ALDS Playoffs Preview and Predictions – Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

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Boston Red Sox (97-65) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (92-71)

Keys for the Red Sox: Score a lot of runs; don’t rely on their starting pitching; get the Rays’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; don’t let Farrell’s mistakes burn them.

The Red Sox led the American League in on-base percentage and runs scored. Much has been made of their “top-to-bottom” lineup, but a lot of their success was based on circumstance. Yes, they have guys who hit the ball out of the park and work the count in David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. Yes, they have grinders and fiery players like Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp. Yes, Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a big power year.

That said, the Red Sox took great advantage of teams with bad pitching. When they ran into teams with good pitching – teams that weren’t going to walk them and give up homers – they had trouble. The Rays aren’t going to walk them and give up homers.

The Red Sox starting pitching has been serviceable, but not superior. They have a starting rotation of a lot of impressive names who have also benefited from the Red Sox run-scoring lineup and solid defense.

The Rays’ starters have a tendency to run up high pitch counts. Manager Joe Maddon showed that he was willing to push his starters in the post-season with David Price’s complete game in the wild card tiebreaker. The Rays bullpen has been shaky and I certainly don’t trust Fernando Rodney. If the Red Sox can have a lead or keep the game close late, they’ll score on the Rays’ bullpen.

Farrell deserves immense credit for the Red Sox turnaround. It can’t be forgotten, though, that everything worked out right for them this year. Farrell still has his strategic missteps and in the post-season, they’re magnified.

Keys for the Rays: Get depth from their starters; keep the Red Sox off the bases and in the park; rely on Evan Longoria.

Maddon is deft at handling his bullpen, but it’s always better to not have to put the game in the hands of Rodney, Joel Peralta and the rest of the mix-and-match crew he has out there. Price pitched a complete game dancing through the proverbial raindrops against the Rangers. Matt Moore racks up high pitch counts by the middle-innings. Maddon will push them, but he won’t abuse them. If he has to remove them, then a bullpen-based game is to his disadvantage.

The Red Sox look for walks and pitches they can hit out of the park. If you don’t walk them and get the breaking ball over, they’re not going to be able to hit their homers with runners on base.

Longoria lives for the spotlight. He wants people to be talking about him on social media and over coffee the next morning. If he hits and the Rays pitch, they’re tough to beat.

What will happen:

As incredible as Koji Uehara has been as the Red Sox closer, his longball tendency concerns me. He’s never faced this kind of pressure before and all the strikeouts in the world aren’t going to help him if the home run ball bites him at an inopportune moment.

I don’t trust the Red Sox bullpen; I don’t trust their starting pitchers; and I don’t think they’re going to hit with the authority they did during the regular season, nor are they going to have the runners on base to put up crooked numbers.

The Rays are playing with a freewheeling abandon that comes from the top. Maddon is a superior strategic manager to Farrell and has greater experience in post-season games. Farrell will make a game-costing gaffe at some point in this series.

There’s a strange love-fest going on with the Red Sox outside their fanbase and I’m not sure why. There’s an idea that because they had a collapse in 2011 and a rotten year in 2012, that they’ve “earned” this season and it’s going to end in a championship.

The playoffs have a tendency to provide an electroshock rude awakening. Sort of like a sting from a ray.

PREDICTION: RAYS IN FIVE




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Rays and Orioles: Early Season Notes

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Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were one of the few teams with a “surplus” of starting pitching. So they dealt James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals and signed Roberto Hernandez (AKA Fausto Carmona) as insurance and to vie for a role in the rotation. Jeff Niemann’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on the depth and they’ve gotten off to a rocky start as Hernandez has pitched poorly and Jeremy Hellickson—who I’m not a fan of anyway—has been inconsistent.

Key parts of the lineup haven’t hit. Some, like Yunel Escobar and Matthew Joyce, will. Others like James Loney and Ryan Roberts might or might not. In the end, they’ll score enough runs to win…if the pitching is good enough or David Price and Matt Moore carry the load for the shakiness of the back of the rotation.

This should’ve been expected of a team like the Rays who run their club making trades and signings with an eye on saving money, spending where they can, and hoping to hit at the roulette wheel with the likes of Hernandez and Loney. Amid all the hits such as Fernando Rodney and Casey Kotchman, there are also misses like Pat Burrell and Matt Bush. Some have been costlier than others.

There are calls to bring up Wil Myers to boost the offense and, in some manner, justify having traded Shields and Davis to get him. Inside the Rays clubhouse there are expressions of pained understanding as to why the Rays traded Shields and Davis, with the unsaid wishing that they were still there to help in the now.

The Rays front office isn’t concerned about what the players think. No winning organization is. They may listen to a point in order to placate the stars, but in the end, it’s the organization’s decision. Few sports figures exert as much influence over their club as Tom Brady does with the New England Patriots and even he had his knuckles rapped by club owner Bob Kraft over Brady’s overt displeasure at Wes Welker being allowed to leave. “I don’t answer to Tom Brady,” Kraft said.

Nor should he.

Bending to pressure, inside and out, would betray the entire reason the Rays made the trade in the first place; in fact it would contradict the entire foundation of the rebuilding of the Rays into a team that wins in spite of payroll constraints. Myers was acquired because he’s a top-tier prospect, cheap and will have value for them when they can no longer afford some of the players in their lineup who are expected to be significant offensive contributors now, like Joyce. If and when Myers is recalled, it won’t be until it’s financially and practically beneficial to the Rays, not before.

In general, veteran players will provide what’s expected of them and what they’ve historically done barring injuries or an age-related decline in skills. This is why there’s no need to be concerned about Escobar and Joyce and there is need to be concerned about Hernandez and Loney.

This is the situation the Rays face on an annual basis. Maybe it’ll work out and maybe it won’t.

Baltimore Orioles

To GM Dan Duquette’s credit, he didn’t make the mistake the Mariners did under Bill Bavasi and equate an overachieving 2007 season of 88-74 into an idea of “all we need is one more pitcher” and trade a large chunk of his system to the Orioles—including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman—for Erik Bedard.

(Interestingly, Mariners current GM Jack Zduriencik did pretty much the same thing in trading for Cliff Lee after a similarly overachieving season that was based more on luck than reality in 2009. Yet he was referred to as a “genius” for doing what Bavasi did. He’s not being called a genius anymore, but that’s another story.)

The Orioles of 2012, unlike the Mariners of 2007, made the playoffs. They bounced the Rangers and shook the Yankees before losing in the ALDS in 5 games. The Orioles, having won, are no longer viewed as a last resort location for old and declining players to get a last paycheck. The temptation to use the new street cred among marketable players willing to join the Orioles must have been great, as must have been the offers for the likes of Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy. Duquette did a tweak here and a tweak there, but mostly stood pat in spite of the Orioles having reason to say they were going for it in 2013, even though that would’ve been a mistake.

They’re around .500 now and the “experts” in the media had them taking a dramatic fallback to, at best, .500 for the season.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to stay there. Currently relying on the same template as last season with a deep bullpen, a power-hitting lineup and pedestrian starting pitching, the situation looks the same as in 2012, but is actually subtly different.

If his elbow stiffness subsides and he’s pitching in the minors soon, the Orioles can expect Bundy to help them in the second half of the season; Machado will be with the team all year. If they’re hovering around .500 and still in contention in a parity-laden AL East at mid-season, they’ll be very dangerous down the stretch.

I don’t see people referring to Duquette with starstruck, agenda-driven awe as they did with Zduriencik, but Duquette’s the one with the past success, courage of his convictions, and is a better executive.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Keys to 2013: Tampa Bay Rays

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Starting Pitching Key: Matt Moore

Moore’s done his flashy playoff introduction to the world as David Price did. He had an inconsistent rookie year as Price did. Now, he’s ready to take the next step into Cy Young Award contender in his second season as Price did.

Moore has a smooth, clean, simple and repeatable motion similar to Cliff Lee. He’s refining his command and harnessing his changeup. The changeup is usually the last pitch a pitcher needs to master before fulfilling his potential. If Moore’s able to do that at age 24, the Rays will be legitimate World Series contenders.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Archer

Fernando Rodney is not going to repeat his 48 save, 0.60 ERA. The question is whether he’ll revert to the on-again/off-again closer he was with the Tigers and Angels or will be able to get the job done the majority of the time. If he can’t and Kyle Farnsworth, the closer in 2011, can’t do it either, the Rays might turn to Archer.

Archer has been a starter in the minors, but has the power fastball to be a dominating reliever. The Rays have never been shy about using young pitchers in very important roles and Archer could play a major factor in 2013.

Offensive Key: Evan Longoria

As Longoria goes, so go the Rays. The other lineup bats Desmond Jennings, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Matthew Joyce and eventually Wil Myers are undoubtedly important and the Rays are opportunistic and adaptable, but with Longoria they’re a title contender and without him, they’re not.

Defensive Key: Desmond Jennings

If Jennings has to play center field, he has to be at least adequate at the position. Sam Fuld is a fine defensive outfielder, but he can’t hit enough to justify being in the lineup as an everyday player. The Rays were in the market for a legitimate center fielder, but as the season moves along and Myers is recalled, they’re going to need to find a place to get Myers and Joyce in the lineup. Someone’s going to have to play the outfield and if Myers/Joyce are the DH, one is going to have to play left with Jennings in center.

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Zack Greinke Reverberations and Madness

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Zack Greinke has reportedly agreed to terms with the Dodgers on a 6-year, $147 million contract. Let’s look at the reality and reactions.

The money

For those looking at the Greinke money, comparing him to pitchers from years past and wondering what they would’ve earned had they entered free agency at the same age as Greinke, it’s a stupid question and argument. What would Sandy Koufax get? What would Pedro Martinez get? What would Greg Maddux get? What would Randy Johnson get?

Does it matter? Had they been free agents at age 29 in 2012, they would’ve gotten more money than Greinke. But they’re not. So it’s meaningless speculation.

Then there are the complaints that it’s “too much” money—not in context of pitchers who were better than Greinke, but in context, period.

The pitchers listed above weren’t available. As for the contract itself, how is “enough” quantified? Would $120 million be acceptable? Why is $147 million “too much” and what amount is “just right?”

Greinke is the best pitcher on the market, found a team willing to pay him, and he got the most money. If and when Justin Verlander is a free agent (and he probably won’t be), he’ll set the market. That’s capitalism. That’s baseball.

The media

Joel Sherman exemplifies the half-wit media by saying the following on Twitter:

I know timing/supply-demand determine $, but if you had to pick 10 SP to win game for your life, would Greinke even be in the 10?

First he says essentially the same thing I said and made perfect sense in saying it regarding supply and demand. Then he ruins it by making a ridiculous assertion about a “game for your life” that there’s no way to prove its veracity one way or the other until after the fact. Greinke pitched poorly in his one post-season chance, but he was no Kenny Rogers—a thoroughly overmatched, frightened, and non-competitive performer for both the Yankees and Mets who no one could’ve thought he’d turn in the masterful work he provided in the 2006 playoffs and World Series when he was all but unhittable.

Was Dave Stewart a post-season ace before he became one? Was Curt Schilling?

You don’t know until you know. It’s not as if Greinke is tricking people with a pitch that could abandon him at any moment. Like the aforementioned Johnson and Martinez, they know what’s coming and can’t hit it.

This type of “analysis” is a desperate search to be contrary and not based on fact at all.

For the rest of baseball

The “haves and have nots” argument no longer applies as teams like the Athletics and Rays have shown the way of keeping their players or trading them away at their high value to maintain realistic cost while contending. The idea that Billy Beane’s strategies stopped working is accurate. Other teams caught onto what he was doing, souped it up and spent money for the undervalued assets he was able to get on the cheap before. The Rays adapted and overtook the A’s as the team that maximized what they had and could afford with new data and not the old “on base percentage as the Holy Grail” and “counting cards in the draft” idiocy.

The big money clubs who’ve spent wildly haven’t distinguished themselves with annual championships; in fact, many of the clubs have turned into overpriced embarrassments who, like the Yankees, are paring down to avoid luxury tax penalties and are rapidly heading toward a collapse because they tried to copy the Rays and even the Red Sox in development and failed miserably. The Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, and Phillies spent madly in the last several years and the results varied from disastrous to mediocre.

Teams that want to prevent Greinke-like contracts have to take the risk and do what the Rays have done with Evan Longoria, the Pirates have done with Andrew McCutchen, and the Rays and Mets have done with Matt Moore and Jonathon Niese—sign them early and hope they make it worth the team’s while to do it.

For the Dodgers

The Dodgers spending spree doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win in and of itself, but they do have some semblance of continuity backed up by the new money their ownership is spreading around, much to the anger and chagrin of all observers due to jealousy or the simple desire to complain.

It made no sense to pay $2 billion and then try to create a winner with an $80 million payroll and prove how much smarter their baseball people are than everyone else. It made no sense to hire Stan Kasten as team president and have Magic Johnson as a front man and not let them do what they do the way they know how to do it.

Kasten is a professional dealmaker and, unlike Randy Levine across the country with the Yankees, isn’t despised and openly meddling with the baseball operations implying that he knows more than he does (and Kasten is a qualified baseball man, unlike Levine). Kasten helped build the enduring Braves playoff dynasty using development and Ted Turner’s money to keep his own players, trade the minor leaguers for veterans, develop youngsters for the Braves’ use, bolster the club with Maddux-like stars, and let his GM John Schuerholz be the GM and the manager Bobby Cox be the manager.

He’s repeating the process with the Dodgers, Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly.

Comparisons to the aforementioned clubs that spent insanely is not accurate as a “that didn’t work, so neither will what the Dodgers are doing.” The Dodgers spent a ton of money and are asking their manager Mattingly, “What do you need?” whereas the Angels, with a new GM Jerry Dipoto who didn’t hire Mike Scioscia had different theories on how a team should be run; the owner Arte Moreno betrayed what it was that made the Angels a beacon of how to put a club together as he spent on players who simply didn’t fit and created a glut and altered identity, leading to the image of dysfunction and disarray.

The Red Sox made a mess in 2011, compounded that mess in 2012, and are getting back to their roots with questionable decisions currently being made by Ben Cherington when the jury is still out on whether he’s one of those executives who was better off as an assistant.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has the countenance and behavior of a character straight out of a Dickens story with barely concealed greed and unrepentant evil, while Magic is the charming frontman to bring the fans in and impress the players with his star power.

Star power.

Magic was a Lakers star with a star coach Pat Riley and a glittery style that inspired the moniker “Showtime.” It wasn’t just a show. The Lakers were a great team with star talent surrounding Magic in the form of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, underappreciated stars like James Worthy, and gritty tough guys like Kurt Rambis. Magic is the epitome of cool who knows everyone, gets invited to every party, has access to all the trappings of Los Angeles with the age and wisdom to advise players what and whom to avoid. He’s got an eye not just on winning, but winning in the Hollywood fashion with stars and style. He’ll fill Dodger Stadium and make it the cool place to go again; he’ll recruit the players; he’ll represent the team to make everyone money; and he won’t overstep his bounds into the baseball ops.

They didn’t buy it as an investment to flip in a few years; they bought it to turn it into a greater financial powerhouse and increase its value. That’s what they’re doing and Greinke is a cog in that machine to achieve the end.

And for Greinke

No one will ever know whether Greinke, whose past emotional problems are given far too much weight considering they six years ago and haven’t cropped up since, could’ve dealt with New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

Going to the East Coast with the pressures and expectations inherent with the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies wasn’t a good fit. But the Angels weren’t matching the Dodgers’ cash and the Rangers were the main competition for the pitcher’s services and were a winning, positive locale for him and his former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader wife. But they were outbid and have other, more reasonably priced options via trade.

That left the Dodgers. It’s a laid back atmosphere as a matter of course; they already have an ace in Clayton Kershaw so the pressure won’t be as great for Greinke to win 25 games; and no one will bother him as they would in New York, Boston, or Philly.

He got his money; he’s a great pitcher; and will continue to be a great pitcher for a Dodgers team that is a legitimate championship contender.

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The Best Manager In Baseball(?)

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Put Joe Maddon in the manager’s office of the Padres, the Athletics, the Cubs or even the Red Sox and their record isn’t going to be any different with Maddon than it is with their current managers.

So how can Maddon be repeatedly referred to as the “best” manager in baseball when his style is tailored to fit his Rays’ clubhouse? When his team bonding exercises and lack of off-field discipline wouldn’t work anywhere else?

Saying Maddon is the “best manager in baseball” is based on fleeting criteria that can’t be transferred. It’s the Mike Francesa logic from preseason 2011 as he picked the Twins in the AL Central for no reason other than, “I awlways pick da Twins.”

Is that a viable foundation for picking them or is it laziness based on history that has no connection to the present?

If the individuals comprising that history are no longer the same, then of what value is the history? It’s the same thing as having picked the Rays to lose 100 games in 2008 because they’d lost or almost lost 100 in every year of their existence. History hinges on the participants and what caused the history. If the players were different and better; if the front office was smarter; if the competition was weaker, then why would the predictions automatically be the same?

Reality is based on perception and the perception now—because of the Rays’ success—is that Maddon is the “best” manager in baseball.

Well, he’s not. The mere appellation itself has no quantifiable basis and is formulated from nothing other than a similar belief system between the manager and the person who’s doing the ranking.

The Rays are a unique, almost unprecedented club in that they don’t have money to even put forth the pretense of keeping their players long-term for big money. If those players aren’t willing to do as Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Ben Zobrist did and take longer term deals well before their arbitration years and have those deals contain options that will take them past free agency, they’ll be traded for younger players to continually replenish the farm system. That a Rays team that has made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years still doesn’t draw fans gives them a freedom from having money to spend and needing to spend that money to keep a rabid fan base and media horde happy. They’re 12th in the American League in attendance this season; were 13th last season and haven’t finished higher than 9th since they became good in 2008.

It works for Maddon because of the situation he’s in. It has nothing to do with being the “best”. It has to do with what’s working in the circumstances. If the team was exhibiting poor behavior off the field and wasn’t hustling then it wouldn’t look as cute as it does while the Rays are winning.

Their defensive metrics, bullpen construction, sabermetrically-inclined front office and funky manager are part of the equation, but the Rays have been as much of a beneficiary from high draft choices and luck as from their clever defensive alignments and ability to find relievers or failed starters who succeed with the Rays in ways they haven’t in prior stops.

In 2012, their bullpen has been statistically middle-of-the-pack and saved by the excellent work done by Fernando Rodney. Their vaunted defense is near the worst in baseball in fielding percentage; is third in errors; is -19 in fielding runs above average (if you’re into advanced fielding metrics that make the Rays do the profound amount of shifting that they do).

If you think they’re making up for their defensive issues with pitchers racking up strikeouts, you’re wrong. Their staff is sixth in the majors in strikeouts. Their pitchers do keep the ball in the park and they, as a team, have taken advantage of slumping opponents to hover around first place.

But it’s not the same as it was when the Rays shocked the world in 2008 and made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

They’re not the dominant group of youngsters who catch the ball, throw strikes and hit clutch homers. It’s a different dynamic.

Maddon is a good manager, but his quirky little bits of shtick are only taken positively because the team has won. If he were in another town with a team out of control and 15 games under .500, his new age style would be blamed for it.

In fact, if the Rays fade this season, there’s an argument to say that it’s in part because of Maddon’s defensive alignments and bizarre decisions based on nothing like playing Hideki Matsui because it was his birthday. Of course playing Matsui on his birthday is no more ridiculous than some of the out-of-context numbers that are used to justify things that don’t make sense, but it sounds weird. Sounding weird is enough to make certain factions go critical.

If the Rays stumble, will there still be a “best manager in baseball” chorus trailing everything Maddon does? Or will he be criticized?

Maddon’s gimmicks work because the Rays have won. If they were still the 100-loss calamity they were in his first two seasons as a manager, then we’re not discussing this because he would’ve been fired long ago. The “best manager” stuff is moot because it’s dependent on the players and the front office. A true barometer of the best would require so many categories and caveats that it’s not worth discussing in such a narrow frame. The manager is important, but not to the degree of blind worship without facts as it’s become with Joe Maddon.

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Tampa Bay Rays vs Texas Rangers

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Tampa Bay Rays (91-71; 2nd place, AL East; won Wild Card) vs Texas Rangers (96-66; 1st place, AL West)

Keys for the Rays: Don’t be satisfied with simply making the playoffs; expose the Rangers starting rotation; force Ron Washington into mistakes; play solid defense; B.J. Upton.

It goes one of two ways with teams that make a frantic late-season run into the playoffs out of nowhere: they either maintain their good play and streak on (the 2007 Rockies); or they get into the playoffs, are satisfied with that and get bounced early (the 2007 Phillies).

Neither the Rockies nor the Phillies had the playoff experience that the Rays do—they’ve been here before—so they won’t be relaxed and happy that they proved a point by overtaking the Red Sox; they’re here to win.

The Rangers starting rotation is overrated after C.J. Wilson.

Colby Lewis was excellent in the playoffs last season, but he allows a lot of homers and was very inconsistent in 2011. Lefties feast on him making him a target for Johnny Damon, Matt Joyce, Casey Kotchman and Ben Zobrist.

I don’t trust Derek Holland—the Rays beat him up twice this season.

I don’t trust Matt Harrison—both Johnny Damon and Evan Longoria hammer him.

With all the extra bullpen arms Rangers GM got for manager Ron Washington, it leads down the road of overmanaging and making unnecessary changes once the starters are out of the games. Koji Uehara‘s strikeout numbers are impressive, but so too are the towering homers he gives up (11 out of the bullpen for the Orioles and Rangers is a lot); and Mike Adams has never pitched in the post-season.

The Rays are in this position because of their superior defense and a strike-throwing pitching staff—they can’t make any mistakes if they’re going to hold down the Rangers potent offense.

B.J. Upton is on a mission. He wants to get paid after next season and don’t discount the extra motivation of a potential World Series matchup with his brother Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks. When he’s playing as hard as he can—aggressively and smart—he’s something to watch at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. In fact, he’s unstoppable.

Keys for the Rangers: get depth from their starting rotation; take advantage of Kyle Farnsworth‘s gopher ball; score a lot; mitigate managerial mishaps from Washington; keep the Rays off the bases; stop Upton and Longoria.

If Wilson and Lewis pitch as well as they did in last year’s post-season, the Rangers are going to be hard to beat. They have a lot of power and a superior defense behind their pitchers which is the actual strength of the pitching staff—not the pitchers themselves. They pound the strike zone and let the fielders—especially a nearly impenetrable infield—help their cause.

Washington tends to make too many moves once he gets into the bullpen; the Rangers push their starters during the regular season and will push them deeper in the playoffs to avoid that eventuality.

Farnsworth had a fine year closing for the Rays, but he’s still a manager’s nightmare with his wildness and tendency to allow homers. The Rangers have a group of bats who can crush a fastball—Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz.

Yorvit Torrealba also has a flair for the dramatic and has gotten big post-season hits before.

Because the Rays steal plenty of bases, it’s best to keep them off-base entirely. With their defense and strike-throwing pitchers, this is a reasonable goal for the Rangers.

Upton and Longoria have carried the Rays over the past month. If they don’t produce, the Rays lose.

What will happen.

Because they finally broke their playoff hex a year ago, got past the first round; beat the Yankees; and made it to the World Series, the Rangers are a battle-proven and experienced group in their second straight season in the post-season.

But the Rays have experience of their own from the World Series run in 2008 to last season when they lost to…the Rangers.

The Rays were beaten last year in large part due to the unreliability of closer Rafael Soriano. Soriano’s gone and the Rays overall pitching is in better shape now than it was a year ago.

I don’t like the Rangers bullpen despite the acquisitions of Adams and Uehara and the presence of Neftali Feliz.

Their starting pitching after Wilson is still questionable and they’re going to have to score plentiful runs to outshoot the Rays.

The Rays pitching is in a bit of perceived disarray after their desperate climb over the Red Sox to take the Wild Card; they’re starting rookie Matt Moore—their top prospect—in game 1.

But it could be the triumph of the uncluttered mind and the self-confidence of youth that makes starting Moore a brilliant maneuver.

The Rays have used young pitchers in key spots before. David Price closed games for them in 2008 and if they think Moore can handle it, I wouldn’t bet against that analysis.

A year ago, the Rangers were the team playing with low expectations and bent on killing demons of past post-season failures; they had a full-blown ace at the top of their starting rotation in Cliff Lee; they played with reckless abandon and a go-for-it mentality of “no one expects us to be here”.

The Rays are in that exact same position this year.

Wilson thinks he’s an ace—ask him and he’ll tell you in depth—but that doesn’t mean he is one on a level with Lee; if doesn’t mean he’s going to gut it out as James Shields and Price will. And don’t discount the financial aspect in Wilson’s mind as he tries to increase his free agent paycheck after the season a la Lee and Carlos Beltran.

No one expected the Rays to be here before or during the season; in fact, the consensus I’ve seen doesn’t think they’re going to be around that long either in the post-season.

But the Rays are here to stay.

They’re going to the ALCS and the Rangers are going home.

PREDICTION: RAYS IN FOUR.

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