The earliest of Sunday's three MLB Division Series matchups will be between the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays, after Tampa notched a comeback win in Game 3 of the ALDS. Trailing 2-1 entering the eighth inning, the Rays got big hits from (among others) Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena en route to a season-saving win.
Game 4 on Sunday will pit two disappointing young starters, Texas's Tommy Hunter and Tampa Bay's Wade Davis. Though each posted decent numbers in traditional statistical categories (Hunter went 13-4 with an ERA south of 4.00, while Davis finished at 12-10 and had a 4.07 ERA), neither man was especially impressive.
Davis had just 1.82 strikeouts per walk issued, a pedestrian figure, and gave up 24 home runs. Hunter surrendered 22 bombs in only 133 innings, and struck out fewer than five per nine innings. In fielder-independent ERA (FIP), each ranked among the 20 worst hurlers in baseball with 120 or more innings pitched according to FanGraphs.
The season may hang in the balance for each squad. Tampa's season would end with a loss, but the Rangers (51-30 at home this season) can hardly afford a defeat that would send the ALDS back to Tampa Bay for a decisive fifth contest.
In an ideal world, each manager would send out his ace for such a crucial game, but both David Price and Cliff Lee are being held in reserve for a potential Game 5 start on long rather than short rest.
Therefore, Davis and Hunter will take the mound Sunday, and the game will likely be decided by the teams' respective offenses.
That makes for a highly unpredictable outcome in Game 4. Neither team has an offensive attack that can be fairly labeled as consistent (witness the Rays falling victim to two perfect games in two years, and the Rangers' 59 games with three or fewer runs scored), yet each has explosive potential with batters (Texas's Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton, Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria) capable of hurting an opposing hurler in myriad ways.
Carlos Pena Ain't Dead Yet
One key advantage for Tampa Bay is that first baseman Carlos Pena responded excellently to being benched in Game 2, notching two hits and three RBI on Saturday night. Pena had struck out three times and walked once in the opening contest of the Series, and manager Joe Maddon elected to start Desmond Jennings in Game 2, moving Ben Zobrist in from right field to first base and bumping Pena from the lineup.
Pena, who batted just .196/.325/.407 this season and struck out 158 times, could well have pouted over being relegated to the pine. Since the start of 2008, Pena's 98 home runs are good enough for ninth in baseball. Instead, the notoriously easy-going left-handed swinger took the temporary demotion in stride, and had the key game-tying single for Tampa in the top of the eighth inning on Saturday. He then cracked a two-run home run in the ninth to put the game out of reach.
Pena is unlikely to return to the Rays next season, given the team's well-publicized designs on payroll reduction and his $10.125 million salary for 2010. How much longer Pena remains a Ray, then, may hinge upon how well he hits in Sunday's contest with Hunter, against whom he is 3-for-10 lifetime with two doubles and a home run.
The Impaler Cometh
Vladimir Guerrero signed with the Texas Rangers this winter in a generally unheralded move. Guerrero was coming off his worst big-league season, having failed to reach 20 home runs, bat at least .300, and slug at least .520 for the first time in more than a decade.
The 2010 season has marked a modest renaissance for the future Hall of Famer, once a cat-like outfielder but now relegated to designated hitter duty. Guerrero batted .300/.345/.496 for the season, swatting 29 home runs and driving in 115 runs for the Rangers.
Guerrero is just 35, but with a mutual option on the table for next season and big raises due to Hamilton, Cruz, and others, Texas may be forced to address other needs this winter. Cliff Lee would command a huge sum to stay in Texas, while the Rangers must also shore up their bench: Jeff Francoeur, Bengie Molina, and Cristian Guzman all are free agents at season's end. Guerrero's primary suitors if he left Texas would include non-contenders like the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox.
If this is the swan song for Guerrero's playoff career, expect him to go out with a bang. The slugging Dominican is one of his generation's underrated superstars, a .320/.383/.563 career hitter who could well reach 500 home runs. In his five previous trips to the postseason, however, Guerrero has slugged just .375 with two home runs, and his team has never reached the World Series.
Texas needs its cleanup-hitting slasher to come through in a big way sometime over the next two games if they hope to advance further into these playoffs, as the organization has never won a playoff Series of any stripe.
A Battle of Wits
By the end of Game 4, expect to see both skippers empty their benches and bullpens. Both Maddon and Texas manager Ron Washington have made frequent use of pitching changes and pinch-hitters during the ALDS, taking advantage of two of the league's deepest benches.
For Maddon, this sort of chess match is a comfortable setting. No junior-circuit team deployed more pinch-hitters than the Rays this season, and overall, only the Yankees had the platoon advantage more often at the plate than did Tampa Bay.
Washington spent much of the regular season forgoing such micro-management: the Rangers used narrowly more than half as many pinch-hitters as Tampa Bay, and had the platoon advantage less often than all but one AL team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Intriguingly, though, Washington used his substitutes in more important situations than all but one other manager, with an average leverage of 2.12 in pinch-hit at bats: Tampa registered a league-low 1.19 leverage.
On the pitching side of the ledger, Maddon and Washington have much more convergent styles. The two men made more pitching changes than any other American League managers, and were less hesitant to go to relievers who had been used the previous day than any other skippers.
Again, Maddon somewhat over-managed at times, making more pitching changes without allowing a reliever to record at least three outs than any other skipper. He also made more moves while ahead and with runners on base than any other skipper. Washington, ever the chooser of spots, made a league-best 184 switches in high-leverage situations, and led the league in pitching changes during tie games. Though each will try his best to control Sunday's clash, the execution of their players will decide this one.
Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.