The 2011 postseason will begin where the 2010 postseason ended: deep in the heart of Texas, where the defending AL champs meet the Team of Destiny in a rematch of last October's only five-game division series. Last year's tilt featured great pitching, great defense, aggressive base running, and a lot of shots of Nolan Ryan and George W. Bush on the edge of their front-row seats at Rangers Ballpark. Expect another dramatic series between these two evenly-matched teams.
Here are five keys to the series:
1. Tampa Bay's secret weapon.
You don't need Simon Cowell to tell you Matt Moore is the "X-factor" in this series. The young left-hander was the top pitching prospect in the minors this season and was Strasburgian in his major league debut (he struck out 11 in five shutout innings of the Yankees on Sept. 22). Manager Joe Maddon has named Moore his Game 1 starter, showing he won't hesitate to use the kid in a big spot. Three years ago, during their improbable run to the World Series, David Price was the Rays' secret weapon out of the bullpen. This time around it's Matt Moore.
2. The Rangers' rebuilt bullpen.
Before the season, Nolan Ryan predicted that the Rangers would win "somewhere between 90 and 95 games." The Rangers' surpassed their CEO's expectations --- they won a franchise-record 96 games --- and they did it without Cliff Lee and without a superhuman Josh Hamilton. The offense, thanks in part to additions Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli, scored 63 more runs than they did last year, and the starting staff, with the emergences of Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, was the league's third best (3.65 ERA). But the reason why this Texas club is better built for October than the 2010 team is the bullpen, which GM Jon Daniels remade at the trade deadline with the additions of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Since manager Ron Washington called out him out for his "lack of fire" at the end of July, Neftali Feliz has quietly re-established himself as an elite closer, with his fastball touching 99 mph again in recent weeks. All-Star Alexi Ogando has moved from the rotation to the bullpen for the postseason and is yet another weapon for Washington, who's never had a 'pen as deep and as good as this one.
3. The other third baseman.
Yes, Evan Longoria's storybook September is worthy of its own HBO series. But let's not forget the only ballplayer on the planet who may be hotter than Longoria: Adrian Beltre, who just won the AL Player of the Month award after leading the majors in home runs (12) and slugging (.800) in September. The Rangers pitchers are already talking about how they don't want Longoria to beat them --- and they shouldn't, considering the third baseman's underwhelming supporting cast. As a team the Rangers had a sick September, with a .916 OPS and 49 home runs, 11 more than any other team in baseball. The offense is firing on all cylinders right now --- and Beltre is a big reason why.
4. The Rays' aggressiveness on the bases.
No team in baseball likes to run more than Tampa Bay, which led the league in steals (155) for a second straight year. Maddon wants his players to wreak havoc on the bases -- every player has the green light to go, regardless of the situation. But the Rays haven't been a particularly good base running team: they led the league in getting picked off and getting caught stealing; their success rate was 71 percent, down from 79 a year ago. The Rangers, by contrast, stole 143 bases with a 76 percent success rate. In a short series, baserunning miscues could make all the difference.
5. The Dutch Oven.
Last October, Derek Holland was an ALCS hero after logging 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the Yankees out of the bullpen (3 2/3 innings came in Texas' Game 4 win in Yankee Stadium). Then came his World Series meltdown --- he walked three straight hitters, on 13 pitches, in the Rangers' Game 2 unraveling. Now the baby-faced 24-year-old is set to make his first career postseason start opposite James Shields in Game 2. With Colby Lewis struggling, the Rangers have needed Holland to step up in the rotation behind ace C.J. Wilson. Holland's season started to turn around after bullpen coach Andy Hawkins helped tweak his delivery in late July, and recently, Holland has looked like an elite starter: the left-hander was 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in his final six starts of the regular season, with 41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. We'll soon find out if the Dutch Oven is ready for his October close up.
Prediction: Rangers in five