How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
If you care at all about momentum, magic, and all the little things in baseball that have absolutely no explanation, than the visiting Orioles are the team for you. Baltimore has to be the most unlikely playoff team in baseball over the past decade, but there is no doubting that this team earned their right to the dance. The O’s ranked 8th in the AL in runs allowed and 9th in runs scored, the sort of combination that usually has a franchise playing out the string by the end of August. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Orioles have gone an outstanding 38-20 since the start of August, outscoring their opponents by 58 runs over the time period. They’re historically great at winning one-run games, thanks to a talented and deep bullpen and a timely offense that ranks 3rd in baseball in homeruns hit. Chris Davis is on fire right now, homering in 6 of Baltimore’s final 7 games to take the team lead in long balls (33) and RBI (85). Adam Jones ranks 2nd on the O’s in both of those categories and in addition to providing a solid presence in the lineup, he plays an excellent centerfield.
Trying to counter all the bad vibes going around Arlington over the past couple of weeks will be rookie Yu Darvish. Darvish has been a strikeout monster in his first season in the Major Leagues, whiffing an elite 10.4 batters per 9, which matches up nicely against an offense that struck out more times than all but 2 teams in the American League. As always with Yu, it’s going to come down to whether or not he can limit his free passes. Baltimore ranks in the middle of the pack in drawing walks as a team and Darvish has handed them out like candy at times this year, which could be what gets him in trouble. Darvish has also been above average at preventing long balls this season, (no small feat in Arlington) which should also match up well against Baltimore’s power-dependent attack.
Buck Showalter has opted to send starter Joe Saunders to the bump for the O’s, in the hopes that he can continue his solid form since joining the team. He’s got a 3.63 ERA in 44.2 innings since joining Baltimore, and with few other options available Showalter has decided to hand him the biggest start of the season, which could be a mistake. The Texas offense has feasted on left-handers all season long, going 29-18 when the opposition starts a lefty. Saunders may also want to light himself on fire rather than enter The Ballpark in Arlington, where he has a 9.68 career ERA and an 0-6 record.
The Rangers offense as a whole has hit .285/.347/446 against lefties this year, all of which are tops in the American League, and some of their individual player splits are even more severe. Ian Kinsler hit over .100 points higher against lefties this season (.350 vs. 226). Nelson Cruz got on base at an MVP level rate against lefties (.390), but against righties he was merely below average (.296). Josh Hamilton, a left-handed hitter, even hit lefties a bit better, although most of his power came against righties this year. The same goes for David Murphy as well. If all goes right for Texas, they could get into the Baltimore bullpen fairly early into the game.
Luckily for the O’s, should Saunders struggle, they happen to have one of the top bullpens in all of baseball. They threw more innings than any team in the postseason and their all-time best 29-9 one-run record is a testament to how well they’ve pitched in big game situations. Jim Johnson has been lights out, and Darren O’Day is holding hitters to a .203 batting average. The Texas offense is going to need to get to Saunders early, lest they be forced to match wits with Buck Showalter and his bullpen brigade.
So basically what it all comes down to is whether or not you believe that momentum truly matters in baseball. The Rangers have the top offense in the entire league, the far superior pitcher taking the bump, and all the playoff experience a team could want. The only logical reason to pick against them is if you truly believe in the Baltimore magic. It’s obvious they have found some sort of formula or loophole or bullpen arrangement or something that has allowed them to outplay their expected record all year and allowed them to enter the playoffs. If you put a gun to my head and asked me, I’d say talent wins out and pick Texas, but you never know, anything can happen on the flip of a coin.