Over the last four years, no two teams have played more pleasing head-to-head baseball than the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. They play what the unfortunately crass Twittersphere calls baseball porn. (It may be #baseballporn. I’d have to check to be certain.) Beginning with the 2010 ALDS, when the road team won all five games, when Cliff Lee dominated for Texas and when the Rangers twice scored from second on groundouts against an otherwise excellent Rays defense, they have played taut, meaningful games, nine of them in the playoffs, and always provided excitement.

It’s fitting that Monday night’s contest, which will drip with post-season perspiration but in fact counts as Game 163 of each club’s regular season, won’t quite permit its loser to say they reached October. That fact helps remind us that the peak of each dynasty has passed. They’re still good teams, and neither is soon to be a bad one, but the Rays’ last several drafts are looking like duds, and the Rangers appear to have overplayed their hand, in more ways than one.

That raises the stakes even higher than they would otherwise be, and in a game wherein the winner moves on and the loser goes home, ratcheting up the stakes is hard to do. This game should be a sharp shock of a start to the delightful flourish that is the postseason.

The Starting Pitchers

The impact of the starting pitcher matchup in games like this one tends to be overstated. While it’s true that no player on the diamond gets more chances to affect the outcome of a single game than the guy who gets the ball, most of the time, both guys in whom teams place the trust to pitch with so much on the line end up pitching well enough to keep their team in the game. They can be the most important players in the game, that is, without being the players that actually decide the outcome.

In this case, both starters are left-handed. That’s the first thing to know. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (is it still called that?) favors lefty bats, especially when it comes to extra-base hits, and therefore, it also favors lefty arms. Having southpaws on the mound no kmatter which team is at bat points toward a relatively low-scoring affair, but two caveats necessarily apply:

  1. Arlington is a very good offensive environment in general, not solely for lefties; and
  2. Anything can happen within a single game. Forecast is folly.

(The second caveat, of course, applies to everything I’m writing here. Oh well.)

David Price starts for the Rays, and it’s hard to feel better about a starting option in a win-or-die game. Price’s first month-plus in 2013 was ugly, but after taking to the DL for about six weeks, he’s posted a 2.57 ERA, fanned 98 and walked 12 in 122.2 innings pitched. The Rays are 11-6 in his 17 starts over that span. That walk rate is particularly arresting. Not many teams stand a good chance against David Price.

The Rangers might, though. With Nelson Cruz active for this game, Texas should be able to field a near-exclusively right-handed lineup and force Price to win the battle for the strike zone despite lacking the platoon advantage. Price has a fairly large platoon split this season, too, for what it’s worth (which is something, but not everything—don’t rely too heavily on single-season platoon splits):

David Price, Opponent Batting Splits, 2013

Split

Batting Average

On-Base Percentage

Slugging Average

LHB

.195

.235

.273

RHB

.271

.298

.415

I’ll get into more detail on the hitting side later.

Martin perez gets the ball for Texas, and while he’s a clear fourth option for the Rangers (none of Matt Garza, Derek Holland or Yu Darvish is rested enough), he’s been a poor man’s Price down the stretch. After a poor spot start in a doubleheader in May, Perez got a real shot in the starting rotation beginning in late June. In 18 starts since then, he’s thrown 113.2 innings of 3.48 ERA ball, with 77 strikeouts and 33 walks.

Tampa Bay should be able to match up with Perez, too, though. One of the joys of the games these teams play is the depth of each roster, especially their positional depth. No other teams in baseball have maintained the bench/platoon strength these two have for the last half-decade. In particular, the Rays’ August addition of Delmon Young looks like one of Andrew Friedman’s bits of wicked witchcraft now. Instead of having to choose between platoon-vulnerable lefty batters Matt Joyce, Kelly Johnson and Luke Scott, Joe Maddon can write the lefty-mashing Young into his lineup tonight.

Both teams will make life tough on the opposing starter, but both starters have strong second halves, solid stuff and marginal park-factor advantages on their side. I doubt either team pushes more than three runs across while the starters are on the mound, so yes, they’re important, but neither is likely to win the game for his team on his own.

The Batting Orders

I’m going to give the optimal batting orders, assuming no unreported injuries will be holding people out of action and that the managers know what they’re doing. In Ron Washington’s case, the latter assumption is too kind by half, but so it goes:

Rays at Rangers – Optimal Batting Order v LHP

Tampa Bay Rays

Texas Rangers

Jennings – CF

Kinsler – 2B

Rodriguez – LF

Andrus – SS

Myers – RF

Beltre – 3B

Longoria – 3B

Cruz – DH

Young – DH

Rios – RF

Zobrist – 2B

Baker – 1B

Escobar – SS

Soto – C

Molina – C

Gentry – LF

Loney – 1B

Martin – CF

A few of the choices above deserve a short defense.

The Rays starting Jose Molina over Jose Lobaton is a nod to the Rangers’ prolific running game (five guys in the proposed Texas lineup run, and run well), a decision made easier by the presence of a lefty on the mound for the Rangers.

There’s an argument for batting Ben Zobrist higher in the order, but it’s based on soft factors: He’s a veteran, a crucial cog in the team’s remarkable six-year run. He’s also been up there most of the season, so moving him down might instill a sense of emergency, rather than urgency. He’s also generally been good against left-handed pitching. From 2010-12, he hit better from the right side.

In 2013, though, he’s hitting .249/.309/.333. That’s not bad, and certainly (given the prior three years of data) not enough to say that he’s lost it against lefties. It is, however, a real decline. His BABIP of .286 might be a hair unlucky, but it’s the evaporation of any power from that side that makes me nervous. Zobrist is an asset, but he’s not the offensive threat against lefties that Desmond Jennings and Sean Rodriguez are, so I slot him in sixth.

Starting Nelson Cruz is a bold notion. After he took his 50-game suspension for association with Biogenesis (and presumably, for PED use), it was an open question whether he would get another at-bat as a Ranger. I don’t know whether Washington, whose management of the clubhouse has always been his calling card, will see writing the man whose absence so hurt the Rangers offense late in the season into the lineup as an opportunity to bring the team together or an invitation to mutiny. I also don’t know to what extent Cruz’s bat speed—his long-time calling card—can be expected to show up right away after an eight-week layoff.

I know this, though: Cruz kills lefties. His splits are roughly double the average for a right-handed batter. He’s a .380 OBP with power with a lefty on the mound, and given the murkiness of the net effect on a non-performance level, I’m just going to go with that guy.

Jeff Baker over Mitch Moreland and Geovany Soto over A.J. Pierzynski seem obvious to me. They seem damn near inevitable. If Washington starts either of the lefties against Price, with his splits and theirs, it’s another in a long line of fireable offenses.

The Rangers have the third-lowest team strikeout rate in baseball this season. That fuels their offense, and it’s a valuable skill. Unfortunately, there might not be a team in baseball against whom that skill has less value than against the Rays. They’re fourth in baseball in Defensive Efficiency, per Baseball Prospectus, and third in the same number with a park adjustment. The Rangers will need to hit for power to score much tonight, and although they have guys capable of doing that, it’s not their offensive bread and butter.

The Rays, on the other hand, are a team in their element. They’re going to have the platoon advantage on Perez most of the night, and they lead the league in walk rate, so base runners shouldn’t be terribly hard to come by. They’re also third in the league in fly balls as a percentage of batted balls, which doesn’t play all that well at Tropicana Field but should serve them well in the last gasps of a Texas summer.

The Bullpens

I’m giving the Rays an edge in both scoring and preventing runs through the first six innings, and rather than hold you in suspense, I’ll lead with this: I think they also have a big edge at the end of the game.

Both Joe Nathan and Tanner Scheppers have pitched on four straight days. No Rays reliever has appeared on even two consecutive days. While the Rangers have better relievers headlining their bullpen, the Rays have superior depth, and because this is technically a regular-season game, you can count on seeing as many of Joe Maddon’s relievers as the number of outs required permits.

Nathan and Scheppers should not be in this situation. Nathan, especially, came in despite Texas holding a four-run lead on Sunday. For that matter, he closed out a three-run game in the rain for his third straight appearance on Saturday, which is standard closer usage but is no less inexcusable for that reason.

The Rangers do have some great arms, and Alexi Ogando should be available as a tandem starter or long reliever if the going gets tough. Still, Ron Washington has put his team behind the eight ball, in a close game that hasn’t even materialized yet.

The Managers

This is where the chaff and the wheat say their final goodbyes. This game could well come down to the managers, even if it turns out to be decided by a set of bad choices Washington has already made.

Washington failed to trust his ace, Yu Darvish, past the seventeenth out and the 84th pitch, with the game and season on the line, on Sunday. The reliever upon whom he called, Neal Cotts, promptly coughed up the fragile lead. He failed to trust Leonys Martin to get a rally going in the third inning, calling for a bunt with a runner on first and no outs that turned into a double play. That the Rangers overwhelmed their mismanagement with three huge extra-base hits over their final four innings does not absolve Washington of his bungling.

For a long time, the narrative with Washington has been that while his tactics are often faulty, he manages personalities well enough to make up for it. His mishandling of Darvish and Jurickson Profar helps illustrate the fallacy of that. What Washington does well is manage Josh Hamilton’s personality. That has value. Hamilton’s is a volatile psyche, and his skills have tremendous value when someone can keep him on track and in a groove. Unfortunately, Hamilton is no longer a Ranger. Nor should Washington be.

Two teams with identical records after 162 games are now to play one more, with no reason to hold anything in reserve. There should be no room for certitude here. Yet, I can’t help thinking the Rays will win, and my confidence level (though I won’t peg it any higher than 60 percent) exceeds the usual constraints of predicting single-game outcomes. Maddon over Washington. Price over Perez. A very fresh bullpen over one whose two top arms would be pitching on fifth straight nights. An offense suited well to the setting over one that would have better thrived on the road. I’m taking the Rays to win on Monday night in Texas.

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