Seems like everyone except ESPN's Buster Olney is picking the Tampa Bay Rays to beat our Texas Rangers in the best-of-5 American League Divisional Series. Which makes sense actually. The Rays are a 96-win team, the winner of baseball's best division, with a 4-2 season series edge on Texas, and with World Series experience as recently as two Falls ago.
In general, the Rays scored more runs and made fewer errors than the Rangers. But this -- to me -- is anything but a mismatch. Texas plays a clean, efficient series, and they could easily win the first playoff series in their 39-year history.
Let's crunch some numbers, throw in some intangibles and spit out a prediction:
STARTING PITCHER - Game 1 starters Cliff Lee and David Price are elite lefties with impressive playoff pedigrees. While Price had a 1.59 ERA in the '08 playoffs out of the bullpen for Tampa, Lee was 4-0 in last year's post-season with the Phillies. Both can dominate a game, if not a series. Price was the AL All-Star starter and has been better than Lee this season. In Game 2 the Rangers seemingly have an edge with C.J Wilson against James Shields, who was 0-3 with a 7.00 ERA in September. While Wilson has been dominant at times and Texas' best pitcher for the bulk of the season, Tampa manager Joe Maddon is going with Shields not because he's great at home (4.53 ERA) but rather because he's been so bad on the road. In Game 3 the Rangers will throw strikeout leader Colby Lewis against Matt Garza, who has a career 5.96 ERA in 22 innings pitched in Arlington. A possible Game 4 might feature Tampa's Wade Davis (who gave up eight earned runs in 3.1 in his only Arlington start) vs. Tommy Hunter (7-0 at Rangers Ballpark.) Edge: Rangers.
RELIEF PITCHER - The Rays rely on veterans Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler and former Ranger Joaquin Benoit to get to closer Rafael Soriano, who led the AL with 45 saves. In the last 11 games of the season Tampa's pen worked 32.2 innings without an earned run. Wow. The Rangers count on Darren Oliver to get out lefties, Darren O'Day to get out righties and rookie closer Neftali Feliz and his 40 saves to get out everybody in the 9th. As good as Feliz has been this season, Soriano is older, more experienced and been even better. Edge: Rays.
CATCHER - Yuck. Neither John Jaso nor Bengie Molina is fantastic defensively, but Molina has been much hotter at the plate (.319 the last month) than Tampa's rookie down the stretch. Edge: Rangers.
FIRST BASE - Hard to give an advantage to anyone hitting under .200 for the season, but Carlos Pena has 28 homers and the Rangers will try to piece together something salvageable out of Jorge Cantu/Mitch Moreland or Chris Davis. Pena might go 1 for 13 in the series, but that one hit might be a game-winning bomb. Edge: Rays.
SECOND BASE - When Ian Kinsler is getting on base and stealing bases and showing pop, the Rangers are a tough team to beat. Tampa's Sean Rodriguez hit .159 in September. Edge: Rangers.
SHORTSTOP - While Elvis Andrus will make more spectacular plays, he arrives in the playoffs in a horrendous slump. Tampa's Jason Bartlett is steadier at the plate and in the field. Edge: Rays.
THIRD BASE - Evan Longoria missed the final week of the season with a strained left thigh, but if he's healthy he's Tampa's best player and the only Ray to drive in 100 runs. Texas' Michael Young hit only .285 and his lack of range at third base has become a glaring weakness. Edge: Rays.
LEFT FIELD - Carl Crawford is the shit. Hits .307 with 19 homers, steals 47 bases and catches everything hit his way. David Murphy has had some clutch hits for the Rangers, but he's not in Crawford's class. Edge: Rays.
CENTER FIELD - Josh Hamilton may be the best player in baseball. He hits for average and power and win games with his glove, his arm and his speed. B.J. Upton is fast. End of conversation. Edge: Rangers.
RIGHT FIELD - Again, you look at Ben Zobrist's numbers and wonder how Tampa won 96 games. He hit .238 with 10 homers. Texas' Nelson Cruz, meanwhile, hit .318 with 22 homers despite a couple of stints on the disabled list. And Cruz's arm may at least slow down the Rays' running game. Edge: Rangers.
DESIGNATED HITTER - Another blowout for Texas. Vladimir Guerrero carried the Rangers in stretches with a .300 average and 115 RBI. Tampa counters with -- I'm serious -- Willie Aybar, who has all of six homers. Edge: Rangers.
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BENCH - Kelly Shoppach and Reid Brignac have gotten the big pinch-hits for Tampa this season. Jeff Francoeur is a veteran bat for Texas and Julio Borbon is a luxury as late-inning defense with superb speed. Edge: Even.
MANAGER - Ron Washington kept his players' belief this season despite a cocaine admission in spring training, but some of his gut-instinct, in-game strategies are head-scratchers. Tampa's Joe Maddon keeps games close and conservative, perfect for October baseball. Edge: Rays.
INTANGIBLES - The Rangers have a decided home-field advantage but were below .500 on the road. I also don't like that they've been on cruise control for about a month now in winning the weak AL West while Tampa has been grinding out playoff-like wins to edge the Yankees to win the AL East. Plus, you can't discount the Rays' World Series experience. Edge: Rays.
PREDICTION - Tampa's speed on the bases more than makes up for its lack of offensive pop, and the left side of the Rays' infield made 10 fewer errors than Texas'. Tampa also led all of baseball this season with 47 road wins. They aren't a sexy team, but a gritty one with playoff experience. The Rangers will hit more homers, and they're too good to get swept, but a team that played .500 baseball the final three months isn't ready to win its first playoff appearance in 11 years. Rays in 5.