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ALDS Preview - Tampa Bay Rays vs. Texas Rangers

Maybe there is something to this destiny thing.

The Tampa Bay Rays certainly hope so, as they continue their improbable run in a rematch of last year's American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

After an offseason that saw them lose the likes of Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, expectations were a bit tempered for Joe Maddon's club entering the 2011 campaign, especially after the team opened the year with six straight losses.

Maddon, though, showed why he is considered one of the best managers in the game, as the Rays rallied from a nine-game deficit to Boston as late as September 2 to overtake the Red Sox in the wild card standings on the season's final day in amazing fashion.

With the Red Sox clinging to a one-run lead in Baltimore, the Rays rallied from seven runs down to the New York Yankees before pulling out a win in extra innings just minutes after Boston lost to the Orioles.

"This team never quits," left-hander David Price said. "We didn't quit when we were 0-6 at the start of the season, we didn't quit in September, we didn't quit when we were seven runs down in the last game of the season and Boston was winning. It looks like this team has what it takes."

No team had ever overcome that many games in September to get to the postseason.

"I love what the Rays do and create a first within the organization, but now we've done something as a first for Major League Baseball," Maddon said. "It's all on the guys, it's all on the coaches. If you're with us on a daily basis, the work routine, the camaraderie, the coaches preparation is outstanding. That's how we're able to overcome a nine-game deficit going into September."

Now Tampa faces a Rangers team that won an American League pennant a year ago and ended its own postseason run in a thrilling five-game series that saw the road team win every game.

This season Texas had seemingly been on cruise control before the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made things a bit interesting in September. But in the end the Rangers easily claimed their second straight division title, finished with the second-best record in the AL and set a franchise record with 96 wins.

"Our chances are as good as anyone in it," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "If we go play our type of baseball, I'll go play it against anyone."

Texas won five of its nine meetings with the Rays this season, taking two of three in Arlington, while splitting six games at Tropicana Field.

LINEUP

Sometimes the best trades are the ones that are never made. That was certainly the case for the Rangers with regards to Michael Young, who was rumored to be leaving all last winter and in the early part of the season.

Young, though, put forth one of the best years of his career, batting .338, mostly as the team's designated hitter, but filling in wherever the team needed him.

Josh Hamilton, though, is still the straw that stirs the drink in Texas and, although his numbers were down from his MVP campaign a year ago, he still hit .298 with 25 home runs and 94 RBI.

Adrian Beltre adjusted nicely in his first year with the Rangers and batted .296 with 32 home runs and 105 RBI. Second baseman Ian Kinsler also swatted 32 home runs.

The bottom line is that the Rangers can beat you with a lot of people in a stacked lineup that is loaded from 1-through-9.

The one player to watch in this series, though, could be Nelson Cruz. One of the better power bats in the league, Cruz missed large portions of the season with hamstring injuries. He appears to be healthy now, but struggled down the stretch.

Cruz hit .317 with six home runs and 11 RBI in the playoffs last year

While the Rangers usually score in bunches, Tampa finds other ways to push runs across, but Casey Kotchman (.306) was the only regular to hit over .300.

While they do rely on their speed, the Rays possess some pop, as Evan Longoria, whose home run propelled the Rays to Wednesday's thrilling win, belted 31 home runs and had 99 RBI, despite hitting a mere .244. B.J. Upton also hit 23 home runs and knocked in 81 runs, while stealing a team-high 36 bases.

When the Rays are scoring, second baseman Ben Zobrist is usually in the middle of it. The gritty Zobrist hit .269 on the year with 20 home runs, 91 RBI and scored 99 runs.

Johnny Damon was a welcome addition to a young Rays club and brought far more than his .261 average may suggest.

EDGE: RANGERS

STARTING PITCHING

Just two years removed from the bullpen, Game 1 starter C.J. Wilson has become the de facto ace of an underrated starting rotation for the Rangers. Wilson won 15 games last year in his first real taste as a starter, but surpassed that this year by going 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA and 206 strikeouts, while earning his first All-Star appearance.

Derek Holland tied for the AL lead with four shutouts and ended the year 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA. He also won his last three starts and hasn't lost since August 21.

"C.J. [Wilson] and Derek will be the first two. We haven't decided on the others," Washington said. "Right now, he lines up. He has been one of our hottest pitchers down the stretch."

Washington could throw righty Colby Lewis in Game 3, but could also go to hard-throwing Alexi Ogando, who was brilliant in the first half before running out of steam late.

While they may not all be household names, Texas starters ranked third in the AL in ERA at 3.66, tied for second in quality starts at 98 and led in wins with 74.

With Price having started on Wednesday and the team not willing to start James Shields on short rest, the Game 1 assignment will likely fall to righty Jeff Niemann, who was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA.

Shields will go in the second game, and more importantly line him up for a potential Game 5 start on full rest. Shields was one of the best pitchers in the American League this season, going 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA. His 11 complete games were by far the most in the AL and has a reputation of coming up big when the Rays need him, but lost his start to the Rangers last year.

Price should get the call in Game 3, despite a down year that saw him go just 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA. The down year followed two ALDS losses to the Rangers, who reached him for seven earned runs in 12 2/3 innings. For his career he's 0-3 with a 5.67 ERA in six starts versus the Rangers.

Rather than use Niemann a second time, Maddon will likely turn to rookie Jeremy Hellickson in Game 4. Hellickson was terrific for the Rays, posting a 13-10 mark to go along with a 2.95 ERA.

EDGE: RAYS

BULLPEN

Neftali Feliz continued to be one of the top closers in the American League this season, saving 31 games to go along with a 2.79 ERA.

"Last year was a little tougher," Feliz said. "I was new at the job and there was a little more pressure. This time around, I'm positive that I'm ready to do my job."

This year he enters the postseason with a terrific supporting cast following the trade deadline acquisitions of right-handers Koji Uehara and Mike Adams and the later pickup of left-hander Mike Gonzalez.

Washington could also opt to use Ogando in the pen, making that group even more dangerous despite righty Mark Lowe sidelined with a hamstring injury.

The Rays, meanwhile, walk a tightrope night-in and night-out with Kyle Farnsworth, who saved 25 games this season and pitched to a 2.18 ERA. He also blew six chances, though.

Right-handers Joel Peralta and Brandon Gomes combine with lefties J.P. Howell and Jake McGee to form the bridge to Farnsworth.

The key here could be hard-throwing rookie left-hander Matt Moore, who came on late for the Rays and could have a similar impact as Price had during their 2008 run to the World Series.

Right-hander Wade Davis is also expected to see some time in the bullpen.

EDGE: RANGERS

BENCH

Outfielder Craig Gentry will be used as a pinch-runner in late game situations, especially for Cruz. Washington is also expected to carry infielders Andres Blanco and Esteban German. Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin could also find his way onto this team.

The Rays bench will include infielders Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac and outfielders Justin Ruggiano, Sam Fuld, and possibly Brandon Guyer. Maddon just seems to know when to push the right buttons with this group, giving his team the edge here.

EDGE: RAYS

PROGNOSIS

The Rangers were able to outlast the Rays in five games in this round last season. The outcome is going to be different this time around. Why? Well I am starting to buy into this "Team of Destiny" thing. Whatever it is the Rays just have that magic going for them right now. It also helps that Tampa has terrific pitching. In fact, the Rays best pitcher might be their worst at the moment. This series has five-game dogfight written all over it. Shields was one of the best pitchers in baseball this season and should be on full rest in a potential deciding game. Both teams proved last year that home-field advantage means nothing with the road team winning every game. Like the Rangers weren't last year, the Rays won't be intimidated with having to win a Game 5 on the road.

Prediction: RAYS in FIVE