WILDCARD FRIDAY

Last season’s one-day, all-or-nothing drama played out by chance, with various teams’ playoff chances intersecting naturally after 161 games. The Tampa Bay Rays passed up the fading Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals blew past the downward-spiraling Braves on the last day of the season to earn the final two playoff berths.

Today, four teams play in a pair of one-and-done games and it is by design. The wildcard teams will square off today and only two will live to play in the division series round on Sunday.

We’ve gotten used to having an upstart from the AL east make it, but this year it is the Orioles, not the Rays, that have surprised the experts by qualifying for October baseball. Buck Showalter’s club is a mix of talent that played well all season and never wilted under the heat of a playoff race. While they have home-grown stars like OF Adam Jones and C Matt Wieters playing vital roles, the Orioles have gotten monster production from a number of castoffs.

1B Chris Davis was dealt by the Rangers when he couldn’t nail down a full-time spot in Texas’ powerful lineup but he has been knocking the cover off of the ball in Baltimore and enters the playoffs as their hottest player. With a line of .270/.326/.501 in 139 games this year, Davis finished off the season with a 13-for-37 run that included 7 homers in his last 7 games.

OF Nate McClouth has bounced around after a promising beginning to his career. He was released by Pittsburgh in May and signed with Baltimore five days later. In 55 games McClouth has provided a spark at the plate, on the bases and in the outfield. An abysmal line of .140/.210/.175 in 34 games with Pittsburgh has turned into .268/.342/.435 in Baltimore.

These are just two of the examples of the unheralded parts that Baltimore has used to construct a playoff team from a 69-93 club in 2011. SS J.J. Hardy carried over his big bat from 2011. Manny Machado arrived surprisingly at the age of 20 in the heat of August and played a solid, sometimes spectacular, third base while hitting .262./.294/.445.

All that speaks to the offense. This team can beat anyone’s brains in with power. But the trick is how the pitching staff navigated the big AL bats to make it into the postseason. The Orioles were middle-of-the-pack in ERA, strikeouts and WHIP with a staff of unspectacular pitchers. Wei-Yin Chen’s probably the ace at 12-11 with a 1.26 WHIP and 4.02 ERA. The only clear star on the hill for Baltimore is closer Jim Johnson and his 51 saves.

Today they hand the ball to Joe Saunders to face Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers. The matchup is typical of 2012 for the surprising Orioles. Saunders was 6-10 with a 4.22 ERA for Arizona before being traded to Baltimore. There he went 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA and lowered his WHIP from 1.36 to 1.28. Another part added to  Showalter’s machine that performed better in Baltimore than before.

And his opponent, Darvish, is one of the most celebrated signing of the past offseason, a huge-money star that was expected to be the ace of the two-time AL champions. With all the hype, he may have been a disappointment at 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA, 4.2 BB/9 and 1.28 WHIP. Darvish finished with a strong September to knock over half a run off of his ERA, but there was a time this season where his value was questioned, largely due to the price tag.

So, it’s a contrast in many ways in today’s one-game AL wildcard game. The Rangers scored the most runs in MLB this year and the Orioles are throwing the journeyman Saunders at them. The Orioles finished second to only the Yankees in home runs and Texas has its flashy offseason signee in Darvish to try to hold them down.

This isn’t game 163. It’s the playoffs. But it’s win or go home, after Bud Selig enjoyed the last-day drama of 2011 so much that he altered the playoff format. On paper, you’d laugh at the Orioles’ chances. If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably feeling sorry for the Rangers.

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