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Keys to winning the 2011 ALCS

Chris Ruddick,
MLB Editor


Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Texas Rangers are back in the American League Championship Series for the second straight year, while the Detroit Tigers find themselves in this round for the first time since 2006.

After beating the New York Yankees to advance to their first ALCS last year, the Rangers' magical run ended with a loss to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.

The Rangers returned to the postseason this year by winning a second consecutive AL West crown. Then after a 9-0 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS, the Rangers rebounded with three straight wins to move on.

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander took home pitching's Triple Crown by leading the AL in wins, strikeouts and ERA
The Tigers, meanwhile, are back in the postseason for the first time since winning the AL pennant in 2006, a season that ended with a five-game loss in the Fall Classic to the St. Louis Cardinals.

This year, though, the Tigers won their first division title since 1987, taking home their first-ever AL Central crown. They were led, of course, by right-hander Justin Verlander, who turned in one of the finest seasons ever by a Detroit starter, as he took home pitching's Triple Crown by leading the AL in wins, strikeouts and ERA.

Verlander and the Tigers advanced in the ALDS with a thrilling five-game win over the Yankees.

Detroit, which is making its fourth trip to the ALCS, handled the Rangers during the regular season, taking six of the nine matchups. This, though, will be the first-ever postseason meeting between the clubs.

As an introduction to this ALCS matchup, let's take a look at the keys to winning the series for both clubs:

TEXAS RANGERS

1. BULLPEN

Following the acquisitions of Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Mike Gonzalez, the Rangers were supposed to have one of the better bullpens in the postseason. However the group disappointed against the Rays, as Adams gave up a home run and three consecutive walks in Game 3, while Uehara surrendered a three-run homer to Evan Longoria in Game 2.

Also closer Neftali Feliz left the potential tying run stranded in the ninth in the last two games.

Texas manager Ron Washington may have found his answer should the group continue to struggle, as right-hander Alexi Ogando, who won 13 games as a starter this season, pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings in the ALDS.

Ogando ran out of steam down the stretch, but he can still dial it up for an inning or two a game in this series if need be.

2. STARTERS

The starting rotation could be a bit of a concern, as Colby Lewis was the only starter to go more than five innings in the ALDS.

Game 1 starter C.J. Wilson spit the bit in his game, but could change the feeling of the group with a solid outing on Saturday. His best may not be enough that night, though, as he will draw Verlander, who was the league's best pitcher this season.

The key to this series could be left-hander Derek Holland, who tied for the AL lead with four shutouts this season. Given the fact that manager Ron Washington has already stated that Lewis will start on the road, Holland's Game 2 start becomes even more important should the Rangers be unable to solve Verlander in the first game.

3. CONTINUING THE OFFENSIVE ONSLAUGHT

After being held in check in Game 1 against the Rays, the Rangers responded with three straight wins to nail down a series victory. It seemed to be a different hero every night, as five Texas batters drove in multiple runs in the series with Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli leading the way with four RBI apiece.

Beltre also tied a postseason record by swatting three home runs in the Rangers' Game 4 clincher, while Napoli hit .357 in the series.

The Rangers lineup is loaded from 1-through-9 with former MVP Josh Hamilton leading the way, along with the likes of Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz and the incredibly underrated Michael Young, who was arguably the team's best player this season, hitting .338 with 106 RBI.

Continuing that run may not be easy against a tough Detroit rotation, but it could be a staff that is running on fumes following their five-game series win over the Yankees.

DETROIT TIGERS

1. HEALTH OF DELMON YOUNG

You can make the argument that the Tigers weren't complete until the mid- August acquisition of Young from Minnesota. Young, who hits in front of Miguel Cabrera, was a huge part of Detroit's ALDS win, as he became the first Tiger ever to hit three home runs in a postseason series. He also batted .316, but was forced to leave Thursday's contest with an oblique strain and his status for the next round is unclear.

2. JUSTIN VERLANDER

Detroit manager Jim Leyland said before the playoffs began that he would not use Verlander on three-days' rest. But, he made a point to say that he wouldn't do so in a five-game series. He didn't say anything about a seven- game set.

But given the way Leyland had to utilize his pitchers in the Yankees series, he may not be able to use Verlander three times even if he wanted to, unless he wanted to start Max Scherzer on two-days' rest in Game 2 on Sunday.

Expect Verlander to go in Game 1 and Game 5 and be available if needed for a stint in Game 7.

3. PAPA GRANDE

It isn't always pretty, but closer Jose Valverde has gotten the job done all 51 times he has had to make a save this season. He always seems to bend, but has yet to break this season, including two shaky outings in the ALDS, before shutting the door on the heart of the Yankees' order in the ninth on Thursday.

Given the Rangers' relentless lineup you would think Valverde will once again be put to the test at some point in this series. How that turns out could be a deciding factor in who moves on in this series.

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

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