During the first week of August, when we first starting thinking that the Rangers might conceivably make the playoffs, we were talking about the possibility of a possibility. That they might be able to sneak in if everything broke right, grab the second American League wild card and get lucky in the playoffs was about the best you could hope for. Then they went 40-22 down the stretch after winning just 48 of their first 100 games and caught the Houston Astros, who the Rangers trailed by eight games as recently as the morning of August 3, to win the American League West and avoid the lose-and-you're-out wild card game the Astros now find themselves stuck in.
The Rangers' comeback was built on the back of Cole Hamels, the erstwhile-Phillies ace acquired in late July; Shin-Soo Choo, who was maybe one of the 10 best players in the American League after the all-star break; and a resurgent Adrian Beltre, who was as good in September as he's been during any month of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. The Rangers bullpen, a liability for much of the first four months of the season, also became a strength with the July additions of Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson. The team's coming all the way back and finishing off a division title with a win on the last day of the season is as satisfying as anything one could've imagined happening during a campaign that started with a season-killing Yu Darvish injury and the Rangers going 8-16 in April. These playoffs should be gravy, with any winning that happens being a bonus. Given the psychic damage absorbed by Rangers fans over the past five years, though, it's easy to see why everyone might not feel that way.
However you're approaching the Rangers' upcoming best-of-five with the Blue Jays, here's what to watch for as our eyes turn to Toronto ahead of Thursday afternoon's American League Division Series-opening tilt.
Can the Rangers continue their postseason mastery of David Price?
David Price has been great for the Blue Jays down the stretch, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in his 11 starts with the team. Acquired by the Jays at the trade deadline from the Detroit Tigers, the big lefty lights up radar guns and has remade himself recently by throwing more change-ups and fewer sliders to complement his fastball. He might even win the American League Cy Young Award. One thing Price has never been able to do, however, is beat the Rangers in the playoffs. In 2010, the Rangers beat Price, and the Tampa Bay Rays, twice in the division series behind Cliff Lee on the way to the team's first World Series appearance. The next season, the Rangers beat Price again in the division series' pivotal Game 3, turning around a series that the Rangers would finish off the next day. Paying attention to sample sizes a small as three games is silly, but as Jobu would tell you, one ignores baseball juju at his or her peril.
The Blue Jays offense can't be stopped. Can it be slowed?
The Blue Jays offense is the best in the league. Best against left-handed pitching, best against right-handed pitching, best period. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely to win the American League MVP and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion remain the same potent threats they've been for the last half-decade. Along with Price, the Jays also acquired former Rockies all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline. The Blue Jays outscored opponents by 221 runs this season, 99 better than MLB's second best team, the Cardinals. Outside of a start or two from Rangers ace Cole Hamels — he's slated to go in Game 2 and, if it's necessary, Game 5 in the best-of-five ALDS — the Rangers' starting pitchers holding down the Jays offense may come down to getting lucky over a small sample. That's something that happens. Just ask the 1999 Rangers, who finished second in the league in runs scored during the regular season before scoring exactly one run in the playoffs.
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Can Marcus Stroman handle the big stage?
Marcus Stroman is the Blue Jays' most talented starting pitcher who isn't Price. He also wasn't supposed to pitch this season. Stroman tore his ACL during spring training and somehow made it back to the mound in a little more than five months. He's been good, too, putting up a 1.67 ERA in four 2015 big league starts. Still, Stroman is just a kid. He just turned 24 and has less than 30 big-league starts under his belt. More experienced guys have failed in smaller spots.
How many sick days are going to get taken Thursday or Friday?
As has happened during the team's previous two ALDS appearances, Rangers fans got screwed by Major League Baseball's bizarre postseason scheduling. Games 1 and 2 against the Blue Jays will take place squarely in the middle of the workday, thanks the MLB's refusal to allow playoff games to overlap and Toronto and DFW's status as less than desirable markets. Hope you've been working on that excuse Rolodex.