AL wild-card preview: Texas Rangers vs. Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore Orioles (93-69) at Texas Rangers (93-69), 8:30 PM ET
As expectations go, it's tough to find a matchup that draws a bigger contrast between this one. Coming into this season, the Orioles hadn't posted a single winning campaign — let alone made the playoffs — since 1997, the majors' second-longest active streak of futility. By contrast, the Rangers had won the AL pennant twice in a row. Both teams wound up surprising us. The Orioles challenged the Yankees for AL East supremacy all the way down to the season's final day thanks in large part to a 38-20 record from Aug. 1 onward. With general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter remaking their roster, rotation and lineup in the final two months, the turnover enabled the team to dig out of an appallingly bad run differential for a contender (-51 through the end of July, +58 thereafter).
Meanwhile, the Rangers ran hot and cold, alternating months in which they looked like the league's best team (17-6 in April, 19-9 in June, 19-10 in August) with ones where they played lackadaisically (14-14 in May, 9-14 in July, 15-16 in September/October). With seven losses in their final nine games — including a 12-5 rout by the A's on the season's final day — they surrendered the first place perch that they had held since April 9, turning their season into a win-or-go-home proposition. By dint of a 5-2 season record against the Orioles, they host tonight's festivities.
As I noted yesterday, such hot and cold stretches don't tell us much about what will happen in the postseason; as the Orioles' Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver famously said, "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." Fortunately for the Rangers, they can turn to Yu Darvish, who finally started pitching like an ace late in his first season in the U.S. thanks to vastly improved command of his seven-pitch arsenal. He's been on an impressive roll since early August:
|Through August 6||21||6.4||48%||0.8||5.0||10.3||4.57||3.92||.313|
Note that five of those eight starts came against contenders, the Tigers, Rays (twice) and Angels (twice). Darvish is a big reason why the latter two are golfing or hunting now, having won three of his four starts against them. Where the 25-year-old righty had walked four or more in 11 of his first 22 starts (including five against the Tigers to kick off the latter stretch), he didn't walk more than two in any of his last seven. Although his overall walk rate of 4.2 per nine was the league's third highest, his 10.4 strikeouts per nine ranked second, and his 0.7 homers per nine fourth. With so many weapons to attack hitters from either side of the plate, he showed very little platoon split (.207/.302/.338 against righties, .231/.322/.352 against lefties). He has yet to face the Orioles this year.
Ron Washington isn't afraid to push Darvish into the 115-125 pitch range, and will try to get the ball to a bullpen that ranked sixth in the league in ERA at 3.42, but that is perhaps lacking in the sheer number of weapons relative to recent years. Texas recently lost Mike Adams to a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome, and while they still have Alexi Ogando as the top righty setup man, Washington hasn't shown nearly as much faith in his other righty options such as Koji Uehara, Mark Lowe or Tanner Scheppers; the latter two aren't even on tonight's roster, while middling middlemen Scott Feldman and Roy Oswalt are. Of the four lefties available to Washington, the manager may have more confidence in starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison than Robbie Ross or Michael Kirkman; Harrison (.209/.244/.327 in 221 PA against lefties) and Ross (.225/.289/.324 in 115 PA) were the most effective against same-siders. At the end of the chain, 37-year-old closer Joe Nathan rebounded from a rocky post-Tommy John surgery season in 2011 to post a 2.80 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine (against 1.8 walks per nine) in 2012, converting 37 out of 40 save opportunities.
The Orioles counter Darvish with lefty Joe Saunders, a sinkerballer who doesn't miss many bats or generate a ton of groundballs. Acquired from the Diamondbacks on August 26, Saunders delivered five quality starts out of seven and a 3.63 ERA down the stretch, but he struck out just 4.6 per nine (down from 6.2 as a Diamondback), getting by on a combination of low walk and homer rates (1.6 and 0.8 per nine). His overall walk rate of 2.0 per nine ranked 13th in the majors, and he's extremely tough against lefties (.199/.222/.229 in 172 PA, but he's been knocked around by righties (.307/.349/.500), which is a rough draw against a lineup with no shortage of right-handed weapons such as Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli. He didn't face the Rangers this year.
Saunders isn't likely to stick around for a long night, given that the bullpen is Baltimore's strength, with the league's third-best ERA (3.00, behind Tampa Bay and Oakland, who both play in much more pitcher-friendly parks) — a major reason why the O's went an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games. Righties Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Darren O'Day, and lefties Troy Patton and Brian Matusz give Showalter no shortage of weapons to go matchup-by-matchup. Swingman Steve Johnson, who put up a 2.11 ERA while striking out 10.8 per nine in 46 1/3 innings via four starts and eight relief appearances, could be the first reliever out of the bullpen if Saunders struggles, or if Showalter wants to induce Washington to turn to his lefty hitters early. Matusz could be key later on; bombed as a starter earlier in the year, he was stellar out of the bullpen after returning from Triple-A in late August, delivering a 1.35 ERA with 19 strikeouts and two unintentional walks in 13 1/3 innings while stranding all 14 runners he inherited. Lefties hit just .175/.230/.298 in 123 PA against him this year, and he's allowed just two hits to the last 27 batters he's faced. The ninth-inning man is Jim Johnson, who doesn't fit the traditional dominant closer template; he struck out just 5.4 per nine, but was stingy enough with his walk and homer rates (2.0 and 0.4) to convert a major league best 51 saves in 54 opportunities. His degree of difficulty was high, with an AL-best 2.1 adjusted leverage index.
Thanks at least somewhat to their ballpark, the Rangers led the league in scoring at 4.99 runs per game, and ranked in the top three in all three slash stats while hitting .273/.334/.446. Despite their pop — second in the league in isolated power (.173) and fourth in homers (200) — they're not a very patient lot, ranking 10th in walk rate at 7.7 percent. Lefty Josh Hamilton (.285/.354/.577 with a career-high 43 homers) is the centerpiece, but he has been rather ordinary (.245/.322/.487 since June 1) after a world-beating start. A five-game mid-September absence due to blurred vision and a key gaffe in Wednesday's game have put him under the microscope, and it's entirely possible the pending free agent could be playing in his final game as a Ranger. A terror against righties (.282/.363/.602 with 33 homers in 444 PA), he's less of a danger but hardly harmless against lefties (.291/.333/.520 with 10 homers in 192 PA).
Hamilton is one of four Rangers with at least 20 homers, along with Beltre (36), Cruz and Napoli (24 apiece), but Kinsler (19) and David Murphy (15) do have some thump as well. The lefty Murphy, who hit .347/.405/.440 in 84 PA against lefties this year, gets the call against Saunders, but fellow lefty Mitch Moreland sits in favor of Michael Young, whose dismal season was mitigated by a .333/.371/.423 showing in 167 PA against southpaws. Despite the aforementioned righty tilt to the lineup, it's worth noting that both Beltre (.269/.314/.423) and Napoli (.179/.295/.411) were less effective against lefties than righties. Moreland is their top lefty bat off the bench (.281/.328/.470 against righties), while righty Craig Gentry is their top bench bat against lefties (.343/.425/.434 in 115 PA), and may emerge at some point to bump Hamilton over to leftfield at Murphy's expense.
The Orioles ranked just eighth in the league in scoring at 4.40 runs per game, but they cranked out a more robust 4.75 runs per game over the season's final two months. Their .247 batting average and .311 on-base percentage both ranked in the lower half of the league, but their .417 slugging percentage ranked sixth, their .170 isolated power third, and their 214 home runs second. No less than 47 percent of their runs came via home runs, the majors' second-highest rate; by contrast, the Rangers' 38 percent ranked 11th. Five Orioles hit more than 20 homers this year: Chris Davis (33), Adam Jones (32), Mark Reynolds (23), Matt Wieters (23) and J.J. Hardy (22). In their current incarnation, Showalter has the lefty-swinging pieces to offset a Texas team whose righties struggled against same-side pitching (.238/.297/.412); the red-hot Davis (holding down rightfield in Nick Markakis' absence) and late arrivals Nate McLouth (leftfield), Ryan Flaherty (second base) and Jim Thome (designated hitter) join the switch-hitting Wieters in countering that problem. Off the bench, Wilson Betemit is a switch-hitter in name only, of use against righties (.302/.357/.502 in 280 PA) but kindling against lefties (.140/.219/.186 in 96 PA). Long-lost Lew Ford may be their top option against southpaws, though his performance (.224/309/.449 in 55 PA against them) doesn't inspire much confidence. Given the Rangers' dominance over the past few years and the superiority of Darvish as a starter, it's easy to pick them as the favorite in this game despite their rough final week. That said, the Orioles have been defying doubters all year long, and there's little question that Showalter can manage circles around Washington in a tactical sense, particularly if the game stays close in the late innings — or even extras, where his team is a remarkable 16-2. The bet here is that the Oriole magic runs out, but would anybody be shocked if it didn't?