In the visitors’ dugout Friday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington will be a group of Baltimore Orioles players who few expected to be in a winner-take-all playoff scenario this season.
On the other side of the field will undoubtedly be some Rangers players surprised to be in the American League wild-card playoff because they feel the team could have and should have maintained their lead atop the American League West in the final month of the regular season.
But a 15-16 September record that culminated in a three-game sweep at the hands of eventual division winners from Oakland ruined that.
So, the Orioles and Rangers will battle in the Texas heat — temperature for the 7:30 p.m. CT first pitch is expected to hover around 30 C — to determine who will host the AL East champion New York Yankees in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Sunday. The loser has its season come to abrupt halt.
Baltimore is fresh off a series loss at Tampa Bay after surging down the stretch with a 37-18 mark in August and September. Over that time, the Orioles also boast the fifth-best team earned-run average (3.72) in the AL and are tied for the fourth-most runs in the league (360).
Texas, the two-time defending AL champions, haven’t won a series since taking two of three games from the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 20 and ranked ninth of 14 AL teams in team ERA in September (4.39).
But the Rangers did have the upper hand in the season series, winning five of seven meetings by a combined score of 60-24, including a 12-3 drubbing in the most recent matchup on Aug. 22.
Below is a list of three game-changers for each team:
1B/OF Chris Davis — The former Rangers prospect will be looking to stick it to his old team, and he has plenty of momentum. The streaky Davis has home runs in six straight games (seven in all) and 13 runs batted in. He is a career .258 hitter but has a .333 batting average with 10 homers since Sept. 1.
OF Adam Jones — One of the AL’s budding stars, Jones will be fired up for his first major league post-season appearance. He is a threat in many ways, coming off a season in which he hit .287 with a career-best 32 home runs, 82 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases. Jones is also capable of changing the complexion of a game with his glove.
The bullpen — Led by 50-save man Jim Johnson and setup man Pedro Strop (2.44 earned-run average), the relief staff was the key to the Orioles’ success this season. Darren O’Day was a key piece of Texas’ playoff run in 2010 and has been lights out this season (2.28 ERA, .202 opponent’s batting average) in Baltimore.
SP Yu Darvish — It’s clearly the biggest start of the Japanese hurler’s rookie major league season (16 wins, 3.90, 221 strikeouts). But which Yu Darvish will fans see? The pitcher who walked five in 6 2/3 innings against Detroit on Aug. 12 or the one who hasn’t allowed more than two free passes in each of his seven starts since, and has struck out 59 in 53 innings with a 2.13 ERA?
OF Josh Hamilton — A big threat in a winner-take-all game despite the fact he hasn’t homered in 10 starts dating back to Sept. 24. Hamilton belted 43 home runs in the regular season so it probably won’t take long for him to find his stroke. But he hasn’t fared well in the playoffs, with a .234 average, six home runs and 22 RBIs in six series.
3B Adrian Beltre — Like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, the Rangers’ slugger is among the streakiest hitters in baseball and singlehandedly could change the tone of Friday’s game. After hitting four home runs in July, Beltre clubbed seven in August and 11 in September to go with a .330 average in the final month. The only concern is the health of his left shoulder which he strained in September.