The first-place Texas Rangers, who have reached the World Series in each of the past two seasons, haven't played quite as well as in the previous two seasons.
Still, they added some rotation depth at the trading deadline with Ryan Dempster, and they seemed to have weathered a major slump from Josh Hamilton. On August 13th they were 67-46, had won seven of their last ten games, and were 6.5 games in front of Oakland for the AL West division lead.
Then, they came to New York.
Four games against the Yankees proved to the world why home-field advantage matters so much once the playoffs start. Let's take a look at the first two games of the series.
In the first game, David Phelps started against Dempster. This game told me two important things about both of these teams. First, the Yankees needed a veteran bullpen presence and they got one in Derek Lowe. Lowe pitched four innings in relief of Phelps and gave up two hits. Enough said.
Second, it taught me that if the second half of the season is any type of audition for Ryan Dempster and his ability to pitch in big game situations, I may be calling in the next candidate if I'm a member of the Rangers front office. I don't expect anyone to come into Yankee stadium in October and shut out the Yankees, but Ryan Dempster was just awful. He gave up all eight runs in six innings. The Yankees won 8-2.
Game two featured Hiroki Kuroda for New York, and Matt Harrison for Texas. I'm looking into the future, and I see this as a potential playoff pitching matchup if these two teams were to meet in the postseason.
Kuroda and Harrison must have been thinking the same thing, because they both pitched beautifully. Unfortunately for Harrison, Kuroda was completely un-hittable and pitched a complete game shutout and the Yankees won 3-0.
After this game, walking around the Yankee clubhouse, you could just feel a playoff atmosphere in the air. Reporters and players alike talked about the game like it was one being played in October.
New York ended up winning the next game, taking three out of four from Texas.
I look at this series as much more than a four-game set in the middle of August between two of the best teams in the American League. The Yankees proved in this series that without their best big name pitcher out there, they can still get the job done.
Hiroki Kuroda has without question been the most consistent starter on this staff and proved that playoff experience aside, he is the number two man in the starting rotation come playoff time.
Everyone argues about playoff experience, but I'm starting to believe its overrated. When it comes to veterans like Kuroda, they will get the job done in the playoffs.
I tend not to trust guys like Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova as much. However, if Andy Pettitte returns in mid-September, he can be a factor.
As for the Rangers, they had a rough series because their offense hit a cold spell. They scored four runs in the first three games before breaking out for ten in the finale and salvaging one game. I don't see that happening to them in the first round of the playoffs. They have an offense similar to the Yankees where someone is going to get hot at the right time. Josh Hamilton did have two monster home runs in game three, but they both came with no one on base.
What worries me for Texas is their starting rotation. I alluded to it above, and I can't help but wonder where Ryan Dempster stands right now. He's 1-1 with an 8.31 since arriving in the American League. Don't be surprised if Roy Oswalt gets the nod in his place once the playoffs start.
Then you have Harrison and Yu Darvish, who have combined for 25 wins so far this season. My issue with the rotation is you don't have an ace, a Game 7 guy who you can turn to to win a series.