Rangers, Rays could be the story of Division Series

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I can honestly say that at first glance, once all the playoff matchups were finalized on Sunday, I had the least amount of interest in the one pitting the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.

I obviously wasn't alone, as not one of these games will be contested in primetime.

But after going through each matchup and breaking down each series, I can sit here and say that now there is not a series I am looking more forward to watching than this one.

Mark my words, this will be the best series in the first round. It is at least the best shot we have at a Game 5 anyway.

These teams are so similar it is eerie. Both have injury concerns to their star offensive players. Both are led by left-handed aces, who are followed in the rotation by not much else. Their bullpens are both phenomenal and both teams ranked near the top of the majors in runs scored.

The one thing I just can't get past is the Rays' .248 average as a team. For the life of me, I cannot see how this team is going to beat Cliff Lee in Game One. I know Lee didn't look all that great down the stretch, but some players have a knack for turning it on when the lights get brighter and Lee is one of them.

Not to mention that Lee does not walk anyone. That is the only way the Rays get on base. Don't believe me? Take another look at their lineup - one guy is over .300.

And if the Rays lose Game One, they are in big, big trouble.

Cliff Lee has a knack for turning it on when the lights get brighter.
I have no idea what Tampa manager Joe Maddon is thinking starting James Shields in Game Two. I know the pickings are slim, and you are splitting hairs between Shields and Matt Garza, but "Big Game" James? Really?

Shields hasn't won in over a month and allowed 16 earned runs in his last three starts of the year.

Shields was a big part of the Rays' run to a 2008 AL pennant, but this year he was tied for the most hits in baseball and led the league in earned runs allowed, hits and home runs. By the way, he is the first pitcher since division play began in 1969 to lead the league in those categories and still pitch in the postseason.

As I tell my gambling friends, trends are trends for a reason. The Rays are in real rough shape with him going in Game Two, especially if Lee beats them on Wednesday.

Winning the American League East really meant a lot to the Rays, but did they win it, or did the Yankees lose it? Tampa's offense was non-existent without Evan Longoria the final 10 days. He is back now, but it really showed just how thin their lineup is.

Texas was nothing special either down the stretch, but that's probably not fair because, let's be honest, they had the American League West won some time in the middle of August.

Everything inside of me, though, is still telling me to pick Tampa. Even though they may have stumbled to the finish, the Rays still won an AL-high 96 games. I don't know how they do it, but they do find ways to win. And they did it better than all but one team in Major League Baseball this season.

I am not exactly sure how it is going to shake out, but somehow, some way this series is going five games. Tampa may be inclined to pitch David Price on short rest in a Game 4, but Texas won't do the same with its ace, who has never pitched on short rest in his career.

Lee will go on full rest in a Game 5 for the Rangers and that will be the difference in this series.

By the way, I am not sure what is going to annoy me more this postseason. The racist Tomahawk Chop in Atlanta, or the ridiculous cowbells and mohawks that the Rays 'fans' will be sporting in their building?

Maddon is already urging the people who show up at the Trop to wear plaid. Ugh.

Sorry I guess I just prefer the fans in Philadelphia and New York who 1) can you tell you the names of all their players and 2) will be content just to wear jerseys.

I guess when you can't sell out a playoff game you have to rely on those kind of cheesy minor-league gimmicks. Luckily I will only have to deal with both the Braves and Rays for one round.

Prediction: RANGERS in FIVE

Let's take a look at how I see the rest of the first round panning out:

YANKEES - TWINS: This is a better Minnesota Twins team than the one that was swept by the Yankees in this round a year ago. The Yankees have a ton of questions surrounding their rotation, but Minnesota's staff is nothing to write home about either. New York's lineup is relentless. It will put runs on the board, and I think the Yankee starters will be able to hold Minnesota's lineup at bay. This may be a series that comes down to the bullpens and if that is the case, I will take the one with Mariano Rivera at the back end every time.

Prediction: YANKEES in FOUR

PHILLIES - REDS: Quick, can you tell me which team led the National League in average (.272), runs scored (790), RBI (761), home runs (188) and slugging percentage (.436)? Well, it was the Cincinnati Reds, and you know what? None of that is going to matter in this series. The old saying is that good pitching will beat good hitting every time and sadly for the Reds, they won't see any better pitching than what Philadelphia is going throw at them in these next few games. Roy Halladay is here for one reason and one reason only and that is to win a World Series title. This series with the Reds is the first step.

Prediction PHILLIES in THREE

BRAVES - GIANTS: The Braves are going to be a sentimental favorite here with this being Bobby Cox's last year and everything. But fittingly, his career is going to end with a playoff loss. The Braves were abysmal down the stretch. Not having Martin Prado is huge. Tim Hudson has been better of late, but there is not much left in his tank. On the other hand, the Giants are hungry. As much as everyone is waiting to see Roy Halladay pitch in the playoffs, the same can be said about two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. Atlanta's bullpen is probably the best in baseball, but the offense is just no match for the starting pitching they are going to face here in Lincecum, Matt Cain and even Jonathan Sanchez. Plus, expect a few big hits from super rookie Buster Posey, and the Giants win this one handily.

Prediction: GIANTS in FOUR

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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