Facing off for a second consecutive ALDS, both clubs arrive well armed with talented pitching staffs, each owing much of their success to the dominance of their starting rotations.
Texas, repeating as AL West champs after not making the playoffs since 1999, finished third in the AL with a 3.65 starting pitchers' ERA, despite seeing Cliff Lee walk as a free agent, trading Tommy Hunter early in the year and welcoming Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando into their rotation full-time.
All three newcomers pitched fantastically for portions of the season, alternating so that at least one of them was hot at any particular time throughout the season. Led by incumbent lefty, C.J. Wilson, the Texas staff produced a fantastic season, even in the harsh conditions of their offense-friendly home stadium in Arlington.
Tampa Bay, who are entering the postseason on a tremendous high after their improbable run for the wild-card berth, owned the best starting ERA in the entire AL, despite residing in the most offense-laden division in all of baseball.
With a 3.53 rotation ERA and an AL-leading 1.19 starter's WHIP, Tampa Bay's staff poses a threat to anyone they face, with multiple arms capable of shutting down an opposing offense on any given day.
As the ALDS is set to begin today, let's take a look at each team's probable starting rotation throughout the first four games. Both teams have set their starters for Games 1 and 2, but concrete announcements have yet to emerge beyond that. We are speculating slightly, but given the information available, the guesses for Game 3 and 4 should be reasonably accurate.
C.J. Wilson, last year's ALDS Game 2 starter, has been elevated to the Game 1 spot due to the offseason departure of Cliff Lee.
Wilson, in only his second year as a major league starting pitcher, compiled a stellar season at the top of the Texas rotation, as he became the first Ranger left-hander in franchise history to win 15 games in consecutive seasons.
Though he emerged as an elite left-handed starter in 2010, Wilson improved upon his breakout season in nearly every facet of the game in 2011.
At 16-7, he tied Holland for the team lead in victories, led the staff with a 2.94 ERA and struck out 206 in 223.1 innings, for a rate of 8.3 strikeouts per nine.
His 1.187 WHIP, also an improvement over last year's mark of 1.245, was the direct result of improved command, which saw him lower his walks per nine innings from 4.1 last season, to 3.0 in 2011.
After leading the AL in free passes in 2010, Wilson drastically improved his sometimes-erratic control and appeared to be a much more polished starting pitcher this season. The Rangers will need him to continue his regular-season success into the postseason, in order to shut down a Tampa Bay ballclub that enters the playoffs on a high after overtaking the Red Sox to claim the Wild Card .
In his Game 2 start in last year's ALDS, Wilson dominated the Rays in a 6-0 Texas victory. Over 6.1 innings, he allowed only two hits, two walks and a hit batsman while striking out seven.
During this year's regular season, Wilson faced the Rays three times, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and a stellar WHIP of 0.831. In 21.2 innings, he struck out 24, while only allowing 10 hits and eight walks.
On September 6, his last start against Tampa, Wilson hurled a complete-game shutout, his only one of the season, as he allowed only five hits, three walks while striking out six.
Within the confines of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, setting of the series opening clash, Wilson went 8-2 with a 3.69 ERA during 2011, with a WHIP of 1.231.
He will look to exploit a Rays team that hit only .249 against lefties this year. They were 44-37 on the road however, proving that they are capable of winning anywhere. Tampa was the second-highest scoring team in the AL when playing away from home, trailing only the Boston Red Sox in that category.
C.J. will look to set the tone for the entire series, just as Cliff Lee did with a dominant Game 1 start last season. With the inexperience following him in the Texas rotation, Wilson will need to provide the leadership the Rangers need in order to overcome the surging Rays.
With the first significant surprise of the 2011 postseason, the Rays named fireballing 22-year-old lefty Matt Moore as their Game 1 starter.
Never afraid to think out of the box, Joe Maddon has placed his faith in the lefty who owns all of three big league appearances and only one start.
Granted, Moore is a highly touted hurler, one that Baseball America ranked as the Rays' No. 2 prospect prior to this season. However, that doesn't keep observers from raising a few eyebrows, given his grand total of 9.1 MLB innings under his belt.
His lone career start came on September 22, as he baffled the Yankees in New York over the course of five innings. He picked up the victory in a 15-8 Tampa romp, but he allowed no runs on only four hits and a walk, while striking out an impressive 11 Yankees. The young southpaw left the veteran Yankees impressed with his poise and electric stuff following his dominant outing.
Moore will have to command his mid-90s heater well and mix in his slider and occasional changeup in order to stifle a dynamic Texas offense that loves to hit in Arlington.
Texas is clearly a significant threat in their home ballpark, as they led the AL in runs scored at home, beating the Yankees by 27 runs. The Rangers' .860 team OPS at home easily led the AL, and they hit the most home runs at home of any team in the league as well.
The task ahead of young Matt Moore is one of colossal proportions, but Joe Maddon and the Tampa brass feel that the inexperienced southpaw has the stuff to contend with the sluggers in Texas, and enough of an unknown factor to pose problems for the Rangers lineup.
Co-leader in wins on the Texas staff, with 16 in 2011, Derek Holland makes the leap from occasional starter last year, all the way to Game 2 starting pitcher this season.
At 16-5, Holland delivered on the potential he had hinted at over the last few years, and became a fantastic complement to C.J. Wilson atop the Rangers rotation.
Though he was erratic at times early, Holland finished strong, and hurled 198 innings, owned a 3.95 ERA and a 1.354 WHIP.
In 18 starts since getting pounded by the Yankees on June 15, he went 11-3 with a 3.31 ERA, getting stronger as the season progressed.
Over his last six starts of the season, Holland was 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA, allowed opponents to hit only .206 against him and struck out 41 in 39.1 innings, while only walking 12.
He did make two starts against the Rays this season, going 1-0, but he wasn't particularly effective, as he posted an ERA of 5.84, with a WHIP of 1.541. In 12.1 innings, he allowed 11 hits and eight walks, while striking out 16.
Pitching in Texas, where he will in Game Two, Holland owned a great 8-2 record, but struggled somewhat in that hitter's paradise, posting an ERA of 4.69. In 86.1 innings at home, he allowed 101 hits, with a WHIP of 1.564.
With only a handful of at-bats against him by any particular Rays player in 2011, there was no one that stood out as having significant success against him this year. Two of the Rays that hit home runs against him in 2011, Justin Ruggiano and Brandon Guyer, are both absent from the TB playoff roster, but he will have to bear down against the scorching duo of B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria.
Following the best season of his career, in which he emerged as a co-ace with lefty David Price, James Shields has been tabbed as the Rays' Game 2 starter in the ALDS.
In 33 starts, the 29-year-old right-hander went 16-12, finished third in the AL with a 2.82 ERA, fifth in WHIP at 1.043 and third in strikeouts with 225.
He utilized his deadly curveball/changeup combo to continually keep hitters off balance, and his pinpoint control with all of his pitches allowed him to succeed despite using his fastball only 28.1 percent of the time, the sixth-lowest rate in baseball in 2011.
Opponents hit only .217 against him, and slugged only .350, as his command and off-speed prowess enabled to dominate hitters throughout the year. With only seven hits per nine innings, and 0.9 home runs per nine, Shields proved to be a difficult foe to reckon with.
His 11 complete games led all of baseball, and his four shutouts were tied for the AL lead.
Against the Texas Rangers in 2011, Shields made two starts and was utterly dominant. In 17 innings, he allowed only eight hits, three walks and a single earned run for an ERA of 0.53. His minuscule WHIP of 0.647 illustrates the level of his sheer dominance of Texas this season.
On the road in 2011, Shields went 7-7 with a 3.35 ERA and a 1.037 WHIP, including eight shutout innings of four-hit ball at Rangers Ballpark.
Of the current Rangers who have faced him with any regularity in his career, only Elvis Andrus has experienced much success against Shields, hitting .600 with a 1.625 OPS in 17 plate appearances.
Michael Young, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton have hit .182, .174 and .111 against him respectively.
The Rays will like their chances with "Complete Game James" on the mound. Or was it "Big Game James"? Either way, Shields has developed a new air of confidence about him in 2011, and the Rays will hope to feed off of it as they challenge the Rangers.
Though Ron Washington has yet to confirm his rotation plans beyond Game 2 of the ALDS, the general assumption among most observers is that Colby Lewis will start Game 3 against Tampa.
Despite an uneven year in 2011, following a great season in 2010, Lewis's veteran presence could be critical and his right arm would provide a different look among all the lefties in Texas' rotation.
In 200.1 innings, Lewis was 14-10 with a 4.40 ERA and a solid 1.213 WHIP. Although he allowed only 187 hits and owned a very respectable walk rate of 2.5 per nine innings, he was damaged significantly by the long ball. His 35 home runs allowed led the AL and undermined much of his solid work during the season.
Since Game 3 is on the road, it will suit Lewis better, as he was significantly better away from Arlington. On the road, he was 9-5 with a 3.43 ERA, a 1.152 WHIP and 107 strikeouts in 107.2 innings.
At home, he suffered, going 5-5 with a 5.54 ERA, 22 home runs allowed and only 62 strikeouts in 92 innings.
Lewis faced the Rays once in 2011, going 1-0 after earning the victory with eight innings of four-hit shutout ball, walking two and striking out eight.
Texas will hope he can repeat his playoff performance of last season, when he was 3-0 with a stellar 1.71 ERA in four starts. He was nearly un-hittable, allowing only 16 hits in 26.1 innings, while striking out 24.
While there has yet to be an announcement from the Rays regarding their plans for Games 3 and 4, the rotation is currently aligned so that Jeremy Hellickson would likely get the nod in Game 3.
The rookie right-hander was stellar in 2011, producing a fine year which will see him among the top three rookies in the AL once award season rolls around.
At 24 years old, Hellickson started 29 games for the Rays in his rookie campaign, hurling 189 innings, going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA and a 1.153 WHIP.
His impressive first full season as a big leaguer earned him a prominent place in the Rays' postseason plans.
Starting Game 3, Hellickson would pitch at home in Tampa, where he was 6-5 with a 2.54 ERA and a 1.007 WHIP.
His prowess against right-handed batters could prove vital against a predominantly right-handed Texas lineup. In 2011, Hellickson allowed righties to hit only .188 against him with a meager .585 OPS.
Hellickson lost his only start against the Rangers, allowing two earned runs on six hits and four walks, while striking out four. However, that start was at Rangers Ballpark, so the friendlier setting in Tampa could reverse those fortunes.
As the second rookie in the Tampa playoff rotation, Hellickson will have a tall task in subduing a powerful Texas lineup, but the poise and stuff he displayed throughout 2011 should allow him to perform admirably when called upon.
Yet another talented lefty in Ron Wasington's pitching rotation, 26-year-old Matt Harrison will make his playoff debut in Game 4 of the ALDS.
Harrison emerged as the third reliable lefty in the Texas starting staff, going 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA in 30 starts for the Rangers. In 185.2 innings, Harrison allowed 180 hits and 57 walks for a 1.276 WHIP. His walk rate of only 2.8 per nine innings was great, and he only allowed 13 home runs, quite an impressive feat in homer-happy Arlington. His rate of 0.6 per nine innings was among the league-leaders.
He will also benefit from pitching away from Rangers Ballpark, as he was far more successful on the road in 2011. Away from home, he was 6-4 with a 2.99 ERA, a 1.221 WHIP and allowed only 80 hits in 93.1 innings. By contrast, in Texas, he was 8-5 with a 3.80 ERA and allowed 100 hits in 93.1 innings.
Against Tampa, he only threw two innings of relief work in 2011, but he was perfect in that short span, retiring all six batters he faced.
If Game 4 is necessary, Harrison will look to subdue a Rays team that hit only .249 against left-handers in 2011. Strangely though, left-handed batters fared better against Harrison this year, hitting .275 with a .729 OPS, as compared to the .249 and .667 that righties managed against him this year.
Tampa's roster is pretty versatile however, so there won't be many lefties that he faces anyways, besides maybe Matt Joyce and Casey Kotchman. Joe Maddon enjoys tinkering with his lineup though, and could very well field an order comprised entirely of right-handed hitters, if he does things according to conventional wisdom.
However, we know that part of Maddon's genius is his ability to think outside of the box, so he may elect to load up with as many left-handers as possible, in order to exploit Harrison's reverse splits from this season.
In an ideal world, David Price would be lined up to start either Game 1 or 2 of this opening round of the 2011 playoffs.
However, considering the last-second nature of Tampa's thrilling run to the ALDS, the Rays were not afforded such luxuries as setting their starting rotation, so their hard-throwing lefty co-ace, David Price, will not pitch until Game 4.
If Texas could somehow squeeze out a victory in Game 1, they will have to love their chances with Shields, Hellickson and Price aligned for the next three games.
Price didn't have quite as successful of a season as he did in 2010, but the 26-year-old lefty was still very good in 2011.
At 12-13, he was a victim of poor run support, as the Rays scored fewer than two runs in 12 of his 34 starts. With an ERA of 3.49, he wasn't as stingy as last season when he posted a 2.72 ERA, but he could have reasonably expected to post more than 12 victories.
Over 224.1 innings, he allowed 192 hits with 63 walks, posting a WHIP of 1.137. He struck out 218 for a rate of 8.7 per nine innings. Though opponents hit only .230 against him, he allowed 22 home runs in 2011 after only 15 last year.
The lefty made two solid starts against Texas this season, though he was only 0-1. In 14 innings against them, he allowed 13 hits and three walks, while striking out 13. His 3.21 ERA and 1.135 WHIP were better than his season marks, so he handled them well, but couldn't earn victories in either start.
He faced Texas twice in 2010's ALDS clash, but didn't fare well against the eventual AL Champs. Over 12.2 innings, he allowed 17 hits, but no walks, while fanning 14. Price posted a 4.97 in those two division series losses to Texas.
Tampa will hope he can forget those two starts and reverse his fortunes against Texas in this year's version of the ALDS. First, they'll have to hope that the series progresses to Game 4, allowing their talented left-hander to take the hill. Though their offense doesn't match up with the potent bats in Texas, Tampa remains well armed to handle nearly anyone.