What to Watch For As the Rangers Begin Their Playoff Run This Week

The Rangers lost Sunday afternoon. The Rays beat them 6-4, and the Rangers got exactly one extra-base hit, a home run from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, in a thoroughly uninspiring performance. None of it mattered.

Thanks to a win Friday night behind a dominant, 12-strikeout performance from Yu Darvish, the Rangers had, for the first time in team history, already locked up home-field advantage for the duration of the playoffs. They finished 95-67, tying the 1999 Rangers for the second best record in franchise history, behind the 96-66 2011 club. Despite a marginal run differential — they scored only eight more runs than they gave up in 2016 — the Rangers head into the playoffs with as good of a shot as any team that isn't the Cubs to win the World Series.

As we begin the long wait for the playoffs to begin in earnest on Thursday, here's what to watch for.
The Rangers rotation — One of the main advantages of having little for which to play over the last two weeks of the season is that Rangers' manager Jeff Banister has had plenty of time to set up his rotation as he chooses for the American League Division Series. Cole Hamels will start the Rangers' first playoff game, Darvish will start the second and then Martin Perez and Colby Lewis will start games three and four.

This year's situation stands in stark contrast to that which Banister had to deal with in 2015. Because the Rangers didn't win the division until their final game, Hamels was forced to start on the last day of the season against the Angels. He threw a complete game and locked up the Rangers' division title, but was out of commission until the second game of the ALDS. The Rangers had less flexibility throughout their series with the Blue Jays, and didn't have Darvish at all.

Darvish's return from Tommy John surgery means that any team that wants to beat the Rangers in any series is going to have to beat either Darvish or Hamels at least once. If the Rangers need Hamels to start the fifth game of the Division Series, they'll have Darvish waiting in the wings to start the first game of the American League Championship Series, if it comes to that.

Hamels has looked good over his last two starts, giving up three earned runs and striking out 13 over 14 innings. Darvish has been phenomenal, striking out 21 while giving up a single run over 13 innings. Perez is erratic, but capable, while Lewis, despite four raggedy starts since returning from the disabled list last month, has the best playoff pedigree of any pitcher in Rangers history.

The Rangers lineup — The biggest thing, as far as Rangers hitters were concerned, about the weekend series against the Rays was the return of right fielder Shin-Soo Choo after six weeks on the disabled list with a broken forearm. Choo picked up two hits in 12 at bats. He's fragile, having missed more than 100 games in 2016, and a liability on defense, but Choo is still, on his day, a fantastic offensive player. He'll play, and start in the ALDS.

Choo's return means that one of the guys who's helped carry the Rangers down the stretch is going to be on the outside looking in as the playoffs begin. Right now, it looks like the odd man will be Nomar Mazara, the guy, who, until a couple of months ago, was a rookie of the year candidate. Carlos Gomez, who the Rangers picked up for nothing after the Astros released him in August, has been a revelation. After hitting just five home runs and posting only a .594 OPS in 85 games for the Astros in 2016, Gomez has hit eight home runs while posting a .920 OPS in 32 games for the Rangers. His presence in the Rangers lineup is too dynamic to pull, so Gomez will be staying in the outfield over Mazara.

It doesn't hurt that Gomez says he has no problem hitting anywhere Banister puts him in the lineup. Look for Choo to lead off on Thursday and Gomez to hit sixth or seventh. Mazara may end up being left off the playoff roster entirely. First baseman Mitch Moreland is the only Rangers regular likely to be pinch hit for in the playoffs. He's left-handed, just like Mazara, so the guy who's started more than 100 games in right field for the Rangers this year might not have a role at all in the playoffs.

The Rangers bullpen — Matt Bush, Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman, Tony Barnette, Keone Kela and Alex Claudio will be in the 'pen for the ALDS. Despite Dyson's being the closer for the Rangers during the regular season, it would not be a surprise to see Bush get an expanded role in the playoffs. The 30-year-old, who's been out of prison for less than a year, has been the Rangers' best reliever this season, and Banister showed a willingness to abandon regular-season bullpen roles during the playoffs last year.

When the Rangers ALDS roster officially comes out, it will be interesting to see whether Jeremy Jeffress makes the cut. His raw stuff is as good as any Rangers reliever except Bush, but he's only been back on the team for a little over a week after missing a month while he rehabbed following an Uptown DWI arrest.

If Jeffress is ready, the Rangers have the power arms in the bullpen to shorten games — especially those started by Perez and Lewis. That can be a successful strategy in the playoffs, as demonstrated by last year's World Series champs, the Kansas City Royals.
The unknowns — The only bad part about winning home field advantage is that, now that MLB has added two extra wild cards to the postseason mix, the Rangers won't know who they're going to play in the ALDS until Tuesday night. The Rangers could get the Orioles, who hit a lot of home runs and have a lights-out bullpen but almost no starting pitching, or the Blue Jays, who lack a left-handed presence in the lineup and whose two best starters, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, are both younger than 26.

Facing the Blue Jays, of course, would be a lot of fun. The two played a raucous, five-game ALDS in 2015, which culminated in a seventh-inning meltdown by the Rangers in game five that handed the series to the Jays, three games to two.

When the teams reconvened in Arlington this spring, a hard slide by Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista led to his getting punched in the face by Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. A simmering rivalry began to boil. A Rangers/Blue Jays rematch would be wild.