If I would have told you six months ago that the Rangers and Orioles would be in the AL's Wild Card playoff game, I bet you would have imagined that the Angels ran roughshod over the AL West, and that two out of the three top contenders in the AL East had a massive breakdown. Well...that's sort of accurate. But at any rate, here we are, with the Rangers and Orioles and their identical 93-69 records squaring off at 8:37 tonight in Arlington, with Joe Saunders and Yu Darvish on the mound.
Starting Pitching: Joe Saunders has historically struggled at the Ballpark in Arlington, going 0-6 in six starts and allowing 13 homers over those six starts. However, he hasn't started there since July of 2010, so those splits might not be overly accurate. He's been roughly the same pitcher he's been during his whole career since coming over to Baltimore in his seven starts, limiting both his walks and strikeouts. But Saunders is allowing fewer homers than usual, probably due to both a small sample size and not having to pitch in hitters parks a ton.
As for Darvish, he's been fantastic as of late, striking out 60 and walking just ten since a disastrous five walk outing against the Tigers in mid-August. He's got the potential to absolutely take over a game, a trait that Saunders doesn't possess. The big pitching advantage goes to the Rangers, which isn't something you'd necessarily expect when you consider a veteran versus a rookie.
Bullpen: The pendulum will swing back to Baltimore's favor here, with Texas' lack of Mike Adams for today's game potentially looming as a key point. Without Adams, more pressure will be thrust upon the inexperienced Robbie Ross, former Oriole Koji Uehara, and the reliever turned starter turned reliever again Alexi Ogando as a bridge to get to closer Joe Nathan. The Rangers possess one major advantage over the Orioles if both starters get bombed out early, and that's the presence of Roy Oswalt, who has the potential to throw multiple innings, in addition to starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. The Orioles are going all-in with the bullpen that got them here, and it's quite a good one. Closer Jim Johnson, Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, and Luis Ayala all have ERAs under 3.00 this year, and all but Strop do a great job at limiting walks. One bad thing is that none of those five aside from O'Day strike out more than eight batters per nine innings, putting perhaps an extra stress on the defense. If Saunders can give Baltimore five or six solid innings and keep them in the game, the Orioles bullpen can lock down the Rangers and give the hitters a chance to win the game.
Lineup: Baltimore got some great news when an MRI on Mark Reynolds' foot yesterday came up negative, allowing the first baseman to play in today's game. The Orioles' lineup is loaded with power, with five of the nine starters today bashing at least 20 homers this year. Of the other four starters, one is rookie third baseman Manny Machado, one is Pirates and Braves castoff Nate McLouth, one is slap hitting second baseman Robert Andino, and one is Jim Thome, who has dealt with injuries during his brief time in Baltimore. In the hot Texas climate, that power could result in balls flying all over the yard, though that didn't happen back in August when the Orioles were in Arlington. As for the Rangers offense, it's still good, just not as good as last season. They possess the two best hitters in the series in Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton, who have the potential to influence games in a major way with their bats. But unlike the Orioles, the Rangers feature a black hole in their lineup in the form of DH Michael Young, who has been horrible all year. Young has been stubbornly stuck in the six-hole in the Texas lineup for most of the year, which could snuff out rallies in front of David Murphy and Mike Napoli. The Orioles lineup probably has a higher floor than the Rangers lineup, but Texas has a much, much higher ceiling.
Bench: The Rangers have a pair of young players on their bench that could turn the game on their head: Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin. Both players had awesome seasons in the minors, and could make a huge impact if they are needed in the game. The Rangers are also going to war with Craig Gentry, a speedy fourth outfielder, on the bench, along with a pair of backup catchers (including Geovany Soto). The Orioles bench is nowhere near as exciting, with veteran utilityman Wilson Betemit as the standout for the team. Baltimore really is in trouble if they need to make any substitutions, whereas the Rangers can get a little more creative with switches.
Overall: The Rangers are the more talented team on paper. But then again, they were more talented on paper than the A's, and they lost three straight to them to close out the season to lose the AL West title. Texas is also in a 2-7 spiral to close out the season, which isn't the way you want to roll in to the playoffs. As for the Orioles, they were the worst team on paper in the AL East coming into the season, and they're now playing in October. The Orioles struggled offensively against the Rays to close out the year, and that's also not a good omen going into a game against a team with a nuclear offense like the Rangers. Texas is the better team, but that doesn't mean they're going to win. Crazy things can happen, and they've been happening for the Orioles all year.