Who Starts the Wild Card Game for the AL Contenders?

As we head into the final two days of the regular season every playoff spot in the
American League has been claimed and still the playoff possibilities remain endless. The dogfight in the AL Central has a victor, with Detroit going all Red Baron on Chicago’s playoff chances, leaving the Sox dead in the water. But in the other two divisions, the fight to stay out of the coin-flip game rages on. New York and Texas are were many prognosticators felt they would be come October, but lurking just a game back in their respective divisions are Baltimore and Oakland, the season’s two biggest surprises. The AL West will have a winner one way or another.

Oakland still has hopes for the biggest division surprise win all time. All the upstart A’s need to do is sweep the two-time defending AL champs in Arlington otherwise the Rangers claim a 3rd straight title. Things are a little more complicated in the AL East, where a combination of either two Yankee wins or Oriole losses will hand the title to the pinstripes. In the event of a tie, both teams will play a game 163, with the winner claiming the division and the loser entering into the coin-flip game. The playoff possibilities are all over the place, with all four of the teams above still in contention for the AL’s best record. In fact, all we know for certain is that Detroit, the AL team with the 7th best record in the league, has the least to sweat out, knowing it will host somebody at Comerica this weekend.

All of which leads us to Friday, October 5th, the date the Wild Card game is scheduled to take place. Baltimore, New York, Oakland, and Texas would all prefer to avoid playing that day, but two of those teams will be left holding the short straws. At that point they will have a decision to make. Who do we start with everything on the line? Let’s take a look at the best option for each franchise.

Baltimore Orioles

Out of all the starting staffs in baseball that are headed to the playoffs, there’s very little doubt in my mind that Baltimore’s is the worst, and that the O’s will have the toughest decision to make. The bad news is that Buck Showalter will also have his hands tied a bit, because three of the Orioles’ four best starters (Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez) won’t be able to pitch because they are making starts in the final series against the Rays. The good news is that Jason Hammel, the O’s best starter in the 1st half before hitting the DL with knee issues, may be healthy enough to make the start. Hammel (8-6 with a 3.43 ERA 8.6 K/9) reportedly threw 76 pain-free pitches in Florida yesterday and could be ready to start as early as Friday.

If that’s the case Showalter has to go with Hammel, because there aren’t any other appetizing options. Jake Arrieta has been bombed this season for a 6.18 ERA. Tommy Hunter has an ERA north of 5.00 in over 100 innings this year and is easily hittable, much like Zach Britton. Joe Saunders will be rested up and ready to go, but his soft-tossing routine is just the type that tends to backfire in October. If Baltimore has nothing on the line in the season finale, they could also hold Chris Tillman back, which would probably be their best option. He’s been very solid this season, posting a 9-2 record with a sub-3.00 ERA, due mostly to a .232 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

The pick: Jason Hammels or Chris Tillman (depending on situation)

New York Yankees

No AL team has a more cut-and-dry choice of whom to pitch than the Yankees. CC Sabathia is the best and should be considered the only option. He’s struggled with a couple of minor lower body injuries this year, but has really put it together nicely over his last 3 starts, throwing a combined 24 innings with 28 strikeouts and just 4 walks. More importantly, Sabathia’s fastball velocity is right back where it should be, between 92-95 mph, and his precision location has returned after a couple of August hiccups. His return to form couldn’t have happened at a better time for New York and it makes Joe Girardi’s choice an easy one, even if he will be making the start on just 3 days rest.

The pick: CC Sabathia

Oakland A’s

There is a smorgasbord of rookie options available to manager Bob Melvin, which is either good news or bad news depending on your point of view. The good news is that A’s have ridden the youth brigade rotation straight to the playoffs. The bad news is that rookies can be more likely to falter under the bright lights of October, which is why most managers usually opt for experience. And because Oakland’s two most experienced pitchers are out for the year, Melvin will have to lean on a rookie.

Tommy Millone is probably going to get the nod, should Oakland end up in the Wild Card game, and he’s probably the best choice. Millone doesn’t walk batters (only 1.7 per 9 inn) and is excellent at home, should the coin-flip game take place at O.Co. He’s got a 2.74 ERA in his home park, 2 full runs lower than when he takes the bump on the road. I like Oakland to end up in the Wild Card round with home field advantage, so Millone has to be the pick.

The pick: Tommy Millone

Texas Rangers

For most of the season it would have seemed like a silly exercise to be considering the Rangers as a candidate for the play-in game. Texas has held a commanding lead in the AL West practically since Opening Day. They’re slip-sliding pretty badly right now however, and with Oakland streaking since the All-Star break, what was once a 10 game lead (over the A’s) is now down to just a single game. Luckily all Texas has to do is avoid getting swept to take the division. They will hand the ball to All-Stars Matt Harrison tonight and Ryan Dempster tomorrow, rendering both of those arms as obsolete if Texas has to play in the Wild Card round.

Instead rookie Yu Darvish would probably be the starter to answer the bell, which would be good news for Texas. Darvish has big game experience, having pitched for the Japanese club in the World Baseball Classic and is one of the best swing-and-miss pitchers in the bigs. His 221 strikeouts in 190 innings ranks 2nd in baseball among starting pitchers, and Yu’s aversion to allowing homeruns is nice as well. His only probably is his command (4.2 walks per 9), which has been fleeting at times this season. All the Rangers would need is one dominant start however, and Darvish would be the best choice to do just that.

The pick: Yu Darvish

One important thing to note is how many teams in the American League Wild Card chase (and baseball in general) are successfully relying on rookies to get the job done. Oakland, Texas, and Baltimore will all be leaning heavily this October on rookie contributors, whether they are on the mound or at the plate, and the youngsters will have to step up if their franchises want to finish with the title.

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