The Rangers are back in the playoffs, and they know it will be all about pitching. That's what happened last year when outstanding performances from Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis drove them to the World Series for the first time in club history. Outfielder Josh Hamilton was the Most Valuable Player of 2010 American League Championship Series, but it could have easily been Lewis. Derek Holland may have won 15 games with four shutouts this season, but his biggest moment with the Rangers may still be 3 2/3 scoreless innings in a 10-3 victory over the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS. "It's all going to come down to our pitching," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, whose club will face the Rays in the AL Division Series, starting with Game 1 on Friday at 4:07 p.m. CT. "If they keep it close, it will give our offense a chance to score some runs. But they have to keep it close and give us a chance."
So it will be Wilson, Lewis, Matt Harrison and Holland in the rotation, with Alexi Ogando joining the bullpen crew that includes closer Neftali Feliz, right-handed setup relievers Mike Adams and Koji Uehara and left-handers Darren Oliver and Michael Gonzalez. The Rangers are counting on their depth to carry them through. The Rays' staff is led by durable 16-game winner James Shields, who tossed a Major League-high 11 complete games. The Tigers' pitching staff starts with 24-game winner Justin Verlander and ends with flawless closer Jose Valverde. The Yankees' staff starts with the redoubtable CC Sabathia and ends with Mariano Rivera, a Hall of Famer-in-waiting as the closer. The Rangers believe Wilson can match up with anybody's ace, but they are also counting on the back end of their rotation overmatching others. The Rangers' big advantage may not be in Game 1 or 2 but in Games 3 and 4, when Harrison and Holland are on the mound. "We feel good about our whole rotation and we feel good about our chances in the playoffs," Harrison said. "We're going in there with a lot of confidence in being able to play every aspect of the game the right way. We're looking forward to the challenge and bringing us back to the World Series." Verlander did win 24 games this season, but he also lost five, and one of those was to the Rangers. Ogando began the season as the Texas' fourth starter but pitched seven scoreless innings against the Tigers on April 11. Verlander pitched six scoreless before the Rangers scored two in the seventh for a 2-0 victory. Lewis was the Rangers' No. 3 starter going into the playoffs last season and was 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA in two starts against the Yankees in the ALCS. "You just try not to do more than you did all year," Lewis said. "That's what I did last year. Don't let the hype and the exposure get in the way of the job at hand. It's all about how big do you want to make it. It's still baseball, and you still have to get guys out no matter what the stage is." The Rangers played 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs last season. In seven of those games, they were ahead after three innings. They were tied after three innings in two of the games, and trailed in two others. They lost only one of the seven games in which they led after three innings, and that was Game 1 of the ALCS, when they let a 5-1 lead get away in the eighth. The Rangers know that if their pitchers can keep it close, the offense will eventually get around to doing some damage, sooner or later. In the first two rounds of the playoffs last year, the Rangers outscored their two opponents, 24-10, in the fourth through sixth innings. Then there was Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees. The Rangers had a 2-1 lead in the series, but the Yankees knocked out Tommy Hunter early and were up 3-2 after four innings with A.J. Burnett on the mound. That's when Holland pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings behind Hunter and ended up the winning pitcher. The Rangers scored three off Burnett in the sixth and five more against the Yankees' bullpen for a 10-3 victory. The Rangers knew after that game they were headed for the World Series. "It all starts with pitching, and we have a lot of confidence in our guys," infielder Michael Young said. Holland's performance is a reminder that the bullpen may also have something to do with it. That's why the Rangers were aggressive in trading for Adams, Uehara and Gonzalez this summer, and why they think Ogando is the best fit for the bullpen with Mark Lowe sidelined with a strained left hamstring. The Rangers, despite the loss of Lowe, should have a better bullpen than last year, although much could depend on Feliz in the ninth inning. He pitched 7 1/3 innings in the playoffs last year and allowed one run on three hits with five walks and 11 strikeouts. But he only had one save opportunity, and that wasn't until Game 3 of the World Series, the only game the Rangers won against the Giants. This ride may not be as easy. "Last year was a little tougher," Feliz said. "I was new at the job and there was a little more pressure. This time around, I'm positive that I'm ready to do my job." The Rangers are confident about the task at hand. They went to the World Series last year and they have repeated as AL West champions. They have been hardened by the experience, and their expectations are raised to the maximum. They won't be happy unless they win it all. "We're excited," Hamilton said. "The last month or so, we were just relaxed and played the game. It shouldn't be any different in the playoffs. We're going to approach it one game at a time. We have a couple games and then a game off, so you give what you got when you're playing, and you're resting when you're not. I think we're ready." Their pitching needs to be ready. Rangers pitchers had a combined 3.70 ERA in 16 postseason games last year. Since Major League Baseball added a third round to the playoffs in 1995, 11 of the 16 teams that won the World Series had a team postseason ERA of 3.44 or below. The Giants had a 2.47 ERA last season, including 2.45 against the Rangers in the World Series. The last team to win a World Series with a team postseason ERA of over 4.00 was the Red Sox in 2004, when they finished with a 4.47 ERA. But the Red Sox also had a 2.59 ERA in an eight-game winning streak over the final four games of the ALCS against the Yankees and the World Series sweep of the Cardinals. Good pitching usually wins the day in the postseason, and Washington knows that. "These are my guys," Washington said. "They're going to pitch and they have to perform. I feel good about them. That's what we've got."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.