Rangers-A's to settle AL West race once and for all
The regular season's final day has arrived, and while it can't match last year's insanity, much is still at stake. While all 10 playoff spots are wrapped up — Don Mattingly intentionally walked the Dodgers out of contention, basically — the only pairing that's set is the NL wild-card game between the Cardinals and the Braves. After a rousing night of action that saw the Orioles outlast a stellar 15-strikeout performance by the Rays' James Shields, the Yankees overtake the Red Sox in the late innings and the A's muscle in on the Rangers' place atop the division standings, there's more at stake on Wednesday, starting with a matchup in Oakland that will finally decide how the AL West will be won.
Texas Rangers (93-68) at Oakland A's (93-68), 3:35 p.m. EDT
Back on June 30, the Rangers were 50-29, 6 1/2 games up on the Angels (43-35) and 13 games up on the A's (37-42). Since then, Oakland has gone a major league-best 56-26 while Texas has gone just 43-39. After beating the Rangers 4-3 on Monday, the A's did it again on Tuesday, scratching out three runs against Matt Harrison to back Travis Blackley's strong six-inning effort. In doing so, they moved into a tie for the AL West lead, the first time since April 8 — following the season's third game — that the Rangers don't have sole possession of first place.
While both teams have clinched playoff spots, Wednesday afternoon's game will decide who must play in the do-or-die wild-card game on Friday. If the A's can pull off a win, they'll join a select group of storied teams that have overcome deficits of at least 13 games to finish first: the 1914 Boston Braves, 1951 New York Giants, 1978 New York Yankees and 1995 Seattle Mariners. For the season series, the A's hold a 10-8 advantage, including 6-2 in Oakland.
Ryan Dempster takes the mound for the Rangers. Acquired from the Cubs just minutes before the July 31 trading deadline, Dempster has been something of a disappointment; in 11 starts, he's been hit for a 4.64 ERA, up from 2.25 in 16 starts with Chicago. With the change in leagues, his home run rate has increased 75 percent (from 0.8 per nine to 1.4), his walk rate has increased 40 percent (from 2.3 per nine to 3.3), and his batting average on balls in play has skyrocketed (from .244 to .324). To be fair, his Chicago numbers were ripe for such regression, and overall both his ERA (3.18) and FIP (3.73) are improvements upon last year's numbers (4.80 and 3.87, respectively). Furthermore, his inflated numbers as a Ranger are more a product of a couple awful outings than consistent struggle. His quality start rate since the trade is 64 percent, compared to 69 percent prior, and since allowing eight runs in two of his first three starts since the trade, he has allowed more than three just twice, posting a 3.33 ERA the rest of the way. He has yet to face the A's this year.
Pairing off against the 35-year-old righty is 24-year-old rookie A.J. Griffin, who began the season in Double-A and didn't make his major league debut until June 24 this year. Griffin has delivered a stellar 2.71 ERA and a 64 percent quality start rate, but he may be running out of gas since surpassing last year's total of 160 2/3 innings. He's at 181 2/3 now despite missing four weeks in August with a shoulder strain, and has lasted more than five innings just once in his last three turns, yielding 10 runs and five homers in 14 2/3 innings against the Tigers, Yankees and Mariners. Overall, his strikeout and walk rates (7.2 and 1.9 per nine, respectively) are strong, but he's been vulnerable to the longball (1.1 per nine). On the other hand, he's shown virtually no platoon split, yielding a .216/.267/.345 line in 150 PA against righties and a .233/.268/.340 line in 168 PA against lefties. He faced the Rangers on June 29 in Texas, blanking them for six innings while yielding just two singles and two walks. That's not much to draw a conclusion from, but between home field advantage, the season series edge, and Griffin's stronger showing against the league than Dempster, it just might be enough to give the A's the edge in obtaining their first division title since 2006.