I’m sitting in my backyard. The mercury has crept down to about 70 degrees in a week of what will likely be the final heatwave in California before the official autumn-ish weather begins to kick in. And as I sit here, I can’t help but wonder why exactly I’m writing this. Well, maybe not why I’m writing it, but more how I’ve arrived at a place where I’m writing what may be my last article before Texas plays their final game of the season. The Rangers are guaranteed nothing beyond tomorrow’s do-or-die playoff matchup against the Orioles, and I thought if this time would come, if it would actually come to be, that it wouldn’t be until the World Series, or, at worst, the ALCS. But such is life, and if 10 teams are still involved in playoff baseball, I can’t be dissatisfied at the fact that the Rangers are one of them.
Yesterday’s 12-5 drubbing in Oakland marked the lowest point in the season for the Rangers, particularly factoring in that the Rangers actually possessed a 5-1 lead heading into the bottom of the 4th inning. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Athletics were too much for us down the stretch, and Ryan Dempster, along the remaining cast of the Texas bullpen, weren’t up to the task. This was our game, our division, our season, and Oakland came in and took it from us. We gave it all away.
As you’ve probably seen (or turned away from) on replay some half-dozen times, the key point in yesterday afternoon’s loss came on a 4th inning pop-up to center fielder Josh Hamilton off the bat of Yoenis Cespedas. The game was tied at 5 with two outs, and Derek Holland was on the mound. It may forever be known as “the catch that never actually happened,” only it really did. Josh Hamilton dropped the ball (both literally and metaphorically), and the two Oakland base runners crossed home, turning what would have been a 5-5 tie in the 5th inning into a 7-5 deficit, and Texas simply couldn’t muster the offense to overcome what was their worst blunder of 2012, a play that came at the absolute worst possible time. It was a catch any center fielder makes in his sleep, and yet it put the most apropos of bows on the most historic collapse any of us have ever witnessed by the team we all know and love.
I must admit, I never believed the Rangers could have ceded the lead they had in the division. I was wrong.
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This sets up a scenario none of us were prepared for. Just one game. If you choose to say it isn’t really part of the playoffs, I can understand. So if that’s the case, we’ll just call it Game 163. In a one-game win-or-go-home matchup against the Orioles, the Rangers hold both the advantage of playing at home and of putting out their best pitcher, Yu Darvish, while the Orioles counter with ex-Angel, ex-Diamondback Joe Saunders.
If we’re looking at predictive stats, the data we can project from an objective perspective, Joe Saunders — on the season — has an xFIP of 4.25, a SIERA of 4.3, each correlating relatively well to his 4.07 ERA. I’ll stay away from admitting how historically horrendous he’s been pitching against the Rangers in Arlington (minus this sentence), but tomorrow he clearly has two things working against him: On the year he’s accumulated a 5.77 strikeouts-per-nine-inngs rate, and 56.9% of his outs come via the fly ball. On what is expected to be a pretty warm night in Texas (85 degrees), he’s going to need to keep the ball down in the strike zone to induce more ground balls, because he simply won’t survive if he’s leaving balls up to a desperate Rangers offense trying to prove they aren’t as bad as they’ve looked the last three weeks. But that’s why they play baseball.
The Rangers, on the other hand, will be toting out their best pitcher, rookie Yu Darvish. Contrary to Baltimore’s starter, Darvish has racked up an impressive 10.4 K/9 IP (2nd in baseball), and gets slightly fewer fly ball outs than does Saunders (53.8%). That may come in handy against a team that’s struck out 1,315 times, 6th-most in baseball. Perhaps another minor advantage the Rangers are looking at is that, while Texas has seen Joe Saunders numerous times from his days in Anaheim, Baltimore has never seen Yu Darvish. What will it all mean when tomorrow night starts? That remains to be seen. But at this time of the year where each pitch is magnified, every out is huge, even minor advantages can prove to be major differences in deciding the outcome.
So if you’re giving me my #1 starter, home-field advantage, and the experience of having been here before, I’m tilting the scales in favor of the Rangers to defeat the Orioles. Playoff baseball is a different game than the regular season, I get that, but we can do this.
We’ve done this.