This one is a close call. Both teams have their aces, in LHPs David Price (Rays) and Cliff Lee (Rangers). Starting pitching was actually one of the Rangers' biggest strengths, as their rotation boasted its lowest ERA (4.23) since 1992. There has been the resurgence of RHP Colby Lewis, LHP C.J. Wilson (15-8) has been a stopper and their No. 4, RHP Tommy Hunter, won 13 games. The Rays have gotten more consistency out of emerging rookie RHP Wade Davis and have a potential big-game playoff pitcher in RHP Matt Garza — the 2008 ALCS MVP — who helps give them the slight edge.
Another tough choice. The Rays boast arguably the top one-two punch at the end of the game, with RHP Joaquin Benoit in the eighth and closer Rafael Soriano dominating the ninth (AL-high 45 saves in 48 chances), not to mention RHP Grant Balfour and trusty lefty specialist Randy Choate. But the Rangers closer, rookie RHP Neftali Feliz, has been spectacular himself, setting a major-league rookie record with 40 saves (in 43 chances). The Rangers bullpen had a 3.38 ERA, second best in the American League, with a league-leading 32 wins. And they have a veteran of their own, LHP Darren Oliver, who could prove huge.
At its best, the Rays offense can be dangerous. Problem is, it has been so inconsistent, becoming just the second since 1900 to score 800 runs (802) while hitting .250 or less (.247). The Rays have been held to three hits or fewer 14 times, and no-hit twice, while leading the league in strikeouts. Meanwhile, the Rangers led the majors with a .276 average, led by MVP candidate Josh Hamilton. DH Vladimir Guerrero makes their lineup even more potent.
One of the Rays' biggest strengths is their defense, with potential Gold Glovers in leftfield (Carl Crawford) and third base (Evan Longoria) and a former Gold Glover in 1B Carlos Peña. CF B.J. Upton has great range and arm in center, and their middle infield is stout, as Tampa Bay ranked third in the AL in fielding percentage (.986). The Rangers have impressive arms in the outfield, with Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. C Bengie Molina, acquired midseason, can help Texas slow the Rays running game, and stalwart 3B Michael Young and 2B Ian Kinsler are good, but the Rangers committed 20 more errors (105) than the Rays this season.
Rays manager Joe Maddon uses his bench quite often, and it usually has paid off. Tampa Bay has pinch-hitting options from both sides, and plenty of versatility, evidenced by eight players starting at three or more positions, including Sean Rodriguez, who started at seven. Pl us they platoon at catcher with John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach. For the Rangers, C Matt Treanor has helped step in behind the plate, and — if not starting — Jorge Cantu and Jeff Francoeur can provide some pop off the bench.
The Rangers' Ron Washington should warrant serious consideration for manager of the year for leading Texas to the AL West title, overcoming ownership issues (bankruptcy) as well as injuries to several key players. He has a bit of a different style than Rays manager Joe Maddon, going more on his gut than numbers-crunching. But even Washington praised Maddon on how he mixes and matches his very versatile lineup, using 129 versions. Our guess is Maddon, with playoff experience under his belt, makes the right moves in this series.
The Rays boast more recent playoff experience — their 2008 World Series run — as the Rangers last reached the postseason in 1999. Tampa Bay is battle-tested, having won the tough American League East for the second time in three seasons. And, of course, the Rays also hold the all-important homefield advantage, especially with Texas not a good road team (39-42).