Crucial X-Factors in Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers AL Wild Card Play-In Game

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2013

Crucial X-Factors in Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers AL Wild Card Play-In Game

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    The two best words in all of sports are "Game 7." However, we can amend that to say that any winner-take-all game deserves to be recognized for its gravitas and intense emotional moments.

    That is what the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers will face on Monday night in Arlington, Texas, as these two teams play their 163rd game of the 2013 Major League Baseball season for the right to make the postseason.

    What's so fitting about this game is the way the Rays and Rangers got here. Both had to fight the last weekend of the season to keep pace with the Cleveland Indians, who will host the winner of this game on Wednesday night, and now they can determine who is best head-to-head.

    In anticipation of this huge game, it is fitting that we highlight the biggest X-factors to watch on Monday night. Some of these are players you know well, while others may be waiting for their shining moment.

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays

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    There was a time earlier this season, even up to the All-Star break, when Evan Longoria was one of the top three players in the American League. He hit .278/.356/.507 in the first half while playing his usual stellar defense at the hot corner.

    But in the second half of the year, Tampa Bay's third baseman has been a shell of what he once was. The defense is still fantastic, but the bat has fallen off the face of the earth.

    Longoria is hitting .249/.318/.467 in 66 games after the break. Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay's offense has dropped off, averaging just 3.7 runs per game in the second half compared to 4.7 in the first half.

    Not all of that falls on Longoria because one player alone isn't going to carry an offense, but he's so important to what the Rays want to do. They gave him a $100 million contract extension for a reason: He is the best player on the team, and they ride or die offensively based on how he's playing.

    Wil Myers has been fantastic since being called up halfway through the season. He is going to stand right alongside Longoria in the middle of that lineup for years to come. But Myers isn't the dominant force Longoria can be when he's at his peak.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers

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    Well, look who's back.

    After serving a 50-game suspension for his connection to Anthony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic that has been the source of such controversy for Major League Baseball this year, Nelson Cruz makes his (triumphant) return to the Texas Rangers in time for Monday's play-in game.

    Cruz last played on August 4 against Oakland. Despite the long layoff, the 33-year-old finished second on the team with 27 home runs and 76 RBI.

    These are not your older brother's Texas Rangers. They are a team built more on pitching and defense than being able to bash the ball, but the two key players in the middle of the lineup are Cruz and Adrian Beltre.

    We know what Beltre is going to do. He was his usual fantastic self with a .316/.372/.509 line with a team-leading 30 home runs.

    But what is Cruz going to be? It's nice to say that a guy is going to return after 50 games, yet it takes time before you get back into the swing of things. That's not a good thing, especially when David Price is standing on the mound.

    Cruz has hit better against lefties in his career than righties, putting up a .286/.357/.516 line. But none of that tells us what he is, or where he's at physically and mentally, entering this game. The Rangers need that bat in the middle of the lineup to win this game and make a run in the playoffs.

Delmon Young, OF, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Believe me, no one is as surprised to see Delmon Young's name on this list as I am. Like so many, I have had many laughs at his expense. When the Phillies signed him last winter, it was a source of constant humor.

    Yet there is something about Young that is working a little better now. Admittedly, some of that has to do with the small sample size of 22 games he's played with the Rays. I am sure a little bit of it has to do with Tampa Bay bias, because this franchise does so many things that confuse us only to look great in hindsight.

    Just look at the season James Loney or Yunel Escobar had, the resurrection of Kyle Farnsworth's career two years ago or Fernando Rodney's success last year.

    Young has hit .271/.348/.475 in 66 plate appearances with the Rays. He isn't suddenly figuring things out; rather, this is one of those random variances players go through during a long year.

    Plus, we saw what Young can do in a short playoff series when he hit five home runs with Detroit in the playoffs two years ago.

    I wouldn't bet money on Young to play a great game, but if he wound up hitting two home runs, I can't say it would surprise me. He is a much better hitter against lefties in his career (.304/.342/.471), and the Rangers are starting rookie southpaw Martin Perez.

Craig Gentry, OF, Texas Rangers

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    If I were to ask you which player with at least 250 plate appearances led the Rangers in on-base percentage, how long would it take before you got to Craig Gentry?

    Gentry, the 29-year-old outfielder who has played over 100 games just twice in his career, had his best season with a .280/.374/.387 line and 24 stolen bases in 27 attempts. He is also very good at hitting lefties, with a .279/.394/.411 line this season.

    Ron Washington is not my definition of a good manager, but if ever there was a time for him to tinker with things in his lineup, it would be tonight. It's plausible that if a loss against Tampa Bay punctuates yet another late-season collapse, he will be looking for work elsewhere.

    What Washington should do is hit Gentry closer to the top of the order, where his speed and on-base ability can be properly utilized. Ian Kinsler could be moved to fourth behind Beltre, with Cruz hitting fifth and Alex Rios sixth.

    You put Gentry and Elvis Andrus (.367 OBP in the second half) at the top of the lineup, and suddenly the Rangers offense looks a little stronger than it normally does.

    Since Washington is someone who doesn't like to tinker with things, there is no way that will happen. Gentry will be relegated to hitting eighth in the lineup, just ahead of Leonys Martin (.262/.314/.388), where the former's OBP skills will be for naught.

Joel Peralta, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Fernando Rodney is, for all intents and purposes, the star of Tampa Bay's bullpen. He gets to record the magical saves and was tasked with coming into the eighth inning of Sunday's game at Toronto to preserve a 7-6 lead when the Rays gave up six unanswered runs after a seven-run first inning.

    But the best and most important pitcher in Joe Maddon's bullpen, especially against Texas, is Joel Peralta.

    The Rangers have a lineup loaded with hitters who destroyed lefties this season (Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz), so when Maddon goes out to take Price out, the first name on his call sheet has to be Peralta.

    Peralta leads the American League with 80 appearances and is striking out 9.3 hitters per nine innings.

    What's most impressive about him is that he is one of those rare relievers who dominates hitters from both sides of the plate with a .627 OPS against righties and .556 against lefties. Don't be shocked if Peralta pitches multiple innings tonight—that's how good and valuable he is for the Rays.

Neal Cotts, LHP, Texas Rangers

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    Raise your hand if you knew that Neal Cotts was back in baseball.

    Of course analysts and diehard fans know that, but if you thought Cotts had walked away years ago, no one would have blamed you. Before signing with the Rangers, the 33-year-old lefty had not pitched in an MLB game since 2009.

    Cotts has been an incredible find for the Rangers, posting a 1.13 ERA in 56 innings. He has also allowed just 36 hits, 17 walks and 64 strikeouts. His ERA+ is 368, which is remarkable regardless of whether you are a reliever or not.

    Even more important, especially for the Rangers, is that Cotts has been much more than a left-handed specialist who can record one out at a time. He has actually been tougher against right-handed hitters with a .158/.225/.208 line in 101 at-bats, compared to .208/.264/.313 line in 96 at-bats against lefties.

    What makes that so important is the Rays' best hitters are all right-handed (Longoria, Myers, Desmond Jennings) or switch-hitters (Ben Zobrist) who will bat right-handed when Cotts is on the mound.

    If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.