In Game 1 of the ALDS, C.J. Wilson wasn’t in top form, and the Rangers started in a 1-0 hole. The Rangers recovered in short order, taking the next three games to advance to the ALCS, but the margins were small, as the offense failed to produce a consistent attack. Now, Wilson has a chance to start the Rangers off on the right foot once more. He may need to be very good, as the Rangers’ hitters are unlikely to break free from their slumber against Justin Verlander.
Jim Leyland’s big gamble paid off, and the Tigers will oppose Wilson with Verlander in Game 1. While Verlander had far from his best start in Game 3, and the umpire seemed determined to help him win, he did have good stuff — he generated 18 swinging strikes, tallying at least four swooshes of air on every one of his offerings save his curveball. That could spell trouble for a Rangers attack that was fairly meek against the Rays. Yes, Adrian Beltre smashed three homers in the decisive Game 4, but he only had one other hit in the series. Four hits must have seemed like a lot to Mitch Moreland, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz, who as a trio combined for four hits. As it was for much of the second half, the offense was carried by Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli.
The key for the Rangers offense will simply be to make Verlander work. The Yankees did a poor job of this on Monday. After a 22-pitch first inning in which Verlander seemed vulnerable, Verlander was efficient, needing only 37 pitches to navigate through the next four frames. Now again, some of that was the umpire, who had a horrific night behind the plate, but some of that was Verlander being Verlander. He eventually struggled, but the Yankees’ window of opportunity to dig into the Tigers’ bullpen all but evaporated, as Verlander lasted eight innings. Getting to that bullpen has to be the key for the Rangers. The only member of Detroit’s bullpen to escape the ALDS without allowing a run was Ryan Perry, and Detroit’s bullpen probably could have been hit harder than they actually were, as Yankees’ hitters missed a lot of gimme pitches, particularly last night. During their series against the Rays, the Rangers only saw 3.72 pitches per plate appearance, which tied them for last among the four AL teams. That’s slightly less than their regular-season pace of 3.78, which ranked 21st in the Majors. Of particular concern is Cruz, who following a two-homer game on August 26, is just 13-for-64 since, and has struck out 14 times against 1 walk. It doesn’t seem to be just bad luck either — since September 1, he has only hit two line drives. If Cruz and the rest of the bats bend like so many Singing Swords, it will be up to Wilson to keep things close.
Wilson should be up to the task, as his last start was likely an aberration. After allowing five or more runs in four straight starts from May 18-June 4 of last year, Wilson has made 61 starts. In that period, he has only allowed five or more runs in back-to-back starts once. But moreover, you could make the case that aside from falling prey to the best day of Kelly Shoppach’s career that Wilson didn’t have all that poor of a Game 1. Johnny Damon’s home run was four or five feet from being a long out, Matt Joyce’s RBI single seemingly had two sets of eyes, as it barely squeezed between two diving defenders, and had it not been for Beltre’s error, Shoppach’s second homer may have been a solo blast. Wilson generated his normal share of ground balls, walked just one Ray, and struck out six, four of whom were hitting right-handed — B.J. Upton (twice), Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. It just so happened that three of the seven fly balls he allowed ended up as souvenirs (well, okay, one of the three didn’t technically end up as a souvenir).
Now, don’t get me wrong, striking out Upton — who had the 11th highest K% in baseball this year — isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, but he is a righty, and that brings us to the next point. Wilson is no pushover against righties — his 3.46 xFIP against them was 13th best in the American League this year. And while the specific players that comprise Jim Leyland’s lineups are becoming about as predictable as spinning a See ‘N Say, they should — aside from Alex Avila — hit right-handed. Leyland stacked eight righties in his lineup in both CC Sabathia starts in the ALDS, and will most likely continue to do so, with or without Delmon Young. Wilson is able to be effective against righties because he mixes his pitches, and attacks both sides of the plate, and should be able to confound the Tigers’ hitters, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire against New York — Detroit hitters saw the same 3.72 pitches per plate appearance against the Yankees that the Rangers did against the Rays — and whose team wOBA was 29 points worse on the road than it was at home this season.
It isn’t Texas’ modus operandi to work counts and draw a pitcher to an early exit through high pitch totals — they’re more a grip it and rip it bunch. But in order to beat the best, sometimes you have to switch up your strategy. C.J. Wilson should be able to hold the Tigers’ hitters at bay, but as the ALDS showed, the Tigers are familiar with close games, and won them despite a bullpen that was shaky. The Rangers’ best chance to win will be waiting out Verlander and getting to that bullpen, where they should bear fruit, provided they can shake the ‘pen a little harder than could the Yankees.
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