On Deck will be here all season to provide you with everything you need to know (and a few things you don't) about every Rangers series during the 2011 season. For the ALCS, we'll do things a bit differently to increase the focus on each set of games.
The Opponent: The Tigers earned a trip to Arlington for the first two games of the ALCS by outlasting the Yankees 3-2 in Thursday night's Game Five. It is their first trip to the ALCS since they went to the World Series in 2006 and caps a season that didn't start particularly well, but picked up once Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera began asserting themselves on the American League.
Past 2011 Meetings: If you're looking for bad omens for the Rangers, look no further than this section. The Tigers won six of nine games between the teams this season and an April trip to Comerica Park cost the Rangers Josh Hamilton for a long stretch after an ill-fated slide into home plate.
Pitching Matchups: Saturday - Justin Verlander (24-5, 2.40 ERA in regular season, 1-0, 5.00 in ALDS) vs. C.J. Wilson (16-7, 2.94, 0-1, 10.80 in ALDS). Sunday's starters are still to be announced, but there doesn't seem to be much reason why the Rangers would go away from Derek Holland. Max Scherzer will likely get the ball for the Tigers with Doug Fister in line to start Game Three.
What's Hot: This will mark the first trip to the playoffs in Rangers history that doesn't feature a date with the Yankees. That's a nice change, not because the Yankees posed some major threat to a return to the World Series but because it is nice to start writing playoff histories with other clubs. You might feel differently if the series doesn't go the right way for the Rangers, but for now it means a new chapter and, more importantly, home field advantage.
Verlander's season has been praised to the high heavens and it will result in a Cy Young Award about a month from now. He wasn't at his best against the Yankees, but he was pumping 100 mph fastballs into the eighth inning while striking out 11 hitters. In other words, an off night for Verlander is still a pretty darn good one for most people. Two starts for Verlander is a scary prospect for the Rangers.
Jim Leyland has been to a lot of rodeos and won one of them in 1997 with the Marlins, making him a tough draw in the other dugout. Just about every button he pushed against the Yankees wound up paying off for the Tigers and he's not afraid to make changes to his team in an effort to maximize small advantages. He's also a fantastic interview, which should make for some fun press conferences over the next week.
What's Not: There are happier places to see the Rangers play than Comerica Park. The Tigers have beaten them in 16 of the last 20 games in their home field, a span that includes the aforementioned Hamilton injury. In a short series, such numbers don't always wind up meaning all that much but you'd certainly rather be playing games in a place that hasn't been a house of horrors for the Rangers.
Austin Jackson was one of the few Tigers to have a terrible series against the Yankees, striking out in eight of his 16 at-bats. That's par for the course with the free-swinging Jackson and his ability to get on base will be crucial to the Tigers offense as they need to get runners on base for Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Detroit generated runs all over the lineup against the Yankees, but history says that the heart of the order is where they do the most damage so Jackson needs to set the table.
Jose Valverde hasn't blown a save all season, although it isn't from a lack of trying. He's got a habit of putting himself in dangerous situations and then slamming the door just when it seems disaster will strike. When he does slam the door, he celebrates as ifthe Berlin Wall came down and then he runs his mouth until his next appearance. You'd love him if he was your closer, but Rangers fans will feel quite opposite unless Valverde's luck finally runs out in the ALCS.
Familiar Faces: Joaquin Benoit was a big key to Thursday night's win, striking out three batters and escaping a bases loaded jam in the seventh while letting up just one run. It was the continuation of a turnaround from a brutal start to his first year with the Tigers and it happened even though Joe Girardi forced Benoit to remove a Band-Aid from his face when he took the mound. If he stops the bleeding in this series, the Rangers will rue the day he left the squad.