Led by manager Ron Washington, the Rangers have done it the old-fashioned way, right out of the Ryan playbook, with premium pitching, high-quality defense and timely hitting. These were not the Rangers of old who bashed away at will and hoped to prevail, 10-8. They won a lot of 3-2 games, with consistent pitching from start to finish.
Trading for the Mariners' Cliff Lee, with his well-earned reputation as an October master, was a master stroke by Ryan and GM Jon Daniels. While Lee often didn't pitch to his familiar level, struggling with a back issue, he showed down the stretch that he's ready for the big stage with three strong efforts in his final four starts.
Nobody wants to see a prime-time Cliff Lee in the postseason, but Rays manager Joe Maddon is holding an ace he is happy to throw down in any high-stakes game. That would be young David Price, who started the All-Star Game for the AL and was as dominant in that showcase as he's been all season.
Behind Lee and Price are a collection of starters with impressive credentials. The bullpens are deep and versatile, and both clubs trust the ninth inning to dominant closers -- Tampa Bay's Rafael Soriano and Neftali Feliz of Texas.
Both clubs have uncommon speed and weapons in the heart of the order capable of breaking a game open at any moment. They love to go first to third on singles and first to home on doubles. This puts a premium on alert, quick defenders with anticipation and accurate arms. Neither the Rays nor the Rangers have beaten themselves very often with sloppy defense.
How well the Rays' Evan Longoria and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton respond to late-season injuries could go a long way in determining how this series plays out. These are brilliant young talents, athletes who thrive on the moment and appear immune to pressure.
In support are such prime-time stars as Carl Crawford in Tampa Bay and Vladimir Guerrero, whose arrival as a free agent has elevated Texas on the field and brought a new confidence to the clubhouse. They are different in style but similar in impact.
One distinct edge for the Rays is in postseason experience. They made it to the World Series two falls ago, while the Rangers are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
The stars appear aligned for a great series between a pair of clubs Wooden would have applauded for coming so close to their potential over the long haul, which now becomes a sprint to the finish.
HEAD TO HEAD
2010 Record:: Rays won season matchup, 4-2
Batting average:: Rays .283 | Rangers .278
Home runs:: Rays 7 | Rangers 7
RBIs: Rays 40 | Rangers 27
ERA: Rays 4.67 | Rangers 6.35
Strikeouts: Rays 54 | Rangers 57
Walks: Rays 19 | Rangers 28
Key late-game matchups: Joaquin Benoit, a force for the Rays down the stretch, could be the man to handle Vladimir Guerrero in a game-turning situation. Guerrero is 4-for-15 (.267) against Benoit and has had more success against Grant Balfour, going 3-for-6 with an RBI. Josh Hamilton is 1-for-3 with two RBIs and a walk against Rays lefty Randy Choate. Few relievers are as cool under pressure as venerable Darren Oliver, who figures to get the call for Texas if Crawford or Longoria are in a game-breaking spot. Oliver can handle righties as well as lefties with his fastball in and soft stuff away. Righties Alex Ogando and Mark Lowe (heat) and Darren O'Day (sinker) provide contrasting styles out of the bullpen.
Rays secret weapon: Versatile Sean Rodriguez, with the ability to play anywhere on the field, has fared well against three of the Rangers' starters. He's 2-for-7 with an RBI against Cliff Lee, 1-2 with an RBI against C.J. Wilson and 1-3 with a homer against Tommy Hunter.
Rangers secret weapon: The acquisition of catcher Bengie Molina from the Giants could turn out to be as essential a move as the Cliff Lee deal. Molina has a history of delivering handsomely in the postseason. He was a pivotal factor in the Angels' run to the 2002 World Series title, producing timely hits as well as quality defense.
Rays Achilles' Heel: Longoria is as valuable to his club as anybody in the game. He's a great player who comes to the postseason with a question mark surrounding his wheels. When healthy, Longoria is as good as it gets at third base and thrives in the clutch alongside Crawford.
Rangers Achilles' Heel: A leading candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player Award -- with Longoria -- Josh Hamilton is trying to rebound from two fractured ribs and recapture the stroke that has made him one of the game's dominant offensive forces. Texas needs his presence and swagger, even at 75 percent.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
The Rays will win if ... Longoria's return brings life and muscle back to the offense, the starters rise to the occasion behind ace Price and the bullpen gets it in Soriano's hands safely.
The Rangers will win if ...: Hamilton, Guerrero and Cruz deliver timely hits in the heart of the order, the rotation in support of Lee is up to the challenge and the setup men in front of Feliz come through.