The Rangers paid big bucks to get starting pitcher Yu Darvish in the off-season. Now letís see if heís worth the money. (ANTHONY BOLANTE/Reuters file photo)
ARLINGTON, TEX. - Quite often a baseball series builds over a week-long rollercoaster ride to a crackling Game 7 climax. Tonight, before the playoffs have even started, the Baltimore Orioles and the Texas Rangers are skipping all the preliminaries.
They’re going directly to Game 7.
After 162 games, their playoff fates rest on one American League wild card game Friday night at Rangers Ballpark. The winner gets to play the New York Yankees in a five-game AL Division Series starting Sunday.
It didn’t have to be that way for either team but, of the two, the Rangers have to be in a much worse place emotionally.
“Over the last few weeks we had our chances to get it done,” said Texas outfielder David Murphy. “We didn’t get it done, but we still have life. Just keep fighting. This one hurts, but in reality we’re going into Game 7. If we can win one more game, none of this mattered.”
Murphy was talking about Texas’ lousy final 10 days when they lost seven of nine games to blow a five-game lead and lose the AL West title to Oakland on the season’s final day. He could also have been talking about the stunning turnaround in last year’s World Series that has gnawed at their guts for the past 11 months. This Rangers team was one strike away, twice, in the late innings of Game 6 at St. Louis and let it slip away, losing in extra innings. Back then all they had to do was win Game 7 and we all know how that worked out.
Rangers manager Ron Washington gave his team a mental health day Thursday after the events of Wednesday, when they raced out to a 5-1 lead in Oakland then got buried, 12-5.
“We’ve been grinding,” said Washington. “I just felt like they needed a break away from the ballpark. They needed some down time. I gave them it today.
“We’ve put ourselves up against a wall having to play one game. But if you win that one game, once you get in, anything can happen.”
The Rangers won five of seven meetings against Baltimore this year, outscoring the Orioles 56-24 in the process. On the other hand, the Orioles led the American League with 46 wins on the road this season. Momentum is an elusive commodity in baseball. It can change with one pitch, or one at-bat but it can also linger over a period of time.
If you compare the Rangers and Orioles over the last 30 games of the season, the Orioles have been the better team. They are 20-10 since September 1, averaging 5.1 runs on offence and allowing 3.6 runs to the opposition. The only reason they didn’t do to the Yankees what the A’s did to the Rangers was that the Yankees responded to the challenge. And the Rangers? Not so much. They limped home on a 15-15 record, averaging 4.2 runs per game while allowing an average of 4.7.
Tonight, that will mean nothing. Or will it?
“We’ll be ready to go,” veteran Michael Young said. “We don’t have a choice. It’s a big game. You’re not going to sit there and lick your wounds going into Friday. You move on and get ready to play. This isn’t the way we drew it up, but at the same time we can still make our run starting Friday.”
Rosters for the wild-card round are due at 10 a.m. Friday and the composition of those rosters could play a significant role in the game’s strategy. Because it’s a one-game format and the rosters can be re-set before the Division Series begins, look for both managers to lop off some starting pitchers and add either bench strength or load up on relievers.
Showalter, in particular, loves to match up in situations and he has been masterful with his bullpen this season. Don’t be surprised if he shows up with nine or 10 relievers and that still leaves room for 14 or 15 position players. This could turn into a marathon cat-and-mouse game.
This will be Baltimore’s first playoff game in 15 years. The Rangers, on the other hand, have played 33 playoff games the last two years. For one of them, it will be one-and-done in 2012.
O’s skip has confidence in Saunders
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter has pulled a lot of the right strings this season but he raised some eyebrows with his choice of lefty Joe Saunders as his starter in Friday’s wild card game against the Rangers and Yu Darvish.
Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six starts in Arlington, and has gone 3-7 with a 6.48 ERA in 11 career starts against the Rangers. With the Orioles in September, Saunders was a workhorse, logging 39 innings in six starts, with a 2.75 ERA.
Saunders is a veteran and has started four post-season games.
“He’s rested and ready to go,” Showalter said. “He’s pitched some in the playoffs. We’ve said that our No. 1 starter is the guy pitching that day. Our whole rotation has been a sum of the parts. Joe has pitched well for us since he’s been here. He’s got a tough task ahead of him.
Darvish finished strongly for the Rangers, working 43.2 innings in his last six starts, limiting opponents to a 1.85 ERA in that span.
“He’s got stuff, and he’s figured out how to use his repertoire now,” Washington said. “I like the way he goes out there and competes now.”