In the first ever MLB American League Wild Card Game, the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers have plenty of good storylines to choose from. The best, however, might be how the hopes of the two-time reigning AL champs now ride on their rookie ace-in-waiting.
Yu Darvish is set to take the ball for the Rangers, but he's not the only X-factor in the winner-take-all format. The Orioles, under the leadership of Buck Showalter and a good mix of veteran and young talent, would be the surprise team in baseball if it weren't for the Oakland Athletics.
Former Rangers litter the Baltimore roster, from Chris Davis to Pedro Strop to Taylor Teagarden. By the same token, Koji Uehara is a former Oriole, and these two teams seem to be inevitably linked to each other.
The winner moves on to the ALDS to face the New York Yankees. Here are some of the X-factors for both teams and how their storylines affect what's sure to be one of the most intense games of the season for both squads.
We'll get the obvious out of the way first with Darvish, who is making his first ever start in the postseason on the game's biggest stage. On national television, Darvish will try to contend with the O's, who have never faced him in his big league career.
Darvish is 10-3 when facing a team for the first time, compared to 6-6 when they've seen him on multiple occasions.
As it has been all season, if Darvish establishes his fastball command early in the game, he usually lasts seven or eight innings. The Japanese product has filthy stuff (finishing third in the AL in strikeouts), but if the fastball isn't a threat, teams have shown the ability to lay off his breaking pitches.
Darvish can extend a promising rookie campaign by leading the Rangers to victory today, and if he does, he'll also put his name on a short list of greatest postseason pitchers in Rangers history.
The former Rangers 1B/DH became expendable after Mitch Moreland got the call up in 2010, and the Rangers were able to turn Davis into Uehara last year at the trade deadline.
All Davis has done is hit during his time in Baltimore. In the classic "change of scenery" situation, Davis has banged out 33 home runs and 85 RBI in his first full season away from Texas.
You can bet he'll have internal pressure, since he never could get it right in Texas after a promising start just several seasons ago. Could Davis provide the big spark that the O's need to make it to the ALDS? It would be a fitting storyline, and one that very well may come to pass.
The roller coaster that is Josh Hamilton took another turn for the worse during the Rangers' regular-season finale. Fighting the sun and apparently more personal demons, Hamilton misjudged a fly ball that would have kept the score 5-5 in the AL West-deciding game against the A's. Oakland scored three more that inning and would go on to win 12-5.
It's been a weird season for the former MVP. Ups and downs and highlights are everywhere, but no level of consistency can be found for the slugger. Hamilton hit 42 home runs after basically taking off during the months of June and July, and he was forced to miss time with eye problems in the heat of a division race.
But this is the same Orioles team that Hamilton drove out a MLB record-tying four home runs against earlier this season, and you can bet that storyline will be in full effect on Friday night.
This is a pivotal game for Hamilton's confidence should the Rangers advance, as well as his legacy with the team. Another stinker will ease the pain of his impending exit in free agency, while a hero's performance might persuade the team to bring him back at all costs.
The Rangers are somewhat reeling right now when facing the bullpen, and their confidence can't be high after watching Grant Balfour retire 3-4-5, 3-4-5 and 4-5-6 in three consecutive days for the A's.
But this first taste of the postseason could prove to be Johnson's defining moment of 2012, even though he was an All-Star and led the league in saves with 51.
On the road in Texas, will he be asked to take out the meat of the order against the reigning champs? Johnson's as tough as they come, but will that lack of experience play a factor today?
There are so many great storylines happening on Friday, that it's hard to do anything but cheer on Bud Selig for adding this fifth and final wild-card spot. It's going to be a ground-breaking day across baseball, and these two teams will have something to do with it .
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