The age-old axiom so often quoted in baseball circles that pitching and defense win championships is just as true today as it has always been. Of course, loaded lineups and the ability to score runs in bunches are always a plus, but those aspects of a team don’t always show up in the playoffs when you’re facing the best pitching staffs in the league.

Fortunately for them though, the Texas Rangers possess the best of both worlds. They have a deep pitching staff, led by one of today’s premier left-handers, as well as the fifth-highest scoring offense in Major League Baseball. Even on the days that their lineup isn’t battering opponents pitching, Texas‘ staff can keep them in tight contests long enough to squeak out wins late in games.

Texas has a long tradition of slugging ball-clubs in Arlington, but under the guidance of team president, baseball Hall-of-Famer and former Ranger fire-baller, Nolan Ryan, the Rangers have endeavored to remake themselves as a pitching oriented franchise.

Helping lead them to an American League West title, and their first playoff appearance since 1999, their pitching staff as a whole is currently fourth in the AL with a 3.93 ERA. The starting staff has been consistent if unspectacular, but is rounding into form as the post-season approaches.

Their starters’ ERA of 4.25 ranks them eighth amongst AL clubs and their WHIP of 1.33 places them seventh. They have pitched slightly better in the second half, partially due to the arrival of Lee.

Texas’ bullpen has been a strength all year with its 3.33 ERA leading all American League bullpens, and their collective WHIP of 1.27 places them third in the AL. Their 7.63 strikeouts per nine innings ranks them fourth in the AL. Rangers pitchers are a significant factor in the increasing confidence evident around the Ballpark in Arlington.

Originally intending to use a three man starting rotation throughout the first-round divisional series, the club decided to go with a four-man staff after analyzing the statistics regarding pitching on three days rest.

For the ALDS, the Rangers will pitch Cliff Lee in Game 1, C.J. Wilson will take the mound for Game 2, followed by Colby Lewis in Game 3, and if necessary, Tommy Hunter will be handed the ball in Game 4. A playoff hero for the Phillies last season, Lee would then take the ball in a decisive Game 5 if the series came to that.

Lee, the suddenly well-traveled ace, has pitched for four teams in the last year-and-a-half, after spending the first seven-and-a-half years of his career in Cleveland. After getting off to a superb start with the Mariners, he was traded to the Rangers on July 9 to bolster their starting staff in order to make a strong run at a playoff berth. His numbers have dipped slightly after coming to Texas, but overall he has pitched well.

After the trade, he is 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA and a WHIP of 1.06. A poor August skewed his overall numbers, but his performances have been improving, and he just finished a stellar September in which he went 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA, as opponents only hit .189 against him.

His dominant playoff performance in 2009, in which he was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in five starts, gives Texas every reason to hope he can repeat that form as he leads them deep into October.

Converted reliever C.J. Wilson made a seamless transition to the starting rotation for the Rangers. After spending the previous four years as a closer and set-up man, he has been one of the Rangers top starters all year. The lefty is currently 14-8 in 32 starts, pitching 199 innings, striking out 166, while posting an ERA of 3.35, with a WHIP of 1.25. He has proved tough to hit, as opponents have only hit .217 against him.

Wilson has been brutal on lefties, as they’ve only hit .144 against him, with a paltry .400 OPS. C.J. will prove a valuable commodity against any team with big left-handed hitters that the Rangers may face in the playoffs.

Game 3 starter Colby Lewis has made a triumphant return to Major League Baseball after pitching the last two seasons in Japan. Although he’s only 12-13, the big right-hander has pitched well, tallying 196 innings, and leading the team in strikeouts with 192. His 3.72 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and .231 opponents’ batting average have earned him a coveted spot in Ron Washington‘s post-season plans.

In the event of a Game 4 in the ALDS, 24-year-old Tommy Hunter will get the nod. After a solid first year with the team in 2009, Hunter joined the rotation in Arlington during June of this year. Overall his stellar 13-4 record, 1.27 WHIP and 3.72 ERA have been a pleasant development for the Rangers, but he has pitched even better than his totals might suggest.

Of course, the win/loss totals are great, but the ERA is bloated by a few terrible starts, but otherwise he has been a force in the rotation. Out of his 21 starts, he has gone at least six innings and allowed two or less earned runs in nine of them. His emergence has allowed the Rangers the luxury of a deep four man staff to ease the burden on the front three, eliminating the need for Lee to pitch on three days rest.

Although the Rangers have yet to announce their final post-season rosters, several recent revelations have helped to form a clearer picture of what their bullpen could look like in the playoffs.The decision to use Hunter as the fourth starter has eliminated him from inclusion in the relief corps.

It has also been announced that Frank Francisco, the 2010 squad’s original closer, who transitioned to a set-up role in favor of highly-touted phenom Neftali Feliz, won’t be available to pitch until at least the American League Championship Series.

Francisco strained a rib cage muscle in late August, and was hoping to return prior to the division series, but a recent MRI revealed that he was not yet ready to begin his throwing program.

After Feliz assumed control of the closer’s role around May 1, Francisco had thrived as the primary set-up man, throwing 41.2 innings, striking out 51 and only walking 11, posting a 1.15 WHIP and a 3.24 ERA, while stranding 85% of inherited base-runners. His presence will undoubtedly be missed.

Thankfully for the Rangers’ sake though, they possess a strong stable of quality arms capable of filling the void created by Francisco’s injury. After making his debut on June 15, rookie Alexi Ogando has emerged as likely candidate to fill Francisco’s role. He has assimilated nicely into the late-inning corps available to Ron Washington.

His predominantly fastball/slide repertoire has stymied AL hitters thus far, making him a dangerous weapon late in games. In just 40.1 innings, he has struck out 37, only allowed 31 hits, a fine 1.17 WHIP and a 1.34 ERA.. His only Achilles heal may be that he allowed 40 percent of inherited runners to score, so he is not ideal for situational use.

Closer Neftali Feliz is finishing off his first full season in fine form. Originally slated as a set-up man, he assumed full control of the closer’s role after Francisco’s struggles and never looked back. In 68.1 innings, he has notched 71 strikeouts, allowed a stellar 0.89 WHIP, a 2.77 ERA, with 39 saves in 42 opportunities.

Opponents have only hit .177 against him, with a meager OPS of .520. After struggling slightly at times early in the year, he has been absolutely dominant in the second half, posting an ERA of 1.47 and a WHIP of 0.69 after the All-Star Break. Although only 22 years old, there is little doubt about his ability to shut down the Rangers; opposition in the late innings of October.

Darren O’Day offers the Rangers the versatility to be utilized in a variety of roles. His submarine style delivery makes him death on RH hitters, as they only hit .185 off him in 2010. He was effective against lefties as well, only allowing them a .229 average, so he is not limited to situational status.

Overall, in 71 appearances, he has thrown 61 innings, allowing only 43 hits for a minuscule 0.90 WHIP. He only struck out 43, but excelled at keeping men off base. His arm will surely prove useful over the coming weeks.

Darren Oliver keeps defying time, and at age 40, continues to provide Ron Washington with a valuable veteran arm as his left-handed specialist. Since transitioning to full-time bullpen work in 2006, Oliver has turned in three of his best career seasons from 2008-10. Pitching 60.2 innings, he struck out 65, with a WHIP of 1.10, and an ERA of 2.52.

Against left-handed hitters is where he excels, only allowing a .192 average and .516 OPS in those splits. With all the top left-handed hitter on the opponents’ playoff rosters, Oliver will surely be a valuable component of the Ranger bullpen.

Other left-handed options for the bullpen include young starters Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. Due to their starting experience, each could be valuable as a long reliever as well. Holland could also be suited as a LH specialist to aid Oliver, since he only allowed lefties to hit .130 this year with an impressive .362 OPS.

Harrison was not as effective against lefties and struggled somewhat with his control this year, so he would most likely see long relief duty if included on the roster. Scott Feldman provides another long relief option as a regular starter, but he struggled mightily this year with a 1.6 WHIP and 5.48 ERA, after posting a strong 2009 in which he won 17 games.

Manager Ron Washington has several other hard-throwing options to choose from as he finalizes his postseason bullpen. Dustin Nippert can bring the heat as he vies for a spot in the Texas pen. He was very good in 2009, but regressed in 2010, as he struggled with his command and appeared too hittable at times. His 4.36 ERA was decent, but his 1.73 WHIP provided evidence to support the concerns over his ability to keep men off base.

Mark Lowe could be a late inclusion to help fill Francisco’s shoes. He has only pitched one inning for the Rangers after rehabbing from a back injury, but he is receiving a late look to see if he may help bridge the gap to Feliz.

A wild-card could be Rich Harden, he of the phenomenal ability, but unable to stay healthy. He was used only a couple times in relief, to disastrous results, but the Rangers may be inclined to try to get some value out of him, as they have thus far not been repaid on their $7.5 million investment.

We shall soon know how the Texas Rangers will construct their post-season bullpen for their first playoff appearance since 1999. Whichever relievers he selects, Ron Washington possesses a deep group to choose from, and the Rangers appear well-armed to attempt to make it beyond the Divisional Series for the first time in franchise history.


Please check out Featured Columnist Brian Winett’s detailed analysis of all the playoff teams’ bullpens in this piece.

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