Bud Selig's weird post season monster has finished mating and birthed out one of the many potential mutant situations that result from a second wild card.
Now, prior to the one-game Wild Card playoff vs. the Indians to make the NLDS, the Rays and Rangers will play a one-game non-Wild Card, non-playoff game to see who gets to play in that first one I mentioned. To put it simply, this is the first time all year that "must-win" game is an actual, literal phrase.
With so many elimination games right in a row, the Rangers can't trot out their stand-up, shut-down ace every time. So we get David Price vs. Not Yu Darvish.
It'll be Martin Perez, a lefthander whose 10-5 record and 3.55 ERA are being asked to stand up straight at least one more time. The 22-year-old made his debut last June, and has become more known for the acrobatics of his pitching arsenal (curve and a change) than the velocity (92 m.p.h. heater). His best month this year was August, during which he went 5-0 with a 3.06 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 11 walks in 35 innings.
David Price is David Price, proper ace, capable of scalding any lineup on a given start (Except, of course, Texas), and local news team-charmer.
The defending AL Cy Young winner missed some time this year, giving his numbers a painfully normal shade. Career, Price is 1-4 vs. the Rangers, who've tagged him to the tune of an ERA approaching 6.00. in eight starts against them; not to mention Price's history of faltering in the post season (which again, this technically isn't).
Perez has thrown five innings against the Rays in his career, surrendering seven hits and two earned runs last year.
As far as closers go, Fernando Rodney (37 saves in 45 chances) has a far shakier year behind him than Joe Nathan (43 saves in 46 chances).
Rays mainstays (mainstRays? Yes) Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist have led the offensive charge with Tampa, with James Loney the sole .300-hitter this deep into the season through 594 plate appearances. Zobrist leads the team in hits (167), with Longoria not too far behind (162) but with many, many, many more strikeouts (161 in 688 plate appearances, as opposed to Zobrist's 89 in 693).
Desmond Jennings is the principal dust cloud, scampering for 20 stolen bases in 28 tries, and leading the team with six triples, though he just missed a game with a tightened left hamstring. Joe Maddon has said he could DH, but that's a subtraction of his talents, andhis replacement in the outfield is......... Delmon Young.
Wil Myers, treasured prospect formerly of the Royals who came down to Tampa in the James Shields deal, has been the furthest from disappointing, posting a .295 average through 368 plate appearances and the only OPS (.835) higher than Longoria's (.830; whose ability to get on base has awarded him with a team-leading WAR of 6.)
In Texas, the power has come from the holy trinity of Adrian Beltre, Mitch Moreland, and Nelson Cruz (back fresh from his PED suspension), who've combined for 80 home runs on the year. Elvis Andrus is 41/50 as far as base stealing goes, so he will be the most fortunate man to have on base. With Beltre, Moreland, and Cruz along with David Murphy, A.J. Pierzynski, and Lance Berkman in the starting nine, the Texas lineup doesn't feature a ton of speed.
Despite some recent slumping, the Rangers believe they have the momentum, winning their first of three potential big games to qualify for this one.
Momentum is enough of a push to be a nonfactor; both teams have been required to be at their hottest to get this far. Tampa has won nine of their last 12, with seven in a row at one point, while Texas has done... the same thing, only their seven consecutive lead into tonight's game. Which may potentially take the playoffs' more recently critical aspect - the 'hot team' beating the better team - out of the equation, as both are the hot team.
Given the Rangers' skill in nullifying Price, they could presumably fortify themselves with an early lead and be on the plane to Cleveland by the night's end. But Joe Maddon is a master tinkerer; arranging his players to best fit a one-game scenario may be what he thinks about when he's sipping lemonade on the porch. The season series is a 4-3 advantage for Rangers, but the Rays had to contend with more games against the far superior AL East teams.
Fortunately, predictions are not required for this to be a tight, fretful game; one that we used to see a lot more of in Philadelphia; but with the age of development and restructuring upon us, one nice thing is that we don't have to grind our teeth into dust and, as a result, miss out on how ridiculous of a game this will be.