Now we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, not quite yet. With a two games to none advantage in the American League Division Series battle against the Tampa Bay Rays, the mood surrounding this Rangers ballclub is rather positive. After comprehensively beating the Rays in the first two games, on the road no less, this Texas ballclub is brimming with confidence.
For a team that was viewed as underdogs by many against whichever AL East foe they faced, the Rangers appear remarkably in control of the series that they find themselves involved in. With a 5-1 opening victory over leading Cy Young candidate David Price, led by a dominant Cliff Lee, the foundation was laid. Backing that up with a similarly impressive outing by C.J. Wilson, augmented by a potent offensive attack, Texas is looking like a force to be reckoned with.
A franchise traditionally associated with powerful, slugger-laden offenses, the Texas Rangers finally appear to have discovered that the key to greater success is a well-rounded club capable in all facets of the game.
Thus far in the ALDS, this new team philosophy appears to be reaping its rewards. No longer a one-dimensional club, the Rangers have constructed a team centered on its strong pitching, but still able to slug with the best of them. These primary strengths are complemented by efficient base-running and solid defense to give this Texas team a multidimensional attack less susceptible to being easily shut down.
As everyone should now by now, success in baseball always starts with strong starting pitching. The Rangers were a club rarely associated with dominant pitching through the years. Team president Nolan Ryan has worked tirelessly to reverse that perception and his hard work is paying dividends. Led by its two lefties, Cliff Lee, the highly-coveted ace, imported from the Seattle Mariners in a June trade, and C.J. Wilson, a homegrown talent converted from a late-game relief specialist to a starter just last offseason, the Rangers find themselves in good hands.
Cliff Lee was brought here specifically to lead the rotation into the playoffs, in their quest to reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His impressive postseason resume from 2009 was one of his primary attractions, and he lived up to the hype as well as he could in his Rangers postseason debut.
Pitching in hostile territory in Florida, Cliff Lee set the tone for the series with his dominant Game 1 start. The stoic lefty ran into trouble in the first inning, allowing three singles in the first four batters to load the bases, a less than confidence inducing start to the proceedings. However, he quickly recovered to strike out Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli, stranding the bases loaded. That would be the last trouble he would face for the remainder of the game. After the first, Lee would allow only two other hits, a second inning double to Ben Zobrist, and a solo home run, also to Zobrist, in the the seventh inning while the Rangers already led comfortably 5-0.
His impeccable command was on display once again, as he became the first American League pitcher to strike out 10 batters in a playoff game while not walking a single hitter. It has only occurred seven times in MLB history, and Cliff Lee has now accomplished the feat three times, twice last year with the Phillies. Overall, Lee pitched seven innings, allowing five hits, no walks, with 10 strikeouts, exceeding the Rangers wildest hopes.
Following Cliff's lead, C.J. Wilson offered his own highly dominant performance to further deflate the hopes of a stunned Tampa Bay Rays club. After allowing a lead-off single to Jason Bartlett to start the game, Wilson didn't allow another hit until the bottom of the seventh inning. In between, he walked two hitters, but that would be all he would permit to reach base in his 6.1 innings of work, while striking out seven Rays. If he is able to consistently pitch like that following Lee, the Rangers like their chances against anyone in baseball. The baton is now passed to Colby Lewis to keep the train rolling in Saturday's Game 3.
When your first two starting pitchers in a series pitch deep into the game, both reaching at least the seventh inning, it greatly reduces the stress on your bullpen. That's precisely how any manager draws it up, a deep, effective starting performance, then hand the ball over to your elite relief arms. No messing with questionable middle relief, no stressful decisions on which relievers to use. You want your starters to transition seamlessly into your best setup men, then directly to the closer. Simple.
After two games in the ALDS, Ron Washington has been able to do just that. Thanks to his dominant starting pitchers, he has only needed to use his most reliable bullpen arms for a total of 4.2 innings. Both Darren O'Day and Darren Oliver have pitched in each game, with Oliver pitching three innings, allowing no hits and one walk, while striking out two. O'Day has face three batters, allowing a single, but striking out the other two. Closer Neftali Feliz was used in Game 1 to finish off the opening victory. He made it interesting to start the ninth, walking the first two hitters, but then retired Ben Zobrist on a liner to right and struck out the last two hitters to preserve the win. Order was restored.
No one can predict if the Rangers' starters will continually work into the seventh inning as they have thus far, but even if they don't, Ron Washington has a handful of reliable arms to hand the ball to late in games.
A team usually doesn't count on their run production increasing in the postseason when you're facing the best pitching staffs in the game, but that's precisely what the Rangers have done over the first two games of the ALDS. After averaging 4.86 runs per game in the regular season, placing fourth amongst American League clubs, the Rangers have increased that rate to 5.5 runs per game with 11 runs scored in the series thus far. Of course, it's only a two game sample, but that bodes well for a team making its first playoff appearance since 1999, proving that they won't wilt under the glare of the bright lights in October.
Through two games, the Rangers are balancing their strong pitching performances with a robust offensive attack, making it difficult to key in on any specific weak point in their game. Shutting down the opposition and scoring runs, the two primary aspects of a successful baseball team.
Thus far, the Rangers are tied with the Yankees with their 11 runs scored, are second to New York in total hits, have hit the most home runs of any playoff team, and have the highest slugging percentage in the postseason. Possibly the most encouraging sign for the Rangers is that they have accomplished that all on the road, where they struggled to a 39-42 record during the regular season. Many wondered if the team could hit enough away from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to win crucial road games. Well, the team has stepped up and answered that question emphatically.
Also encouraging is that the Rangers are producing offensively, and they haven't yet gotten a lot out of their two biggest hitters, Josh Hamilton and Vlad Guerrero. It has been a balanced attack, seeing four different players hit a home run each, with six different hitters collecting an RBI. This bodes well for the team going forward. If opposition is able to focus in on a couple of key hitters, it makes it much easier to stifle an offense, but if you never know where the damage is coming from, each batter is a critical situation for your opponents' pitching staff.
With home-field now secured for the remainder of the ALDS, the Rangers are in prime position to advance beyond the Division Series for the first time in club history. The Rangers are a much more potent offensive club at home in Arlington than on the road, and will look to put the Rays out of their misery in the next two games. Texas was 51-30 at home this year, so heading back to Rangers Ballpark to try to conclude the series should bolster the team's confidence even further. Although the Rangers don't want to look too far beyond Game 3 on Saturday, their advance scouts have their eyes on their potential ALCS foes, with the Yankees looming as favorites to advance alongside Texas. If that matchup eventually occurs, it would represent an opportunity for the Rangers to exorcise their franchise's playoff demons against the only team they have ever faced in the postseason, a team that has defeated Texas in three consecutive playoff series dating back to 1996.
Like I said, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves just yet though. For now, let's look forward just to Saturday's Game 3 in Arlington as the Rangers will look to finish off the Tampa Bay Rays as quickly as possible, and then we can start making arrangements for the American League Championship Series.
Please check out further coverage of the Rangers' Playoff action and analysis of their postseason aspirations by Scott Gyurina.