ALDS Preview: Rays vs. Rangers

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The Teams

Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) vs. Texas Rangers (96-66)

The Rangers won the season series 5-4, outscoring the Rays by 15 runs (41-26).

The Matchups

Game 1 Friday in Texas: Matt Moore vs. C.J. Wilson
Game 2 Saturday in Texas: James Shields vs. Derek Holland
Game 3 Monday in St. Pete: Colby Lewis vs. David Price
Game 4 (if necessary) Tuesday in St. Pete: Matt Harrison vs. Jeremy Hellickson
Game 5 (if necessary) Thursday in Texas: TBD vs. C.J. Wilson

That changes everything. After sending out early indications that Jeff Niemann would start Game 1, the Rays pulled a bit of a stunner Thursday evening by saying Moore, who has just one major league start under his belt, would get the ball.  It’s a gutsy move, but it’s absolutely the right one. He has the better chance of matching up with Wilson than Niemann would. Niemann was 0-2 with an 11.17 ERA against the Rangers this season.

It remains to be seen how much good the Rays’ vaunted pitching depth will do them. Price was struggling a bit even before getting tagged for six runs in four innings by the Yankees on Wednesday. Shields hasn’t been at his best either, though one can imagine him coming back on short rest in Game 5 if he’s effective in Game 2. Hellickson, at least, looks good for Game 4.

Unlike the Rays, the Rangers had plenty of time to set their rotation for the series.  Wilson has a good chance of putting the Rays in an early hole: he had a 1.21 ERA in September and he was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in three regular-season starts versus Tampa Bay.

Three questions

Will the Rangers use their best lineup?

Manager Ron Washington seems to know now that he needs Mike Napoli in there everyday, and there’s a good chance the Rangers will carry a third catcher to make it easier to use Napoli as a DH when Yorvit Torrealba is catching. Napoli, who would have finished second in the AL in OPS if he had the plate appearances to qualify, hit .407 with three homers in seven games against Tampa Bay this year.

But what about David Murphy? Murphy came through with a .351/.366/.557 month of September, and he hit .393 with a homer and eight RBI in seven games versus the Rays this year. The Rangers should want him in there against right-handers, though that means putting Josh Hamilton in center field and weakening the outfield defense some.

How will the Rangers handle playing the day games?

Of course, the games in The Trop shouldn’t matter (it’s a dome), but the Rangers hit just .265/.324/.409 in day games this year, compared to .290/.346/.481 under the lights. Josh Hamilton’s much publicized problems with the sun resulted in a .220/.302/.317 line. He hit just one homer in 123 at-bats during day games.

Will the Rays get quality bullpen work from their unused starters?

Kyle Farnsworth was effective in all four of his appearances after missing half of September with a sore elbow, so that’s one bullet dodged. He and Joel Peralta will be lined up to get the six most crucial outs when the Rays are leading late. What will be interesting to see is whether Joe Maddon gives the other key innings to holdovers Brandon Gomes and Cesar Ramos or if he tries to work in Davis and Niemann in big situations.

Prediction

The Rangers outscored the Rays by 148 runs this year (855-707), they have the hottest starting pitcher in the series lined up to start twice and I think they possess the edge when it comes to bullpens. Of course, part of that run disparity is the ballparks the teams play in — the Texas offense isn’t really that much better than Tampa Bay’s — and the Rays do have the advantage when it comes to defense, but the Rays’ biggest plus — the fact that they have six quality starters to bring into battle — might not do them a whole lot of good in a short series like this. I think this is the Rangers’ series to lose, and if Price doesn’t bounce back in a big way, it may well be a sweep.

RANGERS WIN THE SERIES 3-0.

Astros clinch postseason berth with 11-3 win over Angels

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No surprise here: The Astros are headed back to the postseason to defend their title following a landslide 11-3 win over the Angels on Friday. This figures to be their third playoff run since 2015, though they have yet to wrap up the AL West with a division title.

First baseman Yuli Gurriel led the charge on Friday, smashing a grand slam in the first inning and tacking on a two-run homer in the second and RBI single in the fifth to help the Astros to a seven-run lead. The Angels eventually returned fire, first with Mike Trout‘s 418-foot homer in the sixth, then with an RBI hit from Francisco Arcia in the seventh, but they couldn’t close the gap in time to overtake the Astros.

On the mound, right-hander Gerrit Cole clinched his 15th win of the year after holding the Angels to seven innings of three-run, 12-strikeout ball. His sixth strikeout of the night — delivered on an 83.1-MPH knuckle curveball to Kaleb Cowart — also marked the 1,000th strikeout of his career to date. He was backed by flawless performances by lefty reliever Tony Sipp and rookie right-hander Dean Deetz, both of whom turned in scoreless innings as the offense barreled toward an 11-3 finish with Jake Marisnick‘s sac bunt and George Springer‘s three-run shot in the eighth.

Despite having qualified for the playoffs, the Astros still carry a magic number of 6 as they look to clinch a third straight division title. They’re currently up against the Athletics, who entered Friday’s contest against the Twins just four games back of first place in the AL West.