The Texas Rangers' defense of their American League title continues on Saturday with the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers, it should be noted, just eliminated the team with the American League's best regular-season record in the Division Series without the benefit of a quality start from their ace, Justin Verlander, and they represent a significant hurdle for the Rangers. Detroit went 38-16 (.704) over the final two months of the regular season, 20-6 (.769) in September, and 6-3 against Texas on the year, with the Rangers' three wins all coming in games started by Alexi Ogando, who has been moved to the bullpen and won't start a single game in this series.
When this series is over, the Rangers and Tigers, who won the pennant in 2006, will have combined to claim three of the last six American League pennants, and one of them will have won more AL flags than any other team in the last seven seasons. Here are five key items that could decide which club can make that claim:
Both of these teams have heavily right-handed lineups. At best, both will run out three lefties against right-handed starting pitchers, with at least one of those being a platoon player, and many of the best bats in this series, including Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta and Texas' Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, and Nelson Cruz, are right-handed. The Tigers have an all-right-handed rotation, which is well suited to face the heavily right-handed Rangers lineup.
The Rangers, however, will start a left-hander in as many as six of the potential seven games of this series, which could very well be to the Tigers' advantage as well. On the season, neither team had a particularly large platoon split. The Tigers fared only slightly better against lefties (an extra 14 points of OPS), and the Rangers had a split so small that it would normally be utterly meaningless (which could apply to the Tigers' split as well). Still, in a short series, every little advantage has the potential to be magnified and the platoon advantage favors the Tigers on both sides of the ball.
Raburn replaced Delmon Young in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the Division Series after Young suffered a mild left oblique strain, the severity of which remains unknown. Young is a deeply flawed player. He's a butcher in leftfield, and a hacker at the plate, but for whatever reason, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has decided Young is his No. 3 hitter, and Young played the part in the Division Series, hitting .316/.381/.789 with three home runs and a pair of walks.
However, if Young is unable to play, Raburn will likely take his place against the Rangers' left-handed starters and could very well have a similar impact, albeit not out of the three-hole. Raburn hit .274/.321/.486 against lefties this year with a home run every 22 plate appearances, a 27-homer pace over a full season of 600 PA, and over the final four months of the regular season, hit .296/.337/.504 against all comers with a similar home-run rate.
He's also a guaranteed upgrade in the field if only because Young is so bad out there. With Game 5 hero Don Kelly as his platoon partner, Raburn could make it so that the Tigers don't miss Young much at all. If Young can play, Raburn, who started just one game of the Division Series, may still see time at second base, his primary position this season, and Leyland singled him out on Friday as one of the right-handed bats who could see more action against the Rangers trio of lefty starters.
The Rangers' lone righty starter, Lewis has been awful at home this season, going 5-5 with a 5.54 ERA, just six strikeouts per nine innings (three less than his road rate), and a home-run rate of 2.1 home runs per nine innings, more than twice his home rate and the league average. However, Ron Washington had decided to stick with his ALDS rotation for another round, which means Lewis will start Game 3 on the road, which worked out great against the Rays, when Lewis threw six strong innings in Tampa in Game 3, but will also be lined up to start Game 7 at home. It's possible that Game 7 won't be necessary, but if it is, having Lewis start it could be disastrous. Not only has Lewis been lit up in Arlington this season, but both of his regular season starts against the Tigers this year, one at home, one in Detroit, were also disasters. Together, Lewis allowed 14 runs (one unearned) in just 7 1/3 innings against the Tigers for a 15.95 ERA. With Lewis lined up for Game 7, the Rangers have extra motivation to try to wrap this series up in six.
Jim Leyland originally announced 22-year-old Rick Porcello as his Game 2 (and thus 6) starter only to change his mind and go with Scherzer. That only proves what a difficult choice he had to make. Scherzer is clearly the better pitcher of the two and was fantastic in a Game 2 start and Game 5 relief appearance in the Division Series against the Yankees, allowing just one run, not on a home run, in 7 1/3 innings at the homer-happy new Yankee Stadium while striking out seven. However, Scherzer's road numbers during the regular season were frightening as he posted a 5.23 ERA while allowing 1.9 home runs per nine innings, nearly twice the league average, outside of Detroit. Those numbers included five runs allowed (two on a Nelson Cruz home run) in his only five innings in Texas this year. Starting Game 2 lines Scherzer up for Game 6 as well, both of which will take place in Texas. Meanwhile, Porcello's lone start in this series will now take place in Game 4 at Comerica Park, where he posted a 5.64 ERA during the regular season and gave up four runs in six innings against the Yankees in the Division Series.
On top of all of that, Scherzer's start in Game 2 will come on just two days' rest after he threw 32 pitches in relief in Game 5 of the ALDS. Scherzer started his career in the Diamondbacks' bullpen and threw on two or fewer days of rest three times without allowing a run in any of those outings, but that was 2008, and he has never started a game on two-days' rest after a relief appearance in the majors or minors. That, it turns out, was the main reason that Leyland originally named Porcello his Game 2 starter. Now, he has Scherzer and Porcello pitching on bad splits and short rest in three of the first six games of this series. Scherzer could make him look brilliant by coming up big on the road in Game 2 like he did in the Division Series, but there are many reasons to doubt his ability to do so.
The Rangers' three Division Series victories came by a total of four runs. The same was true for the Tigers. All six wins came with the team's closer on the mound, and Neftali Feliz and Jose Valverde combined for five saves. However, they also allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings. Valverde had just one perfect outing, walking four and giving up two runs, one on a Nick Swisher homer in Game 2. Feliz allowed at least one baserunner in all three of his Division Series appearances and gave up a run in the course of protecting a two-run lead in Game 4. Both men got the job done, and Valverde hasn't blown a save all year, in the regular or postseasons, while Feliz had a solid 84 percent conversion rate. This series should be close, the games should be close and a blown save from either man could tilt the balance.