The Texas Rangers are back in the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. If they want to make it two straight trips to the World Series they will have to get past the Detroit Tigers.
That quest starts on Saturday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
After cruising to their second straight American League West crown the Rangers started their postseason in disappointing fashion, as the Tampa Bay Rays handed them a 9-0 drubbing in Game 1 of the ALDS.
However, behind a terrifically balanced lineup, 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 the team's best player this season, hitting .338 with 106 RBI.
Left-hander C.J. Wilson, who will get the start in Game 1 on Saturday, absorbed the lone loss for the Rangers against the Rays. Wilson, though, had a terrific year after assuming the role as staff ace, as he went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA and earned his first trip to the All-Star Game.
"One great thing about the postseason is we know how to turn the page," Young said. "If something doesn't go our way, we turn the page. I'm sure C.J. was ready to go the second after Game 1, so he'll be motivated, he'll be ready to go. He's definitely been our guy all season."
The starting rotation could be a bit of a concern, as Colby Lewis was the only starter to go more than five innings and did so by allowing just a run. Lewis' outing followed up a terrific postseason from last year and the righty is now 4-0 in five playoff starts with a 1.67 ERA. Texas manager Ron Washington has said that Lewis will pitch on the road, where he went 9-5 with a 3.43 ERA this season.
Left-hander Derek Holland, who tied for the AL lead with four shutouts on the season, will likely get the call in Game 2 on Sunday. If the Rangers need a fourth starter it will be lefty Matt Harrison.
Another worry for Washington could be his bullpen, which was supposed to be a strength following the acquisitions of Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Mike Gonzalez. 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.
However, right-hander Alexi Ogando shined. Ogando, who won 13 games as a starter this season, pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings in the ALDS and could be a big factor against the Tigers.
While the Rangers have been waiting for their next opponent since Tuesday, the Tigers needed all five games to get past the New York Yankees before finally doing so on Thursday with a 3-2 win in a do-or-die Game 5 at Yankee Stadium.
Making the series win even more impressive was the fact that the Tigers were only able to use AL Cy Young Award front-runner Justin Verlander once in the series after his Game 1 outing was cut short by rain following only an inning of work.
Verlander made the most of his Game 3 assignment, striking out 11 in eight innings, while surrendering four runs and six hits.
Of course, he put forth one of the best years ever by a Tigers starter this season and won the league's pitching Triple Crown, going 24-5 with a 2.40 earned run average and 250 strikeouts.
One of his losses did come against the Rangers, who managed just two runs in nine innings off him. Verlander, though, is 6-2 lifetime versus Texas with a 2.31 ERA in nine starts.
"We're right where we want to be," Verlander said. "We're ready to go to Texas and keep playing good baseball."
Righty Doug Fister bounced back from a loss in Game 1 to nail down the series win with a terrific effort in Game 5. He gave up a run and five hits in five innings of that one.
Fister, who was 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) after being picked up from Seattle, won't be available for Game 2. Instead, it could be either righties Rick Porcello or Max Scherzer, who gave up a run in 7 1/3 innings of the ALDS.
If Scherzer is ready to go after pitching 1 1/3 innings on Thursday, he could be the choice, as he is 3-0 lifetime in six starts versus the Rangers with a 3.41 ERA.
Cabrera led the American League in hitting this past season, batting .344 with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. He was just 3-for-15 against the Yanks, getting all his hits in his team's Game 2 triumph.
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 Cabrera, was a huge part of Detroit's ALDS win, as he swatted three solo home runs and hit .316. However, he was forced to leave Thursday's contest with an oblique strain and his status for the next round is unclear.
In his first year with the Tigers after inking a four-year, $50 million deal, Victor Martinez batted .330 and knocked in 103 runs. But like Cabrera, he had a rough time getting going in the ALDS, as he hit just .222 with a home run and three RBI.
Kelly hit .364 and hit a huge home run in the first inning of Thursday's clincher, while Ordonez batted a team-high .455 against the Yankees.
Closer Jose Valverde continued to keep Tigers fans on the edge of their seats, as he made it interesting in his first two games before retiring the heart of the Yankees order 1-2-3 in Thursday's finale. He's still yet to blow a save this season, going a perfect 51-for-51.
Righty Joaquin Benoit has been the most reliable setup guy for manager Jim Leyland, who seems to have lost faith in right-handed rookie Al Alburquerque, gave up three runs in just a third of an inning over two ALDS appearances.
These teams have never met in the playoffs, but the Tigers won six of their nine regular season matchups.
If it were a lock that Verlander would go three times in this series I'd be more inclined to pick the Tigers. I don't think he will though. Verlander will go in Game 1 and then come back in Game 5 on full rest. He'll probably be available for an inning or two in a potential Game 7, but it won't even matter at that point. Not to mention Delmon Young's availability is a question mark. Don't underestimate what he brings to that lineup hitting in front of Cabrera. The Rangers got all the postseason experience they needed last year and seem to be a team on a mission this season. Sure the starting rotation struggled at times against the Rays and the bullpen was a bit of a disappointment, but the Rangers were still able to get past Tampa in four games. That lineup is a beast all the way through. Not to mention this Tigers' staff could be running on fumes. Plus the Rangers are just the better team from top-to-bottom.
Prediction: RANGERS in SIX