With Sportsnet shifting many of the Jays games to their new Sportsnet One channel in September (not on my service provider), I was able to tune into several Tampa Bay Rays games during their stretch run.
On paper, the Rays’ lineup won’t strike fear into opposing pitchers. As a club, they hit .247 this season, but the Rays won games with patience (a league-leading 672 walks), speed (172 stolen bases), savvy (Joe Maddon rarely gets out-managed) and intensity. Add in the fact that many of the players were on the pennant-winning squad that lost in the 2008 World Series and the Rays should prevail in their best-of-five division series against the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers deserve credit for dethroning the perennial American League West champion Angels this season. Adding 2008 Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee, to the top of their rotation was a bold and brilliant move. Lee was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Phillies in the post-season last year, but Rays left-hander David Price is equally overpowering. I realize that outside of Price, the Rays starters have been shaky since September 1, but I like the playoff experience that Matt Garza and James Shields bring to the table. With their speed and patience, the Rays are masters at frazzling opposing hurlers, an art that’s likely to be a factor when youngsters C.J. Wilson and Tommy Hunter face the American League East champs.
Let’s also not forget that this is likely the swan song for Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena – two hugely popular Rays – with the club. And on the strength of his 45 saves and 1.73 ERA, Rafael Soriano is also probably too expensive for the Rays to retain. The fact that this could be the Rays’ last shot at a Word Series title in awhile should provide extra motivation.
Another factor working in the Rays favor is that B.J. Upton, who hit just .237 this season, has been known to take his game to another level in the post-season. After hitting just nine home runs in the 2008 regular season, the speedy outfielder belted seven in the playoffs. One big question mark for the Rays, however, is Evan Longoria’s sore quad muscle, which has kept him out of action since September 23. Maddon insists that his power-hitting third baseman is healthy and ready for the playoffs.
The Rangers face similar questions about their top slugger, Josh Hamilton, who missed most of September with a rib injury. Hamilton played this past weekend and will be in the starting lineup on Wednesday. After toiling in 1,508 regular season games, Michael Young will finally suit up for his first post-season game on Wednesday. The steady third baseman belted 21 homers this season and provided the Rangers with another power threat, alongside Hamilton, former Expo Vladimir Guerrero and outfielder Nelson Cruz. Headed by Neftali Feliz, the Rangers also boast a strong bullpen.
The Rangers are clearly a talented team, but the inexperience of their starting rotation behind Lee will likely be their downfall. The Rays should win this series in four games.