On Sunday, when the Blue Jays lost to the Rays and the Rangers beat the Angels the playoff picture became very clear. After entering the final day of the regular season with the potential of Toronto facing one of four different teams in the first round, it played out relatively anti-climactically. The excitement level is sure to ramp up come Thursday afternoon though, as the city will see playoff baseball for the first time in 22 years since the 1993 World Series title. The two teams featured in this series weren't expected to make much noise this season, with other squads in their division receiving more of the limelight in the lead-up to the beginning of the 2015 campaign. For good reason too, as the Rangers were the worst team in the American League last year at 67-95 while the Blue Jays were still rolling along in their withering mediocrity.
Very little changed with Texas heading into this season, other than a bunch of guys heading into the year healthier than 2014. It didn't last long though as the team were without Jurickson Profar and Yu Darvish for the entire year before the games even began. Shortly after, Derek Holland went down for an extended period of time as well, leaving the team's rotation in shambles. A mishmash of guys stepped up though including Yovani Gallardo and Nick Martinez and the Rangers miraculously hung around through the first few months of the season despite a 7-14 April.
It wasn't a smooth ride for the team by any stretch, sitting in third place until pretty much the last month of the season when they really turned it on and overtook the Astros:
Despite keeping the team in contention through all of their injuries, the rotation still isn't very good. Yovani Gallardo has been the only rock in a shaky group of starters that has been inconsistent all year. Their second-half surge just happens to coincide with the acquisition of a stud left-hander by the name of Cole Hamels. Sound familiar to the Jays season? With the duo of Hamels and Gallardo going along with the consistently 'meh' Colby Lewis and the rounding into form Martin Perez, the team was able to put a serious amount of wins together in the latter part of the year which secured Texas the AL West crown.
Now that they're in the postseason though, the Rangers will certainly be cautious to lean on their brittle rotation too much. Hamels is a fine ace with playoff experience, but behind him sits a load of question marks that will have to be answered in the coming weeks. Yovani Gallardo figures to start Game 1 in the series and has dominated this Blue Jays this year in two starts, but he also regularly fails to make it past five innings. Beyond that sit two southpaws in Derek Holland and Martin Perez who will face a right-handed heavy Toronto lineup that feasts on lefty starters.
The quick hook that is so commonly exercised in the playoffs might not be a relief for Rangers fans either, as the Texas bullpen was among the worst in the league this year. Despite having a strong group of high-leverage guys, led by closer Shawn Tolleson, the 'pen as a whole is not a real strength and lacks a solid bridge to the relievers at the back end of it. On the bright side, the bullpen was reinforced at the trade deadline and certainly shouldn't be as poor as it was earlier in the year. One name that Blue Jays fans will not enjoy hearing in this series is Sam Dyson, who is the dynamite setup man for the Rangers after his deadline acquisition from the Marlins. The former "best arm in the Jays organization" hasn't allowed an earned run in 17 games and accumulated some of the highest pitching WAR on the team in just half a season. This fairytale Blue Jays season would take a cruel twist if Dyson was to figure in the team's elimination from the playoffs.
The offence is really what's gotten the Rangers to this point and features almost as much power as the Blue Jays lineup. Sluggers like Prince Fielder, Mitch Moreland, and Adrian Beltre have carried this team all season while Shin-Soo Choo has saved his career and made his horrible free agent contract look slightly less so. There's few weak spots on the team and Blue Jays pitchers will have their hands full trying to contain the middle of the Rangers order throughout the series.
Another small (read large) problem for the Jays is that more than half of the Rangers lineup is left-handed. That makes things difficult for a pitching staff that features a solitary southpaw starter as well as just one dependable lefty reliever. The necessity of Aaron Loup being on the roster and used effectively cannot be understated as a bullpen implosion against this lineup would be catastrophic.
For fans of the game, the Rangers are a team synonymous with postseason excitement and World Series failures. The 2010 and 2011 squads both ended their seasons with heartbreaking stumbles at the final hurdle against the Giants and Cardinals respectively. Anyone who watched Game 6 of the 2011 World Series will remember it like it's yesterday. With the Rangers one strike away from winning the championship, David Freese put the Cardinals on his back and led the way to a complete comeback in one of the best World Series of all-time.
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Following that massive disappointment, the Rangers fans faced more heartache in 2012 as the team lost the Wild Card game against Baltimore with Yu Darvish on the mound. The following season was even MORE painful for the Rangers as they went down to the Rays in Game 163. Four years of heart-wrenching playoff baseball was all the team could muster before their basement-dwelling 2014 campaign came along and wiped away any fond memories of the postseason. With no championships to their name, fans will feel as though maybe their curse is just as bad as the Chicago Cubs. In this instance it's not because of a billy goat though, but because of David Freese.
As most Blue Jays fans remember or have heard by now, the team beat the Rangers in four of six games this year getting the series win in both Toronto and Arlington. Can you guess who beat the Jays both times? Yovani Gallardo, who BABIP'd his way to absolutely dominating performances on both occasions:
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The other games featured one of Shawn Tolleson's two blown saves this year and beatdowns of both Nick Martinez and Colby Lewis by the Jays offense. Texas hasn't seen Marcus Stroman or R.A. Dickey this year so there's a bit of an unknown in that respect, while David Price pitched one strong game against Texas in August.
The Rangers starting nine is just as set as the Blue Jays is, with offensive weapons littered throughout:
C Robinson Chirinos (R)
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
2B Rougned Odor (L)
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
CF Delino DeShields (R)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
DH Prince Fielder (L)/ Mike Napoli (R)
The bench doesn't feature much of an X-factor in the style of Terrance Gore, but the possible inclusion of Leonys Martin would signal that the Rangers are trying to get a speed option off the bench. Speaking of speed, Andrus and Deshields both stole 25 bases this season so there will be some havoc on the base paths and excitement with Russell Martin trying to catch them behind the plate.
Offensive Player to Watch
Honestly any of the Rangers offensive weapons could be selected in this category, but I've zeroed in on Prince Fielder. The former Tigers slugger does everything but his last name, as the DH just swings and swings hard. The team's co-HR leader will never wear a glove in the series, but could provide an immense amount of impact when he steps up to the plate. Despite a regrettable season last year, the big man is getting back to his 2009-2012 level of offensive production and can change the game with one swing of the bat. His value is reduced drastically if he is forced to face left-handers, which will be mainly be just David Price and Brett Cecil in this series unfortunately. Blue Jays pitchers should watch out for Prince Fielder.
Pitcher to Watch
There's a ton of pitchers who could all have an impact on this series for the Rangers, but unfortunately I'll have to go back to Sam Dyson. The former Jay was inexcusably cast away from the team in early 2013 in favour of Mark DeRosa and has gone on to become a lights out reliever for the Rangers after a few years in Miami. The righty vacuums up the eighth inning (mandatory Dyson joke) in Arlington these days and has bolstered what was a weak bullpen to start the year for Texas. The 2010 draft pick walks hardly anyone, allows almost no home runs, and gets ground balls on nearly three-quarters of his batted balls. It's hard to complain about the front office at a time like this, but oh my. What have we done. Along with Keone Kela and Shawn Tolleson, Dyson is part of the formidable back end of a Rangers rotation that helped the team reverse their fortunes in the second-half of the season and win the division.
The playoffs are a mess of good luck and random chance. Most people know that. Predictions are useless and nearly impossible to get correct. Now that we've got that out of the way. The Blue Jays are going to win the series in four games. Aside from writing for a Blue Jays website and following them my entire life, I truly believe they are the better team. Not by very much though. The Rangers lineup is potent and will hit the Blue Jays rotation around at times during this series, I'm sure of that. David Price should better Yovani Gallardo in Game One and the Blue Jays lineup should have little problem with Derek Holland or Martin Perez later on in the series. The Rangers opportunity will be in the Cole Hamels start where the Jays could have big problems with his RHH-neutralizing changeup and playoff experience. If the series happens to go five games then the Blue Jays will be up against it facing Hamels for the second time. It's hard to envision the Rangers being able to out-slug the best offensive team in the league over the course of an entire five-game series, which makes me believe that the Blue Jays will advance to the ALCS.