American League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—Baltimore Orioles at Texas Rangers

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It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that the Orioles announced Joe Saunders as their starting pitcher. Since his acquisition from the Diamondbacks on August 26th, Saunders went 3-3 in 7 starts for the Orioles and was a consistent arm in the Orioles rotation for their run to the playoffs. He gives up a lot of hits, can be homer-prone, and accumulates high pitch counts because of his propensity to lose the strike zone. He doesn’t walk that many (39 in 174 innings in 2012), but he goes to a lot of deep counts. He doesn’t have the stuff to miss his spots and if he misses his spots in a homer haven like Texas against the Rangers lineup, the Orioles will be staring at an early crooked number and have to get the bullpen hot quickly.

Manager Buck Showalter will have someone in mind to take over in the first inning if Saunders gets into immediate difficulty. Many of the Rangers players have experience against Saunders from his days with the Angels, and Ian Kinsler has hammered him with a 1.464 OPS and 4 homers in 28 plate appearances. Nelson Cruz has 2 homers in 20 plate appearances, Josh Hamilton is 4 for 10 with a homer, and Geovany Soto is 4 for 6 in his career against Saunders with a homer and two walks.

Saunders struggled in his post-season opportunities with the Angels and has a 6.00 ERA in 18 innings.

We won’t see Saunders for long.

The Rangers are countering with their high-priced Japanese import Yu Darvish. After the consternation as to whether Darvish was going to be another Daisuke Matsuzaka and come to North America with great hype only to fail, perhaps a lesson was learned not to judge a player simply because of his nationality. Darvish and Matsuzaka are nothing like one another apart from both having come from Japan.

Darvish was made even more interesting due to his unique heritage of being half-Japanese and half-Iranian. He was everything that the Rangers could have wanted and more. He went 16-9 with a wonderful innings-pitched/hits ratio of 191/156, and 221 strikeouts. Bear in mind that he walked 89 and can be very wild. Darvish did not pitch against the Orioles this season.

Like Saunders, I wouldn’t expect Darvish to be sharp and in complete command of his enthusiasm and emotions in a home start to send his team deeper into the playoffs. The Rangers are reeling from having blown the AL West to the Athletics and don’t have the peace of mind and relief from just having made the playoffs that prior teams that blew the division like the 2006 Tigers did. There’s no 3 of 5 series to get themselves straight. This is one game and the Rangers need Darvish to be throwing strikes and focused. If his mind is going in twenty different directions, the Rangers are going to have the bullpen ready to go like the Orioles will.

Mike Napoli, Cruz, and Hamilton have all put up great showings in post-seasons past, but where is Hamilton’s head? His dropped pop-up and casual jog after the ball when it fell was indicative of a rampant disinterest as to whether the Rangers won the division or not. It could very well have cost them the game and ruined their season if they lose to the Orioles.

The Orioles have played with magic all season long. I’ve had enough of people saying they’re not a “good” team, or that they’re “lucky” as a justification for having ripped them as hopeless and a perennial loser before the season started. I picked them to finish in last place and was wrong. I’m happy to see an organization as historically significant as the Orioles back in the playoffs after a decade-and-a-half of futility and embarrassment. And what’s wrong with being lucky anyway? They’re opportunistic and cohesive; they get contributions from unexpected sources such as Nate McLouth and Lew Ford, and have stood toe-to-toe with teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays that shoved their faces in the dirt for far too long. They have bashers who can hit the ball out of the park with Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters.

Both teams, going in, are evenly matched with a decided advantage in the Orioles dugout with Showalter over Rangers’ manager Ron Washington.

The starters are not going to last long and this game will be a shootout. I would prefer not getting into a shootout with a Texas Ranger in Texas and that will be the Orioles downfall.

PREDICTION: Rangers 10—Orioles 7

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