The Orioles can’t afford to look beyond their next game to survey the playoff horizon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.
There are only six games remaining in this strange and wonderful regular season, so there certainly are machinations going on behind the scenes to position the Orioles for whatever situation they end up facing next week, but giving any indication of that would be – if you ask the guys in uniform – like taunting the baseball gods to frown upon their playoff hopes.
The O’s are not a lock to reach the postseason, but they’re still in close range of the division lead and stand atop the American League wild-card standings, so it’s fair to examine the possible matchup they might face if they end up in the wild card play-in game.
In a perfect world, of course, there wouldn’t be just a one-game playoff, but that can’t be helped this season. Major League Baseball might go to a best two-of-three series eventually, but the current format calls for one climactic game and leaves open the unpleasant possibility that one of the wild card teams in each league could grind all season to reach the playoffs and not even get one postseason home game. That’s a rant for a different day.
The Orioles have a fairly definitive recent history with all of the teams still under playoff consideration in the American League, which should give some clue about which ones they match up well against and which they probably wouldn’t want to face. Or not, if you are among those who subscribe to the theory that this surprising season has more to do with the special nature of this team than relative quality of the opposition.
“Their starting pitching isn’t as dominant as the Angels or the Tigers or maybe even in a Chris Sale one-on-one situation,’’ said former Toronto Blue Jays manager and former Orioles broadcaster Buck Martinez, “but I think the way they’ve improved their defense they can play with anybody. And their bullpen, of course, may be the best in baseball, so I think they have a chance to match up with anybody.”
That may be true, but it’s still hard to get away from the fact that almost every other team with a chance to face them in a possible one-game playoff has at least one top-quality starter with postseason experience.
The current inhabitant of the second wild-card spot – the Oakland A’s – may be the exception, since they have gotten this far with a nice no-name group of solid young pitchers, but the chances of the Orioles winning a matchup against them might depend on where the game is played more than who is on the mound.
It was obvious on the Orioles’ recent trip to the Oakland Coliseum that they are not a good fit for that spacious ballpark. They have built this season on a mountain of home runs and managed just one big swing in each of the first two games of the only series they have lost since they got knocked around by the Texas Rangers in Arlington in late August.
Considering the Rangers dominated them during the regular season, it’s probably fortunate that there is almost no chance that they could fall into the wild-card game, but the Los Angeles Angels are lurking just on the outskirts of the wild-card race. They entered Tuesday night trailing the A’s by just two games and they probably are the team the O’s should be most worried about, considering their lopsided success against the Orioles (7-2) in head-to-head competition.
They also have a group of marquee starting pitchers headed by 19-game winner Jered Weaver, so they would be unlikely to sidestep a quality starter if the Angels have to close out the regular season with some must-win games.
The Tampa Bay Rays also remain very much alive and could be in a position to battle for their playoff survival when the Orioles visit Tropicana Field for the final three-game series of the regular season that starts Monday, so they don’t figure to be able to hold anyone back for a one-game playoff.
Of course, the best way for the Orioles to win a place in one of the American League Division Series would be to avoid the wild-card game altogether by overtaking the Yankees in the AL East. That has been the goal all along, but it’ll take one more week of serious Orioles Magic to make that a real possibility.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts “The Week in Review” at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.