Baltimore Orioles vs Texas Rangers: 5 Biggest Matchups of AL Wild Card Game
These two franchises are the subjects of two of the biggest stories of the 2012 Major League Baseball season. Given their vastly different narratives, Baltimore and Texas seemed destined to face each other in this one-game playoff.
The Orioles are the young and unpredictable bunch that spent a majority of the season defying statistics as they continued to grind out wins.
The Rangers are the two-time defending AL Pennant winners looking to exorcise their World Series demons after back-to-back defeats in the Fall Classic.
In fact, no playoff matchup features two teams with less in common than Baltimore and Texas. Now the Orioles and Rangers will do battle in a single-game showdown for the right to face the New York Yankees in the American league Division Series.
As we approach tomorrow night’s first pitch, here are the six biggest matchups to look for when Baltimore and Texas take the field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Yu Darvish vs Joe Saunders
When the Rangers invested nearly $112 million (including his six-year, $60 million contract) in signing Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish this past offseason, this is the type of moment they envisioned him being available for.
The same cannot be said for his Orioles counterpart, Joe Saunders, who wasn’t even with Baltimore until they acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks in late August.
Darvish has been inconsistent during his first season in the major leagues, but he’s been great down the stretch for Texas. In five September starts, he was 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA and 0.74 WHIP while holding opposing batters to a minuscule .160 batting average.
Saunders, like nearly everyone who’s put on an Orioles uniform in 2012, has been better than expected since coming back to the American League. He went 3-3 in seven starts for Baltimore with a 3.63 ERA and 1.28 WHIP.
Besides the fact that Darvish is clearly the better—and hotter—pitcher, this matchup strongly favors the Rangers for a couple of reasons. The Orioles have never faced Darvish, providing a decided advantage to a player with such a dazzling array of pitches in his arsenal.
Saunders, on the other hand, has a long history against Texas stemming from his six seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. That history is not all good.
In six career starts in Texas, he is 0-6 with an astronomical 9.38 ERA, 1.80 WHIP and .318 batting average against. That doesn’t bode well for Saunders, despite his postseason experience, as he prepares to face the AL’s highest scoring team.
Texas’ Experience vs Baltimore’s Youth
Despite a 2-7 slide that cost Texas home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs and the AL West crown, the Rangers won’t be rattled come Friday night. This is a team full of playoff-tested veterans that are used to dealing with adversity and disappointment (see the last two World Series).
The Orioles, on the other hand, are a team full of players who aren’t used to success and don’t know that they aren’t supposed to be this good. Even their two All-Stars (center fielder Adam Jones and catcher Matt Wieters) are playoff virgins who are still a few years shy of 30.
There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that teams don’t necessarily have to “earn their stripes” before they’re ready to experience success in the postseason. However, the Rangers’ experience will give them a slight edge in this game because of the way they backed into the playoffs.
Baltimore’s players will be fearless as they have been all season. But if the game doesn’t go their way early on, it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to the pressure.
Although the Orioles were the American League’s best road team in the regular season at 46-35, the playoffs present an entirely different environment away from home.
Buck Showalter vs Ron Washington
There’s no bigger contrast between the Orioles and Rangers than the managers that lead them.
Baltimore’s Buck Showalter is one of the most straight-laced, by-the-book managers in all of Major League Baseball. He’s a stickler for detail and a master tactician who demands the best from his players.
Showalter’s no-nonsense approach was needed after years of subpar baseball in Baltimore. His players play the game the right way and give maximum effort every time they take the field or step in the batters box.
Ron Washington has a more laid-back approach to managing Texas and is clearly a proverbial “player’s coach." His style may not work for a lot of teams, but for a veteran group like the Rangers, Washington is an ideal fit.
In-game management is not his strongest quality, a fact that was exploited by former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa during the 2011 World Series.
Showalter is a strong favorite for this year’s AL Manager of the Year award, primarily because of the way he’s managed Baltimore’s constantly changing starting rotation. His superior feel for the game would be a greater advantage in a five or seven game series, but it may not come into play in this one game against Texas.
Baltimore's Fielders vs Texas' Hitters
Texas was second in the American League in team batting average (.273) and first in runs scored (808) during the regular season, so we know this team can hit.
Given Joe Saunders’ history pitching in Arlington, the Rangers will create quite a few fielding opportunities for Baltimore’s fielders and they can’t afford to blow them.
The Orioles committed 106 errors this year which ranked tenth in the AL. If that type of ineptitude continues, Baltimore’s miracle run to the postseason will be over in a hurry.
Texas Bullpen vs Baltimore’s Late-Game Heroics
Statistically, the Texas Rangers put together an above average bullpen this season. But Baltimore will have a great opportunity to get back into the AL Wild Card game if it’s still close when Yu Darvish departs.
Texas finished sixth in the AL in bullpen era at 3.42 and the team only blew nine saves all year long, good for second in the league. But Washington has a strange habit of using his relievers at inopportune times and he’ll be without Mike Adams in this game who’s one of the Rangers’ most reliable bullpen arms.
Baltimore’s success in one-run games and in extra innings this year is the stuff of legend. The Orioles were 29-9 in the former which is one of the best marks in major league history. Their 16-2 mark in games that went longer than nine innings is a testament to their own bullpen keeping them in games late.
Though Baltimore’s success can’t be considered a fluke after 162 games, the one-run and extra-inning marks are the sort of statistical anomalies that you can’t count on. That said, it would behoove Texas to try and put this game away early.
Conclusion, Final Game Prediction
Although the Rangers enter the postseason playing their worst baseball of the season, there are too many factors working in their favor for the Orioles to prevail.
Texas will be playing at home with their hottest starting pitcher on the mound, and they get benefit of facing a pitcher who struggles at the Ballpark in Arlington. Showalter will have Saunders on a short leash, but it won't be nearly short enough.
The Orioles have been one of the game’s best stories this season and they’ll likely carry this success into a strong 2013 campaign. Unfortunately for Baltimore fans, the O’s are going to be one-and-done in the 2012 playoffs.
The Rangers' hitters will blow this game open early. Yu Darvish will keep the Orioles bats in check long enough for their late-game heroics to be a non-factor in this contest.
Final score: Rangers 8, Orioles 3