Here we go.
The Rangers limped into the playoffs in 2010, not really needing to hit the gas at any time in the last month of the regular season. They went 8-9 over their final 17 games, winning one series out of five. In that stretch, Vladimir Guerrero hit .255 with a .717 OPS. Michael Young: .222/.574. Ian Kinsler: .208/.616. Elvis Andrus: .164/.402. Josh Hamilton got 11 at-bats.
The pitching had been pretty good (3.71 ERA, .243 opponents’ average), but the offense was sputtering.
And yet, Texas played in the World Series.
This year, the Rangers had the best September pitching in the American League by just about any measure, and the best September offense in all of baseball.
What that means for this best-of-five is anybody’s guess.
If you think that the fact that Texas is home today – which was made possible only because the Rangers won 14 of their final 16 games, when 13 of 16 wouldn’t have gotten it done – and that the club is sending one of baseball’s hottest starting pitchers to the mound against a kid with one big league start and only 9.1 innings of any kind in what is a two-and-a-half-week big league career, playing a team that needed an impossible comeback win on Wednesday just to extend its season . . . if you think all of that means that this series is a lock, then you weren’t watching what happened to Boston and Atlanta the last couple weeks.
As Wash says, the question is not who the best team is but, instead, on any given day, who plays the best baseball.
Make no mistake: Rays rookie lefthander Matt Moore may be the game’s best pitching prospect. He’s really, really good. He’s never faced Texas. (And no hitters he faced in his two 2009 appearances against Low A Hickory have reached the big leagues.) But when a pitcher and a hitter haven’t seen each other, you know in which direction that tilts. It’s a gutsy decision for the Rays, one that we may be talking about many years from now. Perhaps not as eccentric a move as the Rocco Baldelli thing a year ago, but this one obviously has a lot more riding on it.
Moore may shut the Rangers down, and Tampa Bay may keep rolling offensively. The Rays could win today, and could win this series. They shouldn’t. But they could.
The players the Rays ended the regular season with have hit .135/.268/.214 lifetime against C.J. Wilson, including in the post-season. And .179/.303/.250 against Colby Lewis.
If you want to bank on Evan Longoria’s .091/.200/.091 slash against Wilson and Lewis, be my guest. Cliff Lee won four of his 15 Texas starts before the playoffs last year, too.
I’m no more worried about the Rays’ .292/.370/.573 slash against Derek Holland or .293/.396/.537 slash against Matt Harrison than I am overconfident about the Wilson/Lewis histories. (But, yeah, OK, that .611/.650/1.444 Longoria line against Holland and Harrison does pop a little bit.)
Adrian Beltre is the reigning AL Player of the Month. Doesn’t mean he’ll be the Player of This Next Week.
Doesn’t mean he won’t.
A new season starts hours from now. Every team’s record is the same. Every batting average is the same, every ERA.
No more scoreboard watching, no more Magic Numbers, no more haiku.
And no reference to all the national writers and network analysts making Texas their pick to win the pennant, and in some cases the bigger trophy, too.
It’s now all about the next pitch. And that’s it.
It’s been another extraordinary baseball season in Texas, much different from last year’s and exhilarating in ways that last year’s wasn’t. Here we are again with Rays-Rangers, first to three, but it’s different now. The rosters have changed, dramatically so in a few places. The Rangers were a franchise that had never won a playoff series 12 months ago. Now they’re the AL pennant-defending Texas Rangers, and the only 2010 World Series team that earned the right to play past 162 in 2011. It’s a much different series this time around.
But again, even if the rosters were identical, and this series was being played immediately after the two teams battled over five playoff games the first time (a series in which the road team won every game), we wouldn’t be able to sit here and plot out how this matchup would go.
You play the games.
Enjoy this. You can’t ever take the reward of playoff baseball for granted. In football, 38 percent of the teams reach the post-season. The number rises to 53 percent in basketball and hockey. In baseball, it’s only 27 percent, and a grind unlike any other sport’s to survive.
It’s been said that there will never be another season in Texas like 2010, that it will never be the same. That’s true.
But no matter how this thing plays out, there will never be another season in Texas like 2011, and while I can’t say with much confidence what I expect to happen, I can say with plenty of conviction that whatever happens, it will never be the same.
It’s been a heck of a dogfight to get to this point, but for every indelible moment that this season has provided, and there have been lots of them, the signature moments of the 2011 Rangers season haven’t yet happened.
It’s Opening Day again, the kind that’s never guaranteed.
And as much as getting treated like an opening act each day while prime time is reserved for the Yankees is a little irritating, the way I feel this second I’d be just fine if Game One started in about 12 minutes.