Here’s your de facto American League Championship Series. Sorry to those in Baltimore, your luck will run out despite being undervalued the entire season. Postseason baseball is a different juggernaut. The Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins just don’t have the firepower to keep up. And Houston could have some tricks up its sleeves again this time of year. The highest ceilings for teams in the AL reside with Texas and Tampa. The Rangers have the most explosive lineup in the American League and the Rays have the deepest team not named the Braves in baseball. Neither team won its division. However, how they got here shows they’re the two best-suited teams for a deep run.
Let’s start with the team more people believe will make that deep run in the Rays, understandably so as they finished the regular season nine games better than both the Astros and Rangers, 10 above Toronto, and a dozen better than Minnesota. Every team has attrition through injuries or other means throughout the year. From Tampa’s starting rotation, three are out for the year. Both pieces of its middle infield are also done. Instead of relying on a roster full of superstars to get the job done, several above-average players have consistently delivered. Those replacements aren’t exactly reinforcements because the Rays might be the most prepared team in baseball and have been built this way for the last decade. While the Orioles finished two games better, there isn’t a team that doesn’t cheat with more playoff experience in the American League.
The Rangers are the riskier option to pick to go deep. At their best, they’re the undisputed best team in the American League. It’s how inconsistently we’ve seen it since the All-Star break that’s Clifford the Big Red Flag. How awful was Texas’ August with a manageable schedule? It can be attributed to injuries, but no playoff team should have the bottom fall out as much as it did. Thankfully for Texas’ fans, it built up enough equity early in the season and in the spurts when it was fully healthy to withstand a late challenge from the Mariners. Corey Seager deserves to be the American League MVP despite missing a significant portion of the season. [Ed. note: He’ll get plenty of second-place votes behind Shohei Ohtani.] When he and Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Jung were healthy, the Rangers went 50-31. At that pace, it’s 100 wins, right in step with the Orioles and Rays for the best record in the American League.
The biggest question mark is what Texas team shows up on the road. If the good Rangers show up, Tampa’s chances to advance plummet. If they don’t, like they didn’t for most of their final series of the year against Seattle, the Rays will advance. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde without a contemporary in the last several years of baseball.
Like most, the Rangers were significantly better at home and the Rays only lost 28 times this season at Tropicana Field. The Rangers also haven’t won a playoff series since 2011, but have won both previous playoff series against the Rays. The Rays are starting to become one of the American League’s most consistent teams, making the playoffs each of the last five seasons. How these teams clash will be interesting because it’s almost guaranteed not to go how the regular season went. The Rangers hold a 4-2 advantage, including a sweep of the Rays during their most recent series in July. No matter who comes out victorious, they’ll play the top-seeded Orioles in the ALDS without home-field advantage. Give me the winner of this Wild Card series to ride that momentum all the way to the World Series.
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