Only one American League team finished higher in every slash line category than the Tampa Bay Rays, and it’s the team they’ll be hosting in the wild-card round.
The Rangers and Rays were the surprising leaders of their respective divisions at the All-Star break, but both clubs ultimately settled for wild-card spots the final week of the year. The Rangers’ fate wasn’t sealed until the last day of the regular season, when their Sunday defeat in Seattle allowed the Astros to secure the division crown.
Now, the AL’s two top-scoring offenses will meet in St. Petersburg in a clash between two teams whose playoff rotations look considerably different than what they would’ve expected at the start of the year.
When are they playing?
Tuesday, Game 1: Rangers at Rays – 3:08 p.m. ET (ABC)
Wednesday, Game 2: Rangers at Rays – 3:08 p.m. ET (ABC)
Thursday, Game 3 (if necessary): Rangers at Rays – 3:08 p.m. ET (ABC)
Both stars underwent Tommy John surgery this year, and that’s only the beginning of the laundry list of injuries to both clubs’ starting rotations. Tampa Bay is also without standouts Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen, while the Rangers will likely be without Max Scherzer and Jon Gray.
But the Rays tend to find an answer when it comes to pitching, and it starts with Tyler Glasnow. The Game 1 starter has the highest strikeout rate among all AL pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 innings this season. In Game 2, they will likely turn to Zach Eflin, who has the lowest WHIP this year of any major-league starter not named Gerrit Cole.
For Texas, Jordan Montgomery will likely take the ball for Game 1, followed by Nathan Eovaldi in Game 2. Montgomery was one of the best trade deadline acquisitions in the sport, posting a 2.79 ERA in 11 starts after joining the Rangers from St. Louis. Eovaldi was an All-Star and one of the best pitchers in baseball in the first half, though he hasn’t looked the same since returning from a forearm strain.
The Rays also hold the advantage in the bullpen, which has been a mess in Texas. The Rangers have more blown saves (33) than converted saves (30) on the season and a 5.10 bullpen ERA in the second half.
Who has the better lineup?
The Rays have the AL batting champ in Yandy Díaz and one of the most captivating talents in the game in All-Star and 2020 ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena. Isaac Paredes mashed 31 homers and Harold Ramirez enters the playoffs swinging a hot bat, but outside of first base and left field, there isn’t another spot where Tampa Bay holds a clear upper hand.
Corey Seager would probably win MVP if not for Shohei Ohtani. Marcus Semien and Adolis García each scored and knocked in more than 100 runs apiece. Josh Jung would’ve had a strong argument as the AL Rookie of the Year if not for a midseason injury, and his success against breaking balls and high-velo four-seamers will be vital in a matchup against Glasnow. By FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, Jonah Heim was the third most valuable catcher in the AL. All four of those players were All-Stars, and that’s before getting to Mitch Garver, Leody Taveras and prospect Evan Carter, each of whom made significant impacts in September.
Both of these offenses can attack in waves, but the Rangers boast one of the lowest chase and whiff rates along with one of the highest hard-hit rates in the game. They can mash, hit for contact and reach base at an elite level, and now they’re whole again after dealing with a plethora of second-half injuries. The same can’t be said for a Rays team that is without Wander Franco and could be missing Brandon Lowe, Jose Siri and Luke Raley.
What are the X-factors?
This series will pit two brothers — and two players as close as brothers — against each other.
Nathaniel and Josh Lowe were once teammates in Tampa Bay’s system, having both been drafted by the Rays in 2016. But Nathaniel’s career took off in Texas after getting traded at the end of the 2020 season. Josh, meanwhile, broke out this year, hitting 29% better than league average while feasting on right-handed pitching for Tampa Bay. The brothers enter the series in much different form, with Josh finishing the season going 14-for-32 over an eight-game hitting streak and Nathaniel stuck in a 7-for-60 rut. Will Josh keep it going? Or will Nathaniel turn things around?
Arozarena and García are like family. The Cuban outfielders, who came up together as prospects in the St. Louis system, shared a tight bond and stayed close as their careers took off in different locations. During this year’s All-Star festivities, they each took part in the Home Run Derby and starred as the starting corner outfielders. After struggling in the second half, will Arozarena rise to the occasion, as he has in postseasons past? García, meanwhile, led the Rangers in homers (39) and RBI (107) and looks rejuvenated after returning from a patellar tendon strain in his right knee. Could his setback ultimately be a positive?
Paredes was one of the top offensive performers at third base this year (and can play first or second, too). Junior Caminero and Curtis Mead are both top 100 prospects who have factored in down the stretch in Tampa Bay. All three of those players are 24 or younger. For Texas, 25-year-olds Jung and Taveras will be participating in their first postseason. García’s September injury also opened the door for Carter, the 21-year-old top prospect who took advantage with an OPS over 1.000 in 23 games. How will the young players handle the spotlight?
Who’s going to win?
The Rays have the clear pitching advantage, and they’ve been absolutely money at home (53-28), but this is not the same iteration of the club that won 27 of 33 games to begin the year. At some point, the mounting absences have to take a toll.
While this weekend in Seattle was a colossal disappointment for the Rangers, they seem to do their best when they’re counted out. Eventually, their pitching will be their undoing — but in one short series as the underdogs, with an offense that has its pieces back, I think they could surprise and earn a date with the top-seeded Orioles in the ALDS.
Pick: Rangers in 3
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