American League Playoff Overview
The American League Championship Series begins tonight (7:45 ET, Fox) with Detroit going to Texas. The Notebook wraps up the Division Series with some closing thoughts and previews the LCS.
Texas over Tampa (3-1)
A five-run outburst by Texas in the fifth inning of Game 2 completely swung this series. Tampa Bay had won the opener 9-0 and was out to a 3-0 lead in Game 2. James Shields couldn't get it down, the Rangers rallied to win 8-6 and then won a pair of nail-biters on the road to close it out. These teams have now played nine postseason games over the past two years, with the road team winning eight times. Texas advanced for the second straight year because of power–not only Adrian Beltre's three-homer day in the clincher, but Mike Napoli's big two-run blast that was the key blow of Game 3. And in the fateful final two games, Evan Longoria failed to get a hit. Tough loss to swallow for the Rays, who lost three straight by a combined total of four runs, while getting their one win in a blowout.
Detroit over NY Yanks (3-2)
The story in the New York media is that this is on A-Rod, and to a lesser extent Mark Teixieria. Is this another display of Yankee-centric behavior and refusing to give credit to feisty opposition. You can interpret it that way, given the professions of shock over a New York loss. The Daily News' Mike Lupica penned a lengthy whine about how the Bombers have had to endure five Divison Series losses in the last 10 years and only one World Series title. Right Mike, they're just one small step from being the Columbus Blue Jackets of baseball. But there's also no question that even a cursory review of the box scores show that the failures of A-Rod, Teixeria and Nick Swisher–the 4-5-6 hitters in the New York lineup were the defining story of this series. Detroit pitching shut down the muscle and won a razor-tight series that was "just one hit", in the words of Joe Girardi from going the other direction.
It's worth noting that in each Division Series the losing team outscored the winning team in aggregate runs, Tampa 21-14 and New York 28-17. Those aren't cosmetic edges and statheads would be inclined to see Detroit and Texas' wins were luck. The other school of thought says the Tigers and Rangers were better at executing in close games. I'm not really sure where I stand on that, seeing strong points in what each side says, so I'll weasel out of giving an opinion. But it's certainly an interesting development.
Let's break down the Detroit-Texas matchup by focusing on the four key components of success–the offense's ability to put runners on base and to hit for power, along with starting pitching and the bullpen.
GETTING ON BASE: A key weakness in a good Detroit lineup is that centerfielder Austin Jackson doesn't get on base consistently, though he did make some strides down the stretch. If Jackson can keep that going into the ALCS, the Tigers will be an offensive threat. Their key power hitters, namely Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, are patient hitters and Cabrera won the batting title, so these are more than just home run threats. Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila are also solid and steady at filling the base paths. Delmon Young, whose health is uncertain after straining an oblique in the Game 5 win over New York, has never been particularly patient.
Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus is the Ranger version of Jackson, the player who needs to be on base, making things happen and setting the table for a potent middle of the order. Like Detroit, the big Texas hitters, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, take their walks and make pitchers come into them. Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and David Murphy are steady, while Mitch Moreland can come and go. A key Texas liability here is Adrian Beltre, who is a classic free-swinger. He hit the three home runs in the Game 4 clincher against Tampa, but when he's not locked in, the dry spell is very dry.
POWER PRODUCTION: We've already touched on the key names here, with Cabrera and Martinez, and to a lesser extent Avila, for Detroit. Young hit three home runs in the Yankee series, but you have to believe that even if he plays, that oblique strain will rob him of his power for at least a couple games. Magglio Ordonez provides some additional muscle and Peralta's got a little pop in the bat.
Texas' power is built around Hamilton, Beltre and Cruz, while Young, Kinsler, Moreland, Murphy and catcher Mike Napoli can all hit it out. If you're math is the same as mine, that's pretty much an entire lineup of guys who can go deep.
STARTING ROTATION: While the offenses are very similar, the starting pitching is a study in contrasts. Detroit is built entirely around dominance by Justin Verlander, who goes in Games 1 & 5, and then hopes to survive at the back end. They were able to split the four non-Verlander starts against New York and that got them a series win. Now they need Verlander to win twice, but only need to go 2-3 without him. Texas, on the other hand, is deep and balanced. C.J. Wilson goes Game 1 and while he's not in Verlander's class, the rest of the Texas rotation (Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison) are all arguably better than their Tiger counterparts. The order those three will pitch in is still undetermined. Detroit will come back with Rick Porcello, their inconsistent #4 starter in Game 2, with the heroes of the Yankee clincher, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer going in Games 3 & 4. I like Fister and feel he gives Detroit their best chance outside Verlander, but as good as Scherzer was against the Yankees, he's another one a little too inconsistent to feel confident about in the postseason.
BULLPEN: Both bullpens are fairly even, with good closers in Jose Valverde for Detroit and Neftali Feliz for Texas. Each has a solid 8th-inning man in Joaquin Benoit and Mike Adams respectively. Where I believe Texas has an edge is that Alexi Ogando, moved from the starting rotation for the postseason has settled comfortably back into what used to be his role in relief, giving Ron Washington an extra arm.
PREDICTION: This series is mostly evenly matched, but Texas has got a little more power and little bit better bullpen. Relying on one pitcher to get you through a best-of-seven is a lot to ask and Ranger depth in the rotation matters substantially more here than it would have in a Division Series showdown. For these reasons, I'm picking Texas in six games.