AL wild-card tiebreaker preview: Rangers have edge on Rays
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Start time: 8:07 p.m. ET
One-game tiebreakers are the hot new thing in baseball. Prior to 1995, there had been just three in major league history. Then, in the 15-year span from 1995 to 2009, there were six more. Last year, Major League Baseball introduced the Wild Card Game, guaranteeing we would have two one-game playoffs every year. Now, in just the second year of the new format, we will get an additional do-or-die game in the form of a tiebreaker to decide the second American League wild-card entrant.
Whether the Rays or the Rangers advance to meet the Indians in the Wild-Card Game on Wednesday night, this much is already certain: The winner of Monday night's game will be the first team in major league history to have to play two consecutive one-game playoffs.
Unlike the Wild Card Game, however, tonight's tiebreaker in Arlington is not manufactured drama. Both of these teams once had what seemed to be firm grasps on playoff spots only to endure brutal stretches that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. On the morning of Aug. 25, Tampa Bay had a six-game lead in the loss column over Cleveland, who was then the third-place team in the wild-card race. The Rays then went 4-13 over their next 17 games, but rallied in late-September, winning seven in a row against the rival Orioles and Yankees last week.
Texas, meanwhile, had a two-game lead in the AL West on the morning of Sept. 1 and, at that point, was seven games ahead of the third-place wild-card team and eight games ahead of the Indians. The Rangers, though, went 3-12 in their first 15 games in September. The only reason Texas is still around is because it won its last seven games and got help from Tampa Bay, which coughed up its two-game lead with three to play by losing on Friday and Saturday in Toronto.
So here we are. The Rays, who have held at least a share of a playoff spot every day since July 6, and the Rangers, who held a 96.7 percent chance of a playoff berth earlier this month, will play one game to avoid the ignominy of falling short of even the Wild Card Game. This will be the third matchup between the two clubs after Game 162 in the past four years; Texas eliminated Tampa Bay in the Division Series in both 2010 and '11 en route to World Series appearances.
The assigned starters for tonight's game are both lefthanders, David Price for the Rays and Martin Perez for the Rangers. Price has had plenty of difficulty against Texas, having gone 0-3 with a 4.66 ERA in his three starts in the two Division Series confrontations. Including those three losses, he is 1-7 with a 5.60 ERA in 11 career starts against the Rangers, including a 10.26 ERA in four career starts in Arlington. All three of Price's playoff starts against Texas took place in Tampa Bay, and he hasn't faced the Rangers at all this year, but he did start in Arlington twice last year, his Cy Young season, and went 1-1 with a 6.97 ERA.
Texas has a tough lineup for any lefthanded pitcher, even one of the best, like Price. With Nelson Cruz, having served his Biogenesis suspension, back on the roster for Monday night, the Rangers could run out a heavily righthanded lineup that includes Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, midseason acquisition Alex Rios (who has hit .435/.500/.870 against Price in 26 career plate appearances), Elvis Andrus (11-for-27, .407, against Price and coming off .313/.367/.406 performance in the second half), and righthanded platoon bats Craig Gentry (4-for-11, .364, against Price and .339/.430/.457 in the second half), Geovany Soto (who has huge numbers in small samples in the second half and at Arlington, this year, but a reverse split and a single and a strikeout in two career confrontations with Price) and Jeff Baker (who has never faced Price, but has hit .314/.407/.667 in 123 PA against lefties this year).
The return of Cruz, who went 9-for-27 with four doubles and one home run in eight instructional league games while waiting to be activated, is particularly compelling. He has hit .429/.478/.905 in 23 career plate appearances against Price, with three of his nine hits being homers -- one of which came in Game 1 of the 2010 Division Series. Cruz told MLB.com that he has seen "some hard throwers" in those instructional league games, good preparation for Price's mid-90s heat, but none with the same quality of breaking pitches. It will be interesting, then, to see if Price, who typically throws his fastball almost exclusively the first time through the opposing lineup, breaks out his curve against Cruz tonight.
Perez gets the start for Texas because the Rangers haven't had an off day since Sept. 12, and have kept to their regularly scheduled rotation ever since. He is a 22-year-old rookie who did get a bit of major league experience in 2012 -- including his only career appearance against the Rays, a solid five-inning relief appearance on Sept. 9 -- but he did not appear in the Wild Card Game, which the Rangers lost at home to the Orioles.
Perez's ride to this point has been as wild as his team's. A comebacker broke his pitching arm in spring training, but he was back on a major league mound in late May. He spent most of the next month in Triple-A, but since returning on June 22, he has gone 10-4 with a 3.48 ERA in 18 starts and has drawn some mention in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Perez throws a mid-90s fastball and a sinker which he mixes with a mid-80s changeup, a slider and a high-70s curve, in that order of frequency. He has shown a reverse split this season as well as a preference for pitching at home (fewer walks, lower ERA), despite his team's hitting-friendly ballpark. The only current Rays to have faced Perez are Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Jose Molina and Matthew Joyce, the last of whom likely won't start this game against the lefthander though he singled and walked in three trips against him last year.
One key bat in this game for Tampa Bay could be prodigal son Delmon Young, the former number-one draft pick whose trade to the Twins for current Texas pitcher Matt Garza in December 2007 was one of the key elements of the Rays' rise from worst to first in 2008. Young, who just turned 28, was released by the Phillies in mid-August and returned to Tampa Bay as a minor league free agent, and he has since taken over as the team's primary designated hitter, batting .271/.348/.475 since coming back. He never lived up to his projections, but he has earned a reputation as a lefty-killer (.304/.342/.471 career) and as a postseason hero, hitting .280/.330/.598 with eight home runs in 88 PA for the Tigers in the last two Octobers. Along with Longoria and fellow rookie Wil Myers, Young is one of the big righthanded bats that the lefty Perez will need to be careful with tonight.
Not on that list, however, is Desmond Jennings, who was one of the Rays' top hitters in the 2011 Division Series against Texas, but will only be available as a pinch-hitter Monday night due to a strained left hamstring that has kept him on the bench for the last two weeks.
If Tampa Bay wins this game, it will use its first off-day in the last 23 to fly to Cleveland where the Rays will again face immediate elimination in the Wild Card Game. For Tampa Bay, that means the team will not have had an off-day that wasn't a travel day since Aug. 1, and the trip will mark their fourth flight in the last week -- since their last home game a week ago, the Rays have traveled from Tampa Bay to New York to Toronto to Texas. They will, however, have Alex Cobb lined up to start that game. Cobb has gone 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA in nine starts since returning from the disabled list in mid-August. If Tampa Bay survives Cleveland, Price would be on regular rest for the second game of the Division Series on Saturday.
The Rangers' travel schedule has been far more relaxed. The flight to Cleveland would be their first since last Sunday, when they flew home from Kansas City for what has now become an eight-game homestand, and their off-day on Sept. 12 came in the middle of a homestand, giving them a full day off at home a little more than two weeks ago. Matt Garza and Alexi Ogando are the Texas starters who would be on full rest for Wednesday's Wild Card Game. Given the unfavorable matchup for Price, the return of Cruz and the recent performance of the Rays' bullpen, which gave up nine runs in the last two games, Texas is the clear favorite to keep its season alive, and that's before mentioning that Tampa Bay finished the season with a losing road record (40-41) and lost two of three this season in Arlington.