One of the more unique ALCS matchups in years gets underway tonight, made even more unusual by its locale. The defending world champion Yankees do not open at home, as is seemingly their birthright to do in big series, but in the unfamiliar confines of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Tex., which has seen precisely six playoff games before tonight - two of those coming in the last two weeks.
This Rangers team looks out of place with the Yankees for a few reasons, the first of which is obviously the fact it had never won a playoff series before beating the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. But the team also is here despite filing for bankruptcy in May and going through half a season with Major League Baseball directing a sale of the club. But their former ace - Nolan Ryan - stepped up to bail the club out as part of an ownership group that bought the team in August, and through a bold July trade, the Rangers are here because of their new ace: Cliff Lee.
It's Lee, the left-hander who beat the Yankees twice in the 2009 World Series as part of his scintillating tour through the postseason, that gives the Rangers a chance in the ALCS. He will pitch Game 3 of the ALCS, starting at Yankee Stadium, where he beat New York in Game 1 of the World Series last year, and would also be set up for a Game 7, if necessary.
But the fact that the Rangers don't have Lee going in Game 1 hurts them; they were pushed to the distance by the Rays in the ALDS, while the Yankees were able to set up their pitching following a sweep of the Twins. C.J. Wilson, who was the Rangers' top pitcher before Lee arrived, is capable of matching up with the Yankees, but Colby Lewis (in Game 2) and Tommy Hunter (in Game 4) will have their work cut out for them. The Rangers don't want to use Lee on short rest, so the rest of their rotation will have to be up to the task.
The Yankees' pitching, which never became a problem in the ALDS, certainly has depth issues, as well; the team is cautiously planning on A.J. Burnett for Game 4, and will hope Andy Pettitte continues to perform. But New York's lineup is deeper than Texas' batting order (especially if Josh Hamilton keeps slumping) and rookie closer Neftali Feliz could be in for the ride of his life pitching in Yankee Stadium.
On the strength of their lineup, I think the Yankees ultimately win this series, though I'm picking Texas to take two games and put more of a scare into the world champions than expected. The Rangers proved in the ALDS that they shouldn't be taken lightly, and they'll make things interesting. Ultimately, though, Texas won't be able to hold the Yankees down long enough, and one-half of the 2009 World Series rematch will be complete.
Two questions on this series: First, who do you like in the matchup? And second, are there enough storylines with the Rangers (A-Rod and Teixeira coming back to Texas, Nolan Ryan remaking the team, Dubya in the house, the former Senators angle) to keep you interested in them? I think it's an intriguing matchup, and I'd be curious to hear some more thoughts on it. Let me know.