Rays - Rangers Preview: Game #163

What an incredible final week of the regular season.  We witnessed drama at its absolute finest.  Trailing the Tampa Bay Rays by two games for a wild card spot with seven games remaining, the Texas Rangers knew they would have to produce a 7-0 home stand to close out the season's regular slate of games.  They did just that - having swept a 109-loss Astros team and then continuing their streak against the Angels, who had mostly mailed it in by the end of July.

It took a walk off moonshot by rookie utility infielder Jurickson Profar to keep the Rangers' season alive in game one of the Angels' series on Thursday night.  Clutch hits and dominant pitching saved the Rangers in their next two games.  On Sunday, in the single biggest game of the year, Yu Darvish did enough to send his team to a one game playoff with the Rays.

Now here were are.  Game #163 and boy is it exciting.  It's Rays-Rangers once again in what is starting to become a fiery little playoff rivalry.  Tonight is the first game #163 since the Tigers and Twins squared off in the same fashion in 2009.  Games like these are always a treat for the fans.

Here's what to look for in tonight's game.

1)  David Price returns to Arlington

The 2012 AL Cy Young winner will pitch against the Rangers in Arlington for the first time since August of his award-winning year.  Let's just say he doesn't pitch like David Price when he faces the Rangers, especially on the road.  In four career starts in Texas, Price is 1-2 with a 10.26 ERA.  In eight total career regular season starts against Texas, Price is 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA, and so he clearly pitches more effectively against them at Tropicana Field.

In playoff starts against the Rangers he is only a few shades better.  He is 0-3 with 4.66 ERA in three career postseason starts versus Texas.  Overall, during the season and playoffs combined, no team has a better record against Price over his career than the Rangers.

For a pitcher who has a plus changeup, Price tends to over rely on his mid-90's fastball.  This is the main reason why Texas has pounded him in the past - the Rangers are a dead red fastball-hitting team.  It's true that the 2013 Rangers lineup is far less potent than those of 2010 and 2011 that Price faced in the past, but this team still barrels up fastballs quite well.  I can't imagine Price will get bombed again in Arlington, but I don't see him going the distance either.  The Rangers are pretty adept at jacking up his pitch count by the middle innings. If he is on his game though, he can limit this offense and turn the game into a bullpen battle.

2) Nelson Cruz's Return

He hasn't played in a major league game since early August, but the return of his big lumber should be a revitalizing presence in the Rangers' lineup tonight.  I expect him to being the designated hitter tonight, especially since Alex Rios has been the established right fielder since mid August.

It's fair to say the Cruz has enjoyed facing Price over his career.  He is hitting .429 with three home runs and five RBI in 21 at bats against him.  At the time of his suspension on August 5, Cruz was leading the Rangers in home runs (27) and RBI (76) with a .269 batting average.  He is a formidable force in the middle of the order and figures to hit behind Adrian Beltre for protection.  If everything is clicking offensively for the Rangers tonight, you'll see an appreciable difference between what this Ranger offense has been over the last two months, and what they could have been with him in the lineup the entire time. Cruz was easily on pace for a 30 HR, 100 RBI season before his suspension.

3) Martin Perez on the big stage

22 year old lefty Martin Perez will pitch in the biggest game of his life tonight.  And he's certainly earned the chance to prove himself.  Throughout the month of August, when it seemed like no other Ranger pitcher could win a start, Perez anchored this rotation, winning six consecutive starts.  Overall he has been solid this year, posting a 10-5 record with a 3.55 ERA.  In eight home starts he is 3-3 with a 3.38 ERA.  He has a power fastball, an elite changeup, and a sneaky slurve that he likes to backdoor hitters with.  He doesn't have the impressive peripheral stats of Price, but he isn't a strikeout pitcher.  Instead, he prefers a 1-2 punch with a high, jamming fastball and a low and away changeup.

He has never faced the Rays so there is a possible advantage for he and the Rangers in that sense. But he will have to contend with right handed Rays sluggers Evan Longoria and Wil Myers, who has been on a tear lately and is all but a lock for AL Rookie of the Year.  Ben Zobrist also lurks as a switch hitting power threat, and first baseman James Loney is having a career year from the left side of the plate.  Outside of those four however, this is not a particularly explosive offense, same as the Rangers.  Perez will need his devastating changeup to keep those righties off balance.  Should he struggle, manager Ron Washington will no doubt give him the early hook and turn to a bullpen that has been lights out lately.

This figures to be one heck of an extra game.

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