Rangers vs Rays Game 163: When 162 Isn’t Enough

Rangers pitcher Martin Perez and Rays pitcher David Price.The ending of the regular season is always a bittersweet moment for me. I love October. I love October baseball, but the comfort of knowing there will be baseball on at any given moment, except the All-Star break, is probably a top-5 life pleasure for me. Bum day at work? Ah, I’ll pull up MLB.tv and listen to baseball… even the worst kind of baseball. The Astro kind. So when the final out of of the final game 162 is recorded, I forced to deal with the reality that for the next seven months I need to discover another coping mechanism.

So when the baseball gods conspire to bring me Game 163, I can find no reason to complain. Sure, the season didn’t end as dramatically as 2011. Sure, a wild 6-team tie would be a tremendous fantasy. But we get the ultimate dosage of free baseball tonight. Nine free innings. And nine free innings that matter.

So what to expect tonight? I find always, always find it hard to pick against elite pitching. David Price “struggled” in 2013, but he’s the reigning A.L. Cy Young, and returned to dominant form in July/August. When David Price is on, he’s as unhittable as any pitcher in the game. And it does sure seem like the Rays have a knack for winning these big games, despite constantly overturning talent in their lineup, sans Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. Would it surprise anyone if this game was 1-1 in the 9th and Longo launched one out to put the game in the hands of Rodney?

Then again, Price struggles at the Ballpark in Arlington, yielding a .357/.425/.600 line and an OPS over 1.000, though it should be noted he’s yet to square off with this year’s Rangers. On first look, the Rays seem to have a stark pitching advantage. I’ll take Price over rookie Martin Perez, who has been quite good, and even if Perez is able to ride home field advantage into matching Price’s performance, the narrative would have you believe the Rays have the bullpen advantage. However, Fangraphs ranks the Rangers pen no. 1 in all of baseball based on WAR. In fact, this Rangers team serves as a stark contrast to mash-happy teams which hammered them to back-to-back World Series appearances. They are a pitching/defense lead squad, with one outstanding bat (Beltre), who happens to also be among baseball’s best defenders at his position. The rest of the crew? Guys like Leonys Martin, Craig Gentry, and Elvis Andrus won’t be slugging the Rangers to titles anytime soon.

The real question mark for this game is what does the return of Nellie Cruz do for the Rangers? Rios has added a dimension to the lineup, but Cruz can put back some much needed thump. Cruz must DH tonight. His .429/.478/.905 slash vs. Price is simply worth the gamble of him being rusty. He’s taken Price deep three times in 23 PAs. Outside of Beltre, the Rangers next best power bat is Mitch Moreland, and it’s impossible to feel confident in a guy with a .235/.295/.362 triple slash vs. LHP. Nevermind if he’s facing one of the top lefties in baseball.

Experts will likely settle on the Cruz vs. Price duel as the the key to this ball game, but I’m fascinated in what the young Perez may bring to the table against the Rays. The 22-year-old Venezuelan is a fastball/sinker lefty that can generate swings and misses on his change-up, which may actually be his best pitch. Perez loves to keep the ball low, which plays into his favor in a hitter-friendly environment in Arlington. The Rays aren’t a groundball hitting crazed team (only Yunel Escobar hit over 50% of his batted balls on the ground), so it should be fun to see if Perez is up to the challenge.

As if tied regular season records weren’t indication enough, these are two evenly matched teams. Even if we try and draw on recent performance as an predictive indicator for tonight, we’re stuck with both teams winning eight of their last 10. The Rangers home/road splits are nearly identical in the W/L column, while Tampa posted a sub .500 record on the road this season. That may be the one factor decidedly in Texas’ favor.

But it’s one game. One more for 2013. One more before October. Game 163. Thank you, baseball gods.