In a rematch of last year's ALDS, the Rays and Rangers will return most of that cast of characters. Of course, Tampa Bay won't have to tackle LHP Cliff Lee, who helped end its season early by winning Games 1 and 5 last October and leading the Rangers to the World Series. But with both teams hot heading into the postseason, expect another drama-filled series.
Rays: Tampa Bay's starters are its strength, with an AL-best 3.53 ERA behind All-Stars RHP James Shields and David Price and rookie of the year candidate RHP Jeremy Hellickson. LHP prospect Matt Moore could be the wild card. "They're as deep as anybody, maybe except for the Phillies," said MLB Network analyst Larry Bowa, a former longtime manager.
Rangers: LHP C.J. Wilson is a formidable ace and a Rays killer, having gone 5-0 against them in his career. Game 2 starter Derek Holland was maybe the Rangers' hottest pitcher in September, going 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts. Veteran RHP Colby Lewis and LHP Matt Harrison fill out the top four. "Tampa should be able to do some damage offensively against that staff," Bowa said.
Rays: Considering the Rays bullpen had to be totally revamped from last year, it has exceeded expectations. RHP Kyle Farnsworth (24 saves) has been solid in his first full season as a closer, RHP Joel Peralta has been a workhorse setup man. Rookie RHP Brandon Gomes and LHP Jake McGee have earned confidence (and performed well) in high-leverage situations. LHP J.P. Howell has struggled recently.
Rangers: This group is pretty loaded, with midseason acquisitions RHPs Mike Adams and Koji Uehara providing a huge boost. Rays manager Joe Maddon said the hard-throwing Adams is like the Rangers' "Cliff Lee this year." Veteran LHP Darren Oliver is steady, and closer Neftali Feliz is one of the league's best. Plus, RHP Alexi Ogando moving back to the bullpen gives them another weapon.
Rays: Consistently inconsistent, the Rays offense can be feast or famine. They scored two runs or fewer 56 times during the regular season but won their last 30 games when they scored five or more. Tampa Bay has been bolstered by 3B Evan Longoria's second-half surge (20 homers since the All-Star break) and CF B.J. Upton's hot hitting since moving to the No. 2 hole. "A team like Tampa that has the chaos offense, where they bunt and run and do a lot of stuff, they're going to be very active," Rangers LHP C.J. Wilson said.
Rangers: Texas led the majors in batting average for the second straight year (.283) and ranked third in runs. The Rangers have a ton of pop — five players have at least 25 homers — and can be dangerous on the bases with 30-steal leadoff man Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus. "They have a team over there that can outslug you," 3B Evan Longoria said. "They can stand toe-to-toe with you and hit home runs."
Rays: The Rays led the AL with a .988 fielding percentage this season, with Gold Glove-caliber players at third base (Evan Longoria) and first base (Casey Kotchman) and tons of speed in the outfield with CF B.J. Upton and LF Desmond Jennings. OF Matt Joyce and 2B/RF Ben Zobrist are underrated defenders, with Sean Rodriguez extremely versatile. C Kelly Shoppach is one of the majors' best at throwing out attempted basestealers.
Rangers: Texas ranked 12th in the AL in fielding percentage and errors (114). The Rangers have some strong arms in the outfield, including Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton.
Both Rays manager Joe Maddon and Rangers manager Ron Washington are worthy of consideration for manager of the year. Maddon often thinks outside the box and is aggressive, with Washington saying "you never know what may happen, what he may try to do." Maddon has seemed to make all the right moves down the stretch, from his ever-changing lineup to successfully using 16 rookies this season.
Rays: 3B Evan Longoria has called it being a "team of destiny," and few would argue considering the improbable way the Rays overcame a nine-game hole (and 7-0 deficit to the Yankees in Game 162) to steal the wild card. They're loose and confident, and playing well at the right time. "They've got a lot of luck on their side," Rangers 2B Ian Kinsler said.
Rangers: Texas, the defending World Series runnerup, has been one of baseball's hottest teams down the stretch, finishing on a 14-2 run.