Updated: Oct 3
The calendar turned to October, and MLB wrapped up its 162-game schedule yesterday. The playoffs begin on Tuesday, with the American League kicking things off. The Tampa Bay Rays host the Texas Rangers at 3:00 ET, and the Minnesota Twins host the Toronto Blue Jays at 4:30 ET. Let's take a look at the first series on the docket, with the winner going on to face the Baltimore Orioles.
2023 AL Wildcard Series: #5 Texas Rangers (90-72) vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays (99-63)
This is a battle of the top two offenses in the American League. The Rangers topped the Junior Circuit with 881 runs scored, with the Rays finishing with 860. The Rangers also finished tied for first in home runs with 233, while the Rays were right behind them with 230. Texas edged Tampa out in OPS as well .790-.776. Needless to say, this amounts to what should be some fireworks during the AL Playoff series.
Texas has their full squad together now that Adolis Garcia and Josh Jung are back in the fold after missing time. Although Corey Seager has been decent since September 1, slashing .267/.320/.535, it still marks his worst month of the season. Nathaniel Lowe has struggled considerably lately hitting to the tune of .160/.294/.245 with just two homers in September. Neither fares well against Southpaws, as both surrendered nearly .200 points of OPS when a lefty is on the mound. Marcus Semien continues to be the catalyst for this team. He has slashed .282/.359/.581 since September 1st.
The Rays hope to get a couple of boppers back in the mix for this Wild Card series. Jose Siri and Luke Raley will be taking batting practice to test out how they feel. They've combined for 44 home runs and 26 stolen bases over 770 plate appearances for Kevin Cash's crew. Unfortunately, Brandon Lowe will not be in the lineup after suffering a broken kneecap in late September. American League batting champ Yandy Diaz stayed hot in September with a 1.051 OPS. Fellow Rays Josh Lowe (.845 OPS) and Harold Ramirez (1.014 OPS) have also continued to rake.
Bruce Bochy looks like he will send lefty Jordan Montgomery to the mound for Game 1. He has been a godsend for the Rangers. In his 11 starts in a Texas uniform, Monty has a 2.79 ERA and an impressive 58/13 K/BB rate. He has also kept the ball in the yard, surrendering just six long balls in 67.2 innings. Nathan Eovaldi likely goes Game 2 on normal rest. Since returning on September 5, Eovaldi has been awful with a 9.30 ERA and has walked 13 in just 20.1 innings, along with allowing seven bombs. If it goes to a Game 3, the Rangers could be in trouble. Dane Dunning could go on short rest, or, they could roll with Andrew Heaney.
The Rays have Tyler Glasnow taking the bump tomorrow. He was a bit shaky before his last turn against the Red Sox, where he fanned nine. Zach Eflin will likely get the second game. He has been a savior of sorts for the Rays as well. After losing Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs, and Shane McClanahan, Eflin has just kept on trucking. In 31 starts, the right-hander led the league in wins with 16, pitched to a 3.50 ERA, and notched an impeccable 186/24 K/BB rate. If a deciding game is needed, Cash can go to Taj Bradley or even work a bullpen game where he has plenty of arms to choose from.
Texas has had a revolving door at the closer spot this season. Whether it has been Will Smith, Jose Leclerc, or Aroldis Chapman, the Rangers sport the lowest save conversion rate in the majors (47.6 percent). This will be a problem unless the Rangers' lineup can bludgeon the Rays early and Texas's starters can go deep into games.
While the pen is a weakness for the Rangers, it is an absolute strength for the Rays. Tampa has eight legit relief arms. Not only are they good, but they have been lights out lately. Jake Diekman hasn't allowed an earned run in 16.2 innings. Robert Stephenson, Shawn Armstrong, Chris Devenski, and Andrew Kittredge have been stingy as well, combining for a 51/8 K/BB rate over their last 40 innings while giving up just seven runs.
Texas has not been the dominant team they were at the beginning of the season. In fact, they are 15-15 and have been outscored 157-148 since August 30. Meanwhile, the Rays have been the epitome of the next-man-up mentality. Since Wander Franco played his last game on August 12, Tampa Bay is 28-15 and have outscored their opponents 245-198. While both managers are among the best in the game, Cash has more to work with than Bochy does, especially in the last few innings. I expect the Rays to take this series 2-0.
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