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.
The Opponent: This wasn't the likeliest matchup for the Rangers in the ALDS. The Red Sox looked like the Wild Card team for most of September, even as one thing after another went wrong for them. Teams with nine-game leads don't wind up giving them all away, but, as you're all well aware by now, that's exactly what happened. The Rays benefitted from the collapse, obviously, but they also made their own luck by winning games down the stretch and playing their best baseball of the season when it mattered the most. They've got lots of momentum on their side entering this rematch of the 2010 ALDS.
Past 2011 Meetings: The regular season series was a tight one, with the Rangers winning five of nine games between the teams. Six of those games were in Tampa, though, so this series will be different because the Rangers have the homefield edge. That's not the only difference, though, as the Rays will be pitching someone who didn't start any of those games in Friday's Game One.
Pitching Matchups: Friday - Matt Moore (1-0, 2.89) vs. C.J. Wilson (16-7, 2.94); Saturday - James Shields (16-12, 2.82) vs. Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95); Monday* - Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95) vs. Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40); Tuesday* - David Price (12-13, 3.49) vs. Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39); Wednesday* - Shields vs. Wilson
* - Pitching matchups beyond Game Two are projected at this time. Shields would be on full rest for Game Five.
What's Hot: The Rays, obviously. We mentioned this up top, but it bears repeating that no team has ever made up a bigger deficit in a shorter amount of time than the Rays did this month. They are also a team that has been in the playoffs in two of the last three years, so there isn't much chance that they are going to be thrown by the move from regular season to playoffs. This team is battle tested and feeling like the fates are on their side.
The decision to start Moore in Game One is indicative of everything the Rays have done right under Joe Maddon. He's not afraid to throw inexperienced players with talent into the fire -- see Price as closer in the 2008 run to the World Series -- and those moves have paid off for him more often than not. There isn't a manager in baseball who approaches the game less conventionally than Maddon and that makes him a weapon for a Rays team that's a little underpowered compared to the Rangers on paper.
The return of Alexi Ogando to the bullpen gives the Rangers oodles of options in front of Neftali Feliz. The additions of Mike Adams, Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara had already turned a weakness into a strength for the Rays, so Ogando gives them even more of an ability to overwhelm teams in the late innings. Throw in Darren Oliver and there's an arm for every matchup against a Rays team that doesn't have enough bats to counter them.
What's Not: The Rays might not have enough bats to counter the Rangers starters either. They scored 148 fewer runs than the Rangers during the regular season and have a lineup that favors defense over offense at several spots. They have some strong bats -- Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist -- but the Rangers pitchers should have an edge in their matchups over the course of the series.
The Rays have terrific speed across their lineup and they will use it to steal bases and press the Rangers defensively. The flip side of this is that they make a lot of outs on the basepaths (29 percent caught stealing) and the Rangers catchers each did a good job when it came to throwing out runners. The winner of that battle will have a lot to do with who winds up winning the series.
Holland, Lewis and Harrison were all excellent at points during the regular season. They were also all terrible at points during the regular season. It is very difficult to predict which guys are going to show up during this series, but it is clear that the Rays have the edge in starting pitching after the first game of the series. And that's assuming Moore isn't as good as he was when he beat the Yankees with five shutout innings in his only career start last week.
Familiar Faces: These two teams played in the ALDS last year, but there aren't many familiar faces. The Rays turned over their entire bullpen and lost Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford from last year's club. Cliff Lee is gone from the Rangers as well, so there's not much to be gained there.
Instead we'll point out that the Rays were the first team to pay Josh Hamilton's salary and say that it's cool the way things have come full circle for him to play his original team in the playoffs in each of the last two years. It hasn't been a great matchup for Hamilton (.213 career average against Tampa) but it's another interesting storyline to a series overflowing with them.