October 8, 2011

Rangers take on Tigers' ace of AL aces tonight in ALCS opener

The Rangers face the AL's best pitcher of 2011 in Justin Verlander. Game 1 of the ALCS starts at 7:05 (KDFW/4). At stake in the best-of-seven series: a trip to the World Series.

ARLINGTON -- Ron Washington often preaches the tenets of the baseball gods, and how appeasing them through good deeds will eventually be rewarded.

As the manager watched television Thursday night to learn which team would face his Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series, he did so without a rooting interest.

"If you try to pick your poison, sometimes that poison can be very venomous," he preached Friday afternoon.

Home-field advantage was the Rangers' reward for their manager trying to do right by baseball's deities, who apparently have a sense of humor.

To keep the home-field edge tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series all the Rangers have to do is figure out a way to beat the Detroit Tigers and their all-world right-hander, Justin Verlander.

Verlander was a pitching god this season, going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings. Those four numbers, along with several others, were either AL or major-league bests.

The Rangers know all about Verlander, even though he has pitched against them only once the past two seasons. They won't be in awe when he uncorks his first pitch in tonight's 7:05 start.

"He's one of the best in the game, and he's been one of the best in the game for a while now," designated hitter Michael Young said. "One thing you get used to in the postseason is seeing good pitching. That's one thing we've gotten accustomed to the past two seasons. But it'll be a challenge."

Young is right. The Rangers have had a knack for beating quality pitchers. They beat Felix Hernandez, whom Verlander will unseat as the AL Cy Young winner, four times this season, and beat the LA Angels' three aces twice apiece.

The Rangers just polished off David Price and James Shields in the AL Division Series to eliminate Tampa Bay in four games.

And, gasp, the Rangers beat Verlander himself April 11.

"That might as well have been in spring training," Young said. "One thing that we do really well is we focus on ourselves. We focus on the things we have to do to win. Rather than have a huge focus in our approach, we focus on the things we do well and bear down on those things."

No team in baseball struck out fewer times than the Rangers this season, so they know how to get the bat to the ball.

The keys against Verlander, said center fielder Josh Hamilton, are to be patient, even if it takes one time through the order to get a feel for Verlander's stuff, and to make solid contact when he throws a hittable pitch.

That doesn't require a mammoth swing against a pitcher who can throw 100 mph into the late innings.

"You don't have to create any kind of power because he throws hard enough that you just need to put the barrel on the ball," Hamilton said. "The approach is not to hit it far but to hit it hard. The key for me is 'aggressive pepper.' Barrel the ball up and try not to do too much."

With runs expected to be at a premium, the Rangers will try to make things happen on the bases. That means going from first to third on a single as much as it does stealing a base.

The Rangers have been one of the best in the game in both facets the past two seasons.

"We try to take the extra 90 feet whenever we can," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "When you're not getting that many opportunities, if you're able to do that, it definitely favors your offense."

The hitters can't do it all themselves. The game needs to be low-scoring, which means that C.J. Wilson needs to be as good against the Tigers as Verlander is against the Rangers.

Wilson's the right guy for the task. On his ledger this season are Rangers victories in games started by Hernandez, Ervin Santana, Jon Lester and Gio Gonzalez, and narrow losses to Roy Halladay and Jered Weaver.

"It's similar to going up against a guy like [CC] Sabathia or Lester or anybody else," Wilson said. "I have to prevent their team from scoring. That's the biggest thing for me."

Now, he gets to match Verlander, the best pitcher in the AL this season. The Rangers know all about him and are looking forward to the challenge in Game 1 and possibly again in Game 5.

"He's a very tough guy to face, probably one of the best in the big leagues," third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a good test. We're going to have to find a way to get to him."

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

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