Joe Saunders pitches Orioles past Rangers

October, 6, 2012
10/06/12
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The Atlanta Braves playing a wild-card game where they committed three throwing errors, got burned on a controversial umpire’s call, and saw their fans delay the game after littering the field with debris?

Sure, I can envision all that happening.

But Joe Saunders doing this? Delivering 77 pitches of one-run baseball in his own personal house of horrors against a lineup that should devour a pitcher like him?

No way did I see that coming.

Welcome to postseason baseball. You just never know.

Here’s what the numbers said about Saunders: 0-6 in six career starts in Arlington with a 9.38 ERA. In 2012, right-handed batters hit .307/.349/.500 off him, meaning the typical righty becomes something akin to Albert Pujols or Adam Jones against Saunders. All 21 home runs he allowed were hit by right-handers.

The Rangers had eight right-handed batters in their lineup. Most with power.

So of course the Orioles eliminated the Rangers 5-1, on a night where Yu Darvish pitched well but received no support.

What I liked about Buck Showalter’s approach in this game is he clearly he had a plan. Certainly, it becomes it easier to execute that plan when your players perform. But he knew that given a tight game, Saunders wouldn’t pitch past Josh Hamilton (lefty on lefty, and Saunders crushed lefties this season) and Adrian Beltre (who hit much better against righties). So when Nelson Cruz came up with two out and nobody on with the Orioles leading 2-1 in the sixth, that was it for Saunders. No gambling by Showalter. No leaving in Saunders to give up a game-tying home run.

[+] EnlargeJoe Saunders
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJoe Saunders held the potent Rangers offense to a single run in its home park.
In the eighth, he knew he had another lefty waiting for Hamilton and Brian Matusz blew him away on three pitches. But he also left in Darren O'Day to start the inning -- instead of going to Pedro Strop -- because O'Day had cruised through four batters with just 14 pitches. O'Day ended up pitching two innings of one-hit relief.

Showalter had the bullpen stirring in the first inning when Saunders ran into trouble. He wasn’t going to let the game get away early from the Orioles. And you know Showalter had a plan if he needed to remove Saunders in the third inning or the fifth inning. Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez, who couldn’t figure out how to get Craig Kimbrel, who had the most dominant relief season in history, into the game until the Braves already trailed 6-3. Gonzalez had only one contingency plan for Kimbrel: Use him in a save situation.

Or compare to Ron Washington, who started Geovany Soto at catcher and Mike Napoli at designated hitter, but then lost his DH spot when he pinch-hit for Soto and inserted Napoli behind the plate. This potential problem could have been avoided by simply starting Napoli at first base and Michael Young at DH. The defensive advantage wasn’t so great as to be concern; Young ended up making a crucial first-inning error that led to an unearned run anyway.

Let’s not give too much credit to Showalter, however. Give it to Saunders, of course, for battling his way through 5 2/3 innings. After that, it wasn’t a surprise the Baltimore bullpen closed it out. That’s been the strength all season for a team that was 74-0 when leading after seven innings and 75-1 when leading after eight innings. Closer Jim Johnson's job got a little easier in ninth when the Orioles scored twice off Joe Nathan to pad their 3-1 lead. As is, the Rangers got the tying run to the plate with two out but Johnson got David Murphy to fly out to end it.

For the Rangers, it was the finale of a fairly epic collapse, leading the American League West by five games with nine to play, yet going 4-9 down the stretch and losing the division title on the final day of the season. The Rangers have shown us just how tough it is to win a World Series: They lost it in 2010, were one strike away in 2011 and now go home in bitter disappointment.

This anger was summed up when the fans booed Hamilton after he struck out in the eighth. Think about it: Miguel Cabrera hit 44 home runs and drove in 139 runs and Tigers fans think he had the greatest season of all time. Hamilton hit 43 home runs and drove in 128 and he gets booed. I know Hamilton had a strange season, but if that was his final game with Rangers, it seems a sad way to go out considering all the great memories he’s given Rangers fans.

For the Orioles, the miracle run continues against the hated Yankees. The best part of all this: Orioles fans will get a home playoff game, their first since 1997. The Orioles actually clinched a playoff spot on a plane ride to Tampa, so this will be a chance to acknowledge their fans and for the fans to acknowledge this magical season.

Not to mention the chance to beat the Yankees.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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