A couple days ago, the Texas Rangers were one win away from securing their third straight AL West title, and all the Baltimore Orioles had to do to have a shot at the AL East crown was keep pace with the New York Yankees.
Neither of these things happened. The Oakland A's swept the Rangers in a three-game series to snatch the division from their grasp, and the Orioles lost two out of three to the Tampa Bay Rays while the Yankees swept the Boston Red Sox.
So instead of introducing themselves as division champs, the Rangers and Orioles have to be content to introduce themselves as 2012 American League wild-card champs.
It doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and the Rangers and Orioles will no doubt be the first to tell you that. There will be two disappointed teams on the field on Friday night in Arlington. With both the Rangers and O's backpedaling into the postseason, we have no choice but to ask: Which of them is in more trouble?
Strap yourselves in. It's time for an immediate discussion.
Why the Rangers Are in Serious Trouble
Cover your ears, Rangers fans. Some very damning stats are about to head your way.
Including off days, the Rangers spent a grand total of 186 days in first place in the AL West this season. As ESPN's Jayson Stark pointed out, they were in first place all on their own every day from April 9 right up until Tuesday.
The Rangers held a five-game lead in the division as recently as last Monday. Barely a week ago, they were the only division leader in the AL that merely had to hold on until the finish line appeared in front of them. The Rangers could not do this—they ended the season by losing nine out of 13. The last of the nine losses came on Wednesday, and it was a damn ugly loss.
Texas had the game under control when it scored five runs in the third inning to take a 5-1 lead, but the Rangers were only able to make that lead hold up for a single inning. The A's scored six runs in the bottom of the fourth, the last two of which scored when Josh Hamilton biffed a can-of-corn fly ball.
The A's added another run in the fifth, and the floodgates opened in the eighth when the A's scored four more runs thanks in part to an error by Nelson Cruz. The final score was 12-5.
In all, the Rangers made three errors that led to four unearned runs. And while they did a pretty good job of keeping the line moving in the third inning, they failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the fourth and seventh innings that could have turned the tide in their favor.
One word that comes to mind is "ugly." "Ugly, ugly, ugly." The other word that comes to mind, strangely enough, is "typical."
The Rangers have been guilty of playing sloppy baseball at times this season. This was very much the case when they went 14-14 in May and 9-14 in July, and sloppy baseball is what led to their downfall in the last two weeks.
Texas' pitching can be an adventure, but the strange part of the club's slide over the last couple weeks is that its offense has gone missing. The Rangers were held to three runs or fewer in six of their last nine losses this season, and many of those can be chalked up their inability to come up with clutch hits.
But when it comes to the Rangers these days, you can chalk up all their individual issues to one overarching concern: They just look gassed. They look like a team that has played too much damn baseball over the last three years.
Rangers fans better hope it's fatigue, because if it's not fatigue it's something else. After watching the Rangers get overwhelmed by the mighty Oakland A's, it's very fair to question whether Ron Washington's club has the same desire to win that it did in 2010 and 2011.
If they want to win, they better remember how very soon. If they lose their next game, they won't be able to go get 'em tomorrow.
Why the Orioles Are in Serious Trouble
The Orioles gave it their best shot, but in the end they finished two games behind the Yankees in the AL East. Want to know the last time the Orioles were two games out in the division? Try over a month ago on September 2. They were never more than 1.5 games back in the division after then right up until this evening.
Granted, you still have to tip your cap to the Orioles. They came into this season riding a stretch of six straight 90-loss seasons, and this year they won 93 games and qualified for the postseason for the first time in 15 years. The word "disappointment" has no business being uttered in their vicinity.
If there is disappointment in Baltimore, it's not how the Orioles' season went. It's how it ended. The Orioles did not look like the better team down in Tampa Bay against the Rays, especially not in the last two games. They managed to score only two runs on a grand total of five hits.
To be sure, the Rays have excellent pitching, and the Orioles ran into two of their best in James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. It's better to be shut down by them than it is to be shut down by, say, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Cook.
But nobody should be quick to make too many excuses for the Orioles. Per FanGraphs, the Orioles went into Wednesday's finale with 157 runs scored in September and the first two days of October, second only to the Yankees. They'd scored the bulk of those runs on the strength of 50 homers (most in the American League).
So to watch the Orioles offense go to sleep so suddenly in Tampa Bay was quite the shock. They had been swinging the bats really, really well. And now one wonders if their bats will wake up by Friday. They better hope so, as the last thing they want is to have to rely on their pitching to pave the way in the postseason.
It's true that Baltimore's pitching has gotten better throughout the course of the season, but they find themselves in a situation now where the next day's starter is anybody's guess. A steady starting rotation is an alien concept in Baltimore these days, and has been for virtually the entire season.
The constant uncertainty of Baltimore's starting rotation has put a lot of strain on the club's bullpen. It's been excellent, but Orioles relievers are entering the postseason with more than 540 innings under their belts. That's a lot of work.
The Rangers aren't in a great place right now, but at least they collected more than five hits in their last two games. They also know what their starting rotation looks like, and that it features some quality arms. The Orioles didn't embarrass themselves down the stretch like the Rangers did, but that doesn't mean that they're better off.
Why the Rangers Can Snap Out of It
I'm just going to rattle off some names here. Josh Hamilton. Adrian Beltre. Ian Kinsler. Elvis Andrus. Nelson Cruz. David Murphy. Matt Harrison. Ryan Dempster. Yu Darvish. Joe Nathan. Alexi Ogando. Koji Uehara.
Those are the names of some really, really talented players. Better yet, most of those players have been there and done that in October each of the last two years. The point: If there's a team out there that can wake up for postseason baseball, it's the Rangers.
The Rangers are set up pretty well to get back on track when they take on the Orioles in Arlington on Friday night. In addition to having the home-field advantage, the word from ESPNDallas.com is that they're going to have Yu Darvish on the mound.
Darvish had his ups and downs this season, but he was excellent in his last seven starts, compiling a 2.13 ERA and .167 opponents’ batting average. He walked no more than two in any of these seven starts, proof-positive that he finally knows where his nasty stuff is going.
But the best part? Against the Orioles this season, Hamilton posted a 1.474 OPS and hit six home runs (including four in one game). He knows he can handle Baltimore pitching, and goodness knows he could use a pick-me-up these days.
For that matter, all of the Rangers could. I'll speak for myself and say that I wouldn't be at all surprised if they unleash some frustration on the Orioles on Friday night. If they do, watch out.
Why the Orioles Can Snap Out of It
If one didn't know any better, one would probably conclude that the world just ended for the Orioles after reading my take on their last two games. But the bright side? They managed to win one of them, and overall we're talking about an Orioles team that finished the season with wins in five of its last seven games.
The Orioles aren't about to panic. For that matter, the Orioles are never about to panic. Buck Showalter won't allow it.
Yes, Baltimore's starting pitching is a cause for concern. But it's not the kind of concern that signals impending doom for Showalter's club. His starting pitchers haven't been posting spectacular numbers this season, but one thing they have done pretty well is put the team in a position to win games on a consistent basis.
One guy who has done so better than most lately is veteran lefty Joe Saunders, who could get the call for Friday's game after last pitching on Sunday. He's compiled a 3-2 record and a 2.75 ERA in his last six starts, not giving up a single walk in any of the last three.
The Orioles will feel comfortable with him on the mound, and they won't be intimidated by the road venue either. The Orioles put together the best road record in the American League this season at 46-35, in no small part thanks to the fact that their pitchers generally performed a lot better on the road.
I'll stop short of saying that the O's have the Rangers right where they want them, but they certainly won't be out of their league when they take the field on Friday night. And from their perspective, they'll be taking on a team that's already experienced its best days.
The Grand Conclusion
Essentially, what we're talking about here is one team that's been there and done that before, and one upstart team that's about to enter uncharted waters.
Between the two, conventional wisdom says that the Orioles are in much deeper trouble. But I have to disagree—the Rangers strike me as the team that's in deeper trouble.
The Orioles may have ended the season by losing two out of three, but they didn't lose two out of three in embarrassing fashion. They ran into a tough team with some tough pitchers, and they got beat fair and square.
The Rangers ran into a very tough team with some tough pitchers, but they helped the A's out by beating themselves. If we're being honest, what they did was continue a bad stretch of baseball.
But the most concerning part about the Rangers is that they may not have been such a great team in the first place. As Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News pointed out, the Rangers went 13-3 in their first 16 games and 14-4 in interleague play, but just 66-62 in their other 128 games.
So for the bulk of the season, the Rangers have actually been pretty mediocre. And on Friday night, they'll be going up against a young, hungry team that has a .623 winning percentage since the All-Star break.
I should like their chances, especially seeing as how I just picked them to go to the World Series. But I don't.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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