Joe Saunders grew up an Orioles fan in Virginia and will start… (Greg Fiume, Getty Images )
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Buck Showalter often mixes gut feelings with statistical data to make his managerial calls on a case-by-case basis.
On Thursday, Showalter chose his instincts over statistical wisdom, selecting 31-year-old left-hander Joe Saunders to pitch Friday’s one-game wild-card playoff against the Texas Rangers instead of rookie Steve Johnson, who hasn’t pitched since overextending his left knee Sept. 29.
“Joe is rested,” Showalter said. “He’s ready to go. Obviously, [he has] experience. He’s pitched some in the playoffs and we had a couple options. We weren’t real sure 100 percent about Stevie’s knee. … We’ve said it many times. Our No. 1 starter is the guy who’s pitching that day. Our whole rotation has been the sum of the parts, and Joe’s pitched well for us since he’s been here.”
Saunders, acquired Aug. 26 in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, is 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven previous outings for the Orioles. He’s also started four postseason games in his eight-season career for the Los Angeles Angels and Diamondbacks, posting a 0-1 record and a 6.00 ERA.
But it’s his stats against the Texas Rangers that are specifically disconcerting. He is 3-7 with a 6.48 ERA against Texas in his career and 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six starts at Rangers Ballpark — the second worst ERA in the history of the stadium for an opposing pitcher with at least 30 innings (behind only Ryan Franklin’s 9.57 mark).
“You can make numbers look anyway you want to, “Showalter said. “If you’re looking for pitchers with good numbers against the Texas Rangers, they’re hard to find. Regardless of who pitches [Friday], we’re going to have to pitch well and do some things out of the bullpen and swing the bat and catch the ball. It’s only one phase of the game, but it’s very important.”
Saunders was asked if he knew what his specific numbers were at Rangers Ballpark and he responded with, “I can imagine. I don’t care. Tomorrow is a new day.”
The lefty points out that some of his starts here weren’t disasters. In fact, in his last outing in Arlington, on July 23, 2010, Saunders allowed one run in seven innings and lost a pitchers’ duel to C.J. Wilson. He also had a quality start (eight innings, three earned runs) in 2008. In his other four starts here, however, Saunders has given up seven or more runs.
“It’s been a see-saw kind of deal,” Saunders said. “I’ve had some good games here and I’ve had some bad games here. I think everybody has good games and bad games at certain ballparks. So you just go out there and do whatever you can to help the team win, and that’s what they asked me to do, and that’s my job.”
Frankly, Showalter had few alternatives. His other starters hadn’t pitched in a while or have thrown recently and would have to be on short rest Friday. Additionally, Showalter is hesitant this early to use Jason Hammel, who had dealt with recurring pain in his surgically repaired right knee and hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 11. There is still optimism Hammel could pitch in the postseason, but he’s been ruled out for Friday after throwing a 73-pitch, pain-free instructional league simulated game Monday.
“Were hoping there’s a game to be pitched that he can pitch,” Showalter said of Hammel. “This is not only our present, but our future and we got some guys we’d be putting in harm’s way physically.”
Johnson was the best alternative, but he also has made just four major league starts.
“Who else do we have?” Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds said. “Joe’s got experience. He’s pitched well his last two or three starts and he knows what he’s doing. … Sometimes you throw a young guy out there in a pressure situation like Stevie, nothing against him he’s done a great job for us, but those guys may be a little intimidated by the situation and the atmosphere and the attention. I think Joe’s going to be just fine out there.”
Johnson said he tested his knee again Wednesday and is experiencing no pain. He said he is ready to go — but isn’t going to question his manager’s decision.
“We are in a playoff game, and if they think that he is the right man for the job, I mean, you can’t really question anything Buck has done this whole season,” Johnson said. “So we’re all behind Joe.”
Saunders, a Virginia native who grew up an Orioles fan, said he is thrilled to have a chance to help the club extend its playoff run and bring it back to Baltimore for two American League Division Series games against the Yankees on Sunday and Monday.
“It’s a huge opportunity. It’s been a blessing since I got traded over here,” Saunders said. “It’s been an amazing experience coming over to a great organization and a great team that they have in place. I am going to embrace it, not change anything and go out there and hopefully get a ‘W.’”