There is only one wild card team in the American League right now. On Wednesday, the Cleveland Indians will face off against whomever becomes the second, The identity of that team will be determined by Monday night's elimination game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. For all intents and purposes, this game 163 is a playoff game, and it unofficially kicks off three single-game elimination contests in a row to begin the 2013 MLB playoffs.
With that in mind, it's time to preview these two clubs prior to Major League Baseball's version of Thunderdome.
How did they get here?
The Rays didn't doom themselves to a potential wild card with their April -- the season is too long for that -- but they certainly made things tougher on themselves by going 12-14 to kick off 2013. A 21-5 July only pushed them, at their peak, to a half-game lead over the Boston Red Sox, and when Tampa finished under .500 for the second month of the season in August, they fell further behind than they could afford to and found themselves entrenched solely in the race for a wild card, with the Sox surging forward to an eventual six-game lead for the AL East crown.
A 36-30 mark in the season's second half did the Rays little favors in this regard, as it allowed the Indians not only to inch towards the Rays, but surpass them, and kept Tampa Bay from capitalizing on the similarly ho-hum second-half of the Rangers. Injuries had a little something to do with that, as Alex Cobb and Matt Moore both spent time on the disabled list for a concussion and an elbow issue, respectively. They're both back, though neither is relevant in terms of Monday's contest.
The starter: David Price
Price had some mechanical issues early on and spent time on the disabled list -- an oddity for a Rays' workhorse, one that can be pointed at when trying to to figure out why they're here instead of already guaranteed October baseball. That all feels like it happened very long ago, though, as Price has posted a 2.57 ERA with over eight times as many strikeouts as walks since he returned on July 2, limiting opponents to a .233/.254/.339 slash in that 122-inning stretch. He looks like the Cy Young winner of last year once more, and there is no one on the roster more capable on the roster of righting the season's earlier wrongs and getting Tampa Bay to the playoffs.
Strengths: Pitching and defense
The Rays can hit a bit, especially since rookie Wil Myers was added to the mix and gave them another weapon. As it so often is, though, pitching and defense is where it's at for the Rays. The rotation has had its issues this year, sure, but they have Price on the mound today, and today is all that matters for Tampa Bay at this stage. They finished fourth in Defensive Efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs) in the majors according to Baseball Prospectus, and second in the American League, behind only the AL West-winning Athletics. The usual suspects did their thing with the leather, with Evan Longoria at third, Desmond Jennings now in center with B.J. Upton in Atlanta, and Ben Zobrist performing wherever was necessary, but most often at second. Adding shortstop Yunel Escobar as well as free agent first baseman James Loney helped insure that even on the nights where the bats were quiet, Tampa's position players could be productive.
Weaknesses: The bullpen
The bullpen isn't necessarily bad, but it's definitely a problem area relative to the defense, the lineup, and of course, a healthy David Price. They matched the league-average ERA for relievers at 3.59, but did so with half of their games coming in a tough park for hitters, in front of one of the league's very best defenses. The pen just doesn't have a monster reliever in it like it has in some years past, as Fernando Rodney has been good, but nothing like his record-setting 2012, and the rest of the pen has fallen somewhere around Rodney's performance or worse, excepting Alex Torres, the owner of a 224 ERA+ since he was called up in mid-May. With Price on the mound, though, averaging roughly 7-1/3 innings per start since his return from the DL, any weakness the pen has might not even be exposed in a single-elimination game like this one.
How did they get here?
Like the Rays, a pair of underachieving months pushed the Rangers -- who had a strong year -- to the wild card race rather than a fight for the division, as the team in front of them (the A's) was just too consistently good. The Rangers would go just 11-15 in July, then 12-15 in September, and it took seven wins in a row to close out the season to even bring them to a dozen victories in the last month of scheduled play. They were mostly great the rest of the time -- a ridiculous 20-7 run in August kept them afloat in much the same way the Rays' excellent July did -- but there just was a teeny bit too much losing too often, and it has them in this pre-playoff bout rather than preparing for the Wild Card round or a Division Series match-up.
It's impressive that they got to even this point, though, considering they lost the bats of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, then had to deal with the loss of Nelson Cruz -- now reinstated -- to a 50-game suspension, courtesy his link to Biogenesis. In addition, the rotation was devastated by injuries, both before and during the season, but trades and promotions filled in the blanks and brought them this chance to join the playoff fray for the fourth time in four years.
The starter: Martin Perez
The 22-year-old Perez was part of those promotions, and while it's hard to ask for much more than the 116 ERA+ and 19 starts he's already made in 2013, a performance that was unexpected not just because of the quality but also the level it occurred at, another good showing in number 20 could extend the Rangers' season at least one more day. No pressure, kid.
Perez doesn't display the outright dominance of Price, but he limits his walks and manages to keep nearly half of his balls in play on the ground. This is unarguably the most important game of the young lefty's career, and if the pressure alone of an elimination game against a former Cy Young winner weren't enough to be problematic, throw in that the Rays are an above-average club against southpaws and in games started by them, and we've got potential for things to be in the Rays' favor.
Strengths: The bullpen and the defense
The Rays have a decent pen, sure, but the Rangers are just flat-out filthy in relief. Three of their primary relievers, minimum 56 innings, own ERA of 1.90 or lower, with closer Joe Nathan's 1.13 mark and 297 ERA+ leading the pack. Despite a home park where offense thrives, Rangers' relievers posted a cumulative 2.91 ERA, 35-18 record, and limited opponents to a 644 OPS on the year. With just one game in mind, they can use their top arms to follow Perez, and if things turn sour early for their starter, they have plenty of depth in Neal Cotts, Jason Frasor, Robbie Ross, Tanner Scheppers, and more to keep them in this thing.
The Rangers aren't quite as strong defensively as the Rays, but their defense is still an important part of the team. Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre make up three-fourths of a fine defensive infield, while the addition of Alex Rios in right field was a welcome change from Nelson Cruz's adventures at the position earlier in the season.
Weaknesses: The lineup
Like with the Rays' pen, the lineup isn't outright bad, but it's certainly the weak link. The Rangers had a below-average offense in 2013, as designated hitter Lance Berkman didn't play particularly well nor often, and almost all of the Rangers' reserves produced futile lines in their time at the plate. That, plus some awful hitting in the first half from Andrus, as well as a disappointing campaign from first baseman Mitch Moreland, made it so the Rangers would finish with above-average production offensively from just two positions: third base and right field.
They have the weapons to make some noise in a single game, though, especially if Nelson Cruz doesn't show any signs of rust from his enforced time off. It's worth pointing out, too, that the Rangers were 32-18 against southpaws this year, and a more mediocre 59-53 against right-handers. That being said, this is no ordinary lefty: it's David Price on the mound against a team whose most glaring weakness is their offense, so it could be a quiet night at the plate for Texas, lefty or no.