Tomorrow we have playoff baseball in Toronto. Something we've been missing for the last couple of years (it's only been 2 years hasn't it?).
The Rangers had a very good second half of the season. Before the All-Star break they were 42-46, but after the break they were 46-23 (almost mirroring our Jays who were 45-46 before the break and 48-23 after). Their improvement wasn't on the pitching side, in the first half they had a 4.22 ERA and in the second 4.29. It was the bats that really improved. In the first half they hit .247/.312/.400, scoring 4.2 runs per game. In the second half they hit .270/.341/.430, scoring 5.2 runs per game.
I sent off some questions to Adam J. Morris of Lone Star Ball (personal request from Tom: don't go over there to troll them; let them have their site, we'll have ours), SB Nations' popular Rangers blog and he was kind enough to answer them
What do you think of the plan of the Rangers starting 3 left-handed pitchers against the heavily right-handed hitting Blue Jays? Would you give Colby Lewis a start? Could we get a quick scouting report on the starting pitchers the Jays will face?
I actually expect Colby Lewis to start either Game 3 or Game 4. Who would end up being bumped from the playoff rotation has been the subject of much discussion for a while, and I figured it would come down to either Yovani Gallardo or Martin Perez losing his spot. Gallardo got the nod against Toronto, due in no small part to the Jays mashing lefties.
Gallardo has done a good job at run prevention this year, but has struggled to go deep into games in the second half of the year -- he has only gone 6 innings in a start three times since the beginning of July, and hasn't gone more than 6 innings since June. He doesn't miss many bats, which results in higher pitch counts, but gets lots of ground balls. I think Texas is starting him in Game 1 in the hopes he can give them 5 solid innings before they turn to what would be a rested bullpen.
Cole Hamels is Cole Hamels...he's a lefty who is really really good. We can debate whether he's a true #1 or a strong 2, but regardless, he's a terrific pitcher.
Derek Holland is something of a wild card...he has really good stuff, and when his command is sharp, he can be dominant. The problem is that his command tends to come and go, and so he will follow up a stretch where he looks like an ace with a game or three where he's leaving balls in the middle of the plate and is hittable.
Colby Lewis is the battle-tested right hander who was great in the playoffs for the Rangers in 2010 and 2011. He doesn't throw hard -- he is in the 88-90 range on his fastball -- but he works quickly and throws strikes. His success is largely dependent on his fastball command and how sharp his slider is -- when both of those are working, he's very good, but he's had games where that abandons him and he's homer-prone.
If Martin Perez starts, he's a small lefty who throws 94 mph, has a great change up, and gets lots of ground balls. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and thus isn't quite back to where we hope he will be next year, but he's still a solid starter. The biggest concern with him in the playoffs is that he has a history of having a hard time managing his emotions, and getting rattled when things go wrong, so I think there are concerns about how he will react to the spotlight.
How much of the Rangers' jump from last in the AL West, last year, and first this year, can be credited to manager Jeff Banister? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Good question on Banister, and I'm not sure I know the answer. The team has been resilient and overcome an awful start and a lot of adversity to roar back from a sub-.500 record in August to take the e division, and Banister deserves a lot of credit for that. He also has been aggressive in shifting, and has a reputation for being more analytics-friendly than Ron Washington was. However, his handling of the bullpen has raised some eyebrows.
The Cole Hamel trade was a surprise, but his addition alone can't be the only reason why they climbed from 8 games back on August 1st to the top of the AL West. What other factors helped to bring them to the top?
A lot of it was guys getting healthy. Derek Holland and Martin Perez joined the rotation in the second half, and that provided a shot in the arm. You also had the addition of Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson shoring up what had been, in the first half, a weak bullpen. The Rangers also got very strong second halfs from some key players, particularly Shin-Soo Choo, Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus. It really was a combination of key additions and some guys getting hot at the right time.
Josh Hamilton has had an interesting year....How have Rangers fans reacted to his return? What do you expect from him this series?
Josh Hamilton has been a p.r. boon for the Rangers. While there were a lot of hard feelings about his departure, for the most part, all was forgotten after he came back, and he's once again one of the most popular players on the team. It's hard to say what to expect from Hamilton...he's not the player he was in his prime, and he's still got an awful approach at the plate, but he has risen to the occasion for the Rangers more than once. Going 1 for 17 wouldn't surprise me, and hitting a pair of game winning homers wouldn't surprise me.
Who are the Rangers' setup men and closer these days? How confident are you in them when you have a 1 run lead in the 7th?
Sam Dyson has been the 8th inning guy -- Texas got him from Miami at the deadline for a couple of fringe prospects, got him to throw his sinker more, and he's been a dominant ground ball machine. Shawn Tolleson is the Rangers closer...he doesn't have dominant stuff, but he can locate his fastball and has a solid change to go with it. Keone Kela and Jake Diekman have handled the 7th...Kela may be the Rangers best reliever, a power righty who throws in the upper 90s and has a solid breaking ball and change to go with it. He was limited late in the year with elbow soreness, but the hope is he is good to go now. Diekman is a left-handed who throw really hard, but doesn't always know where it is going. Those four pitches are the guys Banister generally will go with when there's a lead.
Who would be your guess for Rangers player of the series?
Adrian Beltre would be my guess. He's the leader of this team, and a key middle of the order bat.