, when he started using his curveball more. But this series likely will be decided by Verlander, the game's best pitcher in 2011. If he is as great as he was during the regular season, the Tigers could be hard to beat.
3. How dynamic is the Rangers' offense?
We all know about Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, but what makes the Rangers' offense so much better than last year's team that went to the World Series is the additions of third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Mike Napoli. Beltre hit three home runs in the clinching game of the ALDS; he is the sixth player ever to hit three home runs in a postseason game, but the only one to do so in a one-run game. Napoli essentially won Game 3 with a two-run homer off David Price. Since July 4, Napoli has the highest batting average (.378) in the major leagues, he has slugged over .700, and he has an OPS better than 1.000. Plus, he has proven that he is, at worst, an adequate major league catcher; he has caught nine shutouts this year. The Rangers had a very good offensive team last postseason. With Beltre and Napoli, they are significantly better.
4. How dangerous is the Tigers' offense?
Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are so productive, and so difficult to pitch to, in the middle of the order. But it has been the guys around them who were so effective against the Yankees. Delmon Young has been rejuvenated by the trade from Minnesota at the trade deadline. Veteran second baseman Ramon Santiago got some big hits against the Yankees. So did Don Kelly, who seemingly can play every position on the diamond. There aren't many outs in the Tigers' lineup, but, one scout said, "It all comes down to Austin Jackson at the top. If he has a great series, they will win it. He gets it all started for them.''
5. What bullpen is better?
The Rangers' bullpen is so much better than it was three months ago, and demonstrably better than it was at this time last year. Mike Adams and Koji Uehara were added at the trade deadline, pitching in front of closer Neftali Feliz, and Alexi Ogando, who was a terrific starting pitcher for a few months this year, gives Ron Washington another big arm in the pen. The Tigers don't have as much depth, but Joaquin Benoit looks like he did during his dominant 2010 season and closer Jose Valverde never blows a save, no matter how complicated it might get. The Tigers also have a good lefty-righty mix. We're hoping for a confrontation between Tigers left-handed reliever Phil Coke and Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Coke's dad was once a prison guard, Kinsler's dad was once a prison warden.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN SEVEN
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.
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