We weren't supposed to have a game on Monday night, but thanks to some exciting baseball over the course of the final weekend, we're going to be treated to a one-game tiebreaker between the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers to decide the second American League wild card. The winner will head to Cleveland to play the Indians on Wednesday night.
The Rangers and Rays are no strangers when it comes to playoff baseball, as they met in the wild-card round in both 2010 and 2011, with the Rangers winning both times. The Rangers have home-field advantage on Monday, but the Rays have the starting pitcher edge. Here are the five most important matchups that will determine the winner.
Price is one of the best lefties in the game while Perez is becoming one. Price has an awful history against the Rangers, so the Texas hitters are not going to be intimidated by Price's heat.
The key for Price will be establishing his off-speed stuff in the first couple of innings, as the Rangers have knocked him around by pouncing on his fastball early. Price loves to establish his fastball and has stellar command of it, but on Monday he'll be better off using his slider and changeup a bit more the first time through the order.
The Rangers had to use Yu Darvish on Sunday just to get to the tiebreaker game, and as a result, Perez will get the call. He's shown signs of living up to the promise he showed as a top prospect a few years ago, posting a 3.55 ERA in 19 starts at the age of 22. However, hitters had a .784 OPS against him in September, which could be a sign of fatigue. Manager Ron Washington had to pull Darvish earlier than he would have liked on Sunday, and needed his bullpen to give him 3 1/3 innings to beat the Angels. I expect Perez to be on a short leash, so we could see a lot more of the Rangers' relievers.
2. Joe Maddon vs. Ron Washington
As noted, Washington is going to have to be extremely aggressive with his bullpen. And because he still has the luxury of the 40-man roster, he'll have plenty of options. The Rangers have struggled to score runs down the stretch, so I expect Washington to try to steal some bases, giving the green light to the likes of Leonys Martin, Elvis Andrus, Craig Gentry and Alex Rios.
Maddon will have a different philosophy. He will probably give Price the opportunity to pitch out of any jams, knowing full well that he needs at least six innings from Price if he's going to win. On offense, look for Maddon to stack his lineup with right-handed hitters such as Delmon Young and Sean Rodriguez in an attempt to get to Perez early, and then use his lefties as pinch hitters once Washington goes to his pen.
3. Neal Cotts vs. the lefties
At some point late in Monday's game southpaw Neal Cotts is going to come in to face one of the Rays' left-handed hitters, such as James Loney, David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, Luke Scott or Kelly Johnson. Cotts has been absolutely dominant this year, posting a 1.13 ERA in 56 appearances. And the best part is, he's been better against righties (.437 OPS against) than lefties (.562). In other words, it's not worth it for Maddon to send up a pinch hitter because a right-handed hitter's chances of getting on base aren't any better.
Cotts faced six Rays hitters this year and retired all six, striking out two.
4. Delmon Young vs. Martin Perez
Perez knows he has to tread lightly when he faces Evan Longoria and Wil Myers, the Rays' two best right-handed hitters, but he can't relax against Young. While he hasn't ever lived up to his status as a No. 1 overall draft pick, Young has one undeniable skill: hitting southpaws. He owns a career .304/.342/.471 line against lefties, and has legit home run power.
Young has had great success in the postseason, slugging .538 in 115 playoff plate appearances. And in the 2012 ALCS he hit .353 with two homers to take home MVP honors.
5. Nelson Cruz vs. rust
Cruz hasn't played since Aug. 4 because he was forced to serve a 50-game suspension for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal. But unlike the Giants, who shunned Melky Cabrera under similar circumstances last year, the Rangers have welcomed back Cruz, and he will be active for Monday's game.
The slugger has spent the last few weeks getting his timing back in the instructional league, but it's hard to compare that kind of competition to what he'll face on Monday. For one, he's probably been facing teenagers with iffy breaking stuff, and he's been playing on back fields at the Rangers' Arizona complex, which is not exactly a playoff atmosphere.
Texas management is obviously aware of its need for some power, so GM Jon Daniels is hoping that Cruz can run into something with one game-changing swing. The Rangers haven't said yet if Cruz will start, but it should be noted that he is 9-for-21 with three homers against Price in his career.