Playoff spot on the line, O’s must put pieces together
In a tight wild-card race, five factors will be the key in bid for postseason berth
The Orioles led the American League East for much of the season and had long appeared to have a stranglehold on at least a wild-card spot, but all that matters is the state of things at the end of the season.
The Orioles, while now on the playoff bubble, find themselves in as good a spot as any of those other bubble teams with a week left in the season.
Their six-game road trip to Toronto and New York begins with the Orioles holding a 2-game advantage over the Detroit Tigers for the second wild card, and with three chances to close a gap on the wild card-leading Blue Jays. AL WILD CARD Toronto Orioles Detroit Seattle* Houston* 86-70 85-71 83-73 82-73 82-74 +1 — 2 21⁄ 3
The math is relatively simple. As long as the Orioles keep winning, their season won’t end Sunday, thanks to the cushion built by spending most of the season atop the division and in a playoff spot.
That’s easier said than done, considering the task ahead, but manager Buck Showalter said over the weekend there was some small solace in that knowledge.
“There’s something to be gained by
winning every game you play,” Showalter said.” There’s something to be lost by every game you lose. Still, [I’m not] looking at all the things you shoulda, woulda, coulda done to make it a little easier. I look at all the things our guys have done to have this opportunity.”
Herearethefive factors that will determine whether they return home from New York on Sunday disappointed or leave Yankee Stadium with a postseason berth. Can they overcome their starting pitching deficiencies in Toronto?
This one will be answered relatively quickly. Kevin Gausman gets the start tonight in Toronto, where on July 29, when he last pitched there, he allowed three home runs in the first inning of an eventual Orioles loss.
After Gausman, it’s Chris Tillman on Wednesday, with Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo all available for Thursday. Combined, those five have allowed 22 earned runs in 252⁄ innings at Toronto, with what Showalter called some “stinkers” weighing down those collective numbers. At one point or another, the Blue Jays have teed off on pretty much every Orioles starter at Rogers Centre.
Showalter said he’d be weighing a lot of factors that go into the decision for the third starter of that series. Are the starters all healthy?
Health is relative when it’s the end of September and pitchers began in February throwing a baseball as hard as they can every five days. But just how limiting are some of the Orioles starters’ physical problems?
Gausman says he’s fine after what was described as the beginning of an intercostal muscle problem in his rib cage area, and he came through a bullpen session well since that concern cropped up last week. Tillman’s shoulder bursitis, which limited him for most of August, hasn’t been a concern of late, but Showalter waited to declare him Wednesday’s starter until after he took a bullpen session because problems he had with his mechanics in his last start Thursday.
Showalter often attributes a saying to pitching coach Dave Wallace that the team with the freshest pitchers in October is the one that wins. That wouldn’t be the Orioles this year. How will the bullpen be used?
With the return of Darren O’Day and the hot streaks of relievers Mychal Givens and Brad Brach (one earned run allowed by each in September), Showalter’s late-inning options to bridge a victory to closer Zach Britton are plentiful. Three of the team’s past four wins have featured stellar relief behind a short start. But rest for the bullpen might become a problem.
So often this year, Showalter has stayed away from his top relievers when the Orioles were behind, instead opting for a long reliever.
In September, he’s had expanded rosters to cover those games. But will there be games when he goes to a more reliable Kevin Gausman will start tonight against the Blue Jays. He says he feels good after a muscle problem in his rib cage area. The last time he pitched in Toronto, he allowed three home runs in the first inning. pitcher to keep it close and give the offense a chance? Will that affect what they have available when there’s a lead to protect? It’s unlikely much will change in the last week of the season, but if the Orioles are pulling out all the stops, this is one way to turn around a losing situation. Who is going to carry the team offensively?
Of course, that all stems from the theory that the offense can turn it around. They did Friday, erasing a late deficit in an extrainnings win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but this hasn’t been an offense capable of striking quickly or terribly often.
In September, the Orioles are batting .229 with a .717 OPS while averaging 4.2 runs per game. They’re near the top of the league this month with 36 home runs, but as has been the case for most of the second half, everything else is slipping.
Many players are slumping this month, most notably second base- man Jonathan Schoop, who’s batting .156 in September. It continues to be boom-or-bust for right fielder Mark Trumbo, first baseman Chris Davis and designated hitter Pedro Alvarez. Will the rest of the league cooperate?
It’s not all on the Orioles, though they can go a long way to help their own chances.
Among the teams chasing them for a wild-card spot are the Tigers, the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros.
With three games this week in Houston against one another, the Mariners and Astros will be playing for high stakes. Seattle finishes up with four games against the lowly Oakland Athletics, while Houston finishes with three games in Los Angeles against the Angels.
Detroit has four games at home against the Cleveland Indians, who have clinched the AL Central but are still playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Jonathan Schoop, who’s batting .156 this month, is one of several slumping Orioles batters. Tigers finish the season at Atlanta for the Braves’ final three games at Turner Field.