SweetSpot: Darren O'Day

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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.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
9:07
PM ET
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield


"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

Bullpen
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!

Clearing the bases: Craig, Parker, Lowrie

May, 2, 2012
5/02/12
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First base: That’s where Allen Craig was playing for the Cardinals on Tuesday night, not just giving the Birds back the ninth bat they’ve missed, but more importantly giving them an immediate substitute for the still-injured Lance Berkman. Much like fellow postseason hero David Freese, Craig showed he also hasn’t missed a beat from last October, pelting a pair of singles in his first game back, and contributing to the Cardinals’ bit of 10-7 stompery over the reliably feeble Pirates.

Second base: Jarrod Parker’s second start for the Oakland A’s was perhaps even better than his first against the White Sox last week. Parker shut down the Red Sox in a 5-3 win, going slightly deeper into the game (two batters faced and one out), throwing just 98 pitches while delivering a 6.2-4-1-1-2-4 line with no home runs. So while Trevor Cahill was doing just fine mowing down Nationals in last night’s D-backs spoiler of Bryce Harper’s home debut, the primary prospect he was acquired with was giving Athletics fans a reason to forget the past and embrace something more tangible than a future in San Jose.

Third base: As the Book of Armaments in Monty Python’s Holy Grail reminds us, three is the number that shall be counted before big ’splosions go off, and that’s pretty much what Jed Lowrie did for the Astros on Tuesday night, plating a pair with his third home run of the season while also drawing three walks. In the two weeks-plus since his return from the DL, Lowrie has been the multifaceted offensive terror that GM Jeff Luhnow’s crew envisioned when they acquired him from the Red Sox. So just a month into his Astros career, you can say they’ve already gotten the full Lowrie experience: A trip to the DL, power, patience, and enough good work afield to make you think his staying at shortstop makes sense after all.

Home plate: The tweet of Tuesday goes to Orioles reliever Darren O’Day, who was partially responsible for the numerical feat he chose to celebrate social mediatically:
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Carl Crawford isn't going to hit .156 all season. Adrian Gonzalez will hit home runs. But here are five legitimate issues that teams predicted to be contenders are facing right now.

Franklin
Franklin
1. Cardinals closer. Ryan Franklin lost the job with two losses, four blown saves and four home runs allowed in eight innings. The Cardinals lost all four of those games, so they could easily be 17-7 now instead of 13-11. Mitchell Boggs became the closer, saved three games, and then picked up a blown save and a loss Tuesday night in Houston. Eduardo Sanchez, a 22-year-old rookie, picked up the save Wednesday night, although in dubious fashion by allowing two runs. Despite all this, the Cardinals are in first place with the second-best run differential in the majors, thanks to an offense that leads the NL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In the end, I actually think Tony La Russa will sort things out. Boggs has a 15/3 SO/BB ratio in 12 2/3 innings, Sanchez has a 14/1 ratio and Fernando Salas and Jason Motte are also pitching well.

2. Francisco Liriano. As bad as Minnesota's offense has been (only the Padres have scored fewer runs), I'm just as worried about Liriano, so good a year ago but struggling with his control in 2011 (18 walks in 23 2/3 innings). There were trade rumors surrounding Liriano in spring training, which makes you wonder if the Twins had concerns about his health. His average fastball velocity is down from 93.7 to 92.1, which isn't a major concern ... for now. Considering the state of their offense, the Twins need Liriano to return to ace-like production.

Tejada
Tejada
3. Miguel Tejada and the Giants defense. Make what you want of defensive metrics, but logic tells you the Giants have issues on defense: old man Tejada at shortstop, pondering Pat Burrell in left, Andres Torres on the DL, not-exactly-Brooks Robinson Pablo Sandoval at third, and Aubrey Huff, who was moved back to first base after his adventures in right field. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has the Giants as the third-worst defensive team so far (although it grades Sandoval well at third). Considering Tejada isn't hitting either, how long will the Giants stick with him?

4. The Rangers bullpen. Darren O'Day just landed on the 60-day DL with a torn labrum in his hip. Even when Neftali Feliz returns from the DL, there could be issues. The pen has compiled a 4.02 ERA, 24th in the majors so far, but I point to a mediocre 44/30 SO/BB ratio as a sign that this pen is treading a fine line. Throw in the ages of Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes and you have another red flag. And while much has been made about Nolan Ryan urging Rangers starters to work deeper into games, the reality was Texas starters were just 11th in the AL in innings pitched in 2010. They'll need a deep and effective bullpen.

5. White Sox on-base percentage. Everybody has been focused on the Sox' bullpen problems, but I'm wondering if the Chicago offense is overrated. Yes, the Sox will hit plenty of long balls, but how many of those will be solo home runs? Juan Pierre, A.J. Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez are notorious non-walkers and rookie third baseman Brent Morel has yet to draw a free pass. Oddly, Alex Rios isn't hitting (.163, no homers), but has 10 walks.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

Giants find easiest way to win: Play better

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
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Did Bruce Bochy out-manage Ron Washington in Game 1?

Not really. Cliff Lee gave up seven runs, and there wasn't any obvious point at which Washington should have removed Lee before most of the damage was done. With any other pitcher, maybe? But Lee has obviously earned the benefit of the doubt, and the fifth inning is pretty early to go to the bullpen anyway.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee, Darren O'day
AP Photo/David J. PhillipDarren O'Day, front, and Cliff Lee sit in the dugout following a fifth inning in which they allowed the Giants to score six runs.
Washington's reliever of choice, Darren O'Day, didn't exactly help matters when he gave up a three-run homer to Juan Uribe. But O'Day's got a 1.94 ERA in the past two seasons, and in his career he's held right-handed hitters to a .207/.276/.278 line. Retiring righty hitters is what O'Day does ... except he didn't do it this time. In spades.

Did the Giants catch more than their fair share of breaks?

Not really. I've always been sort of intrigued by the role of "luck" in baseball games, and tonight I decided to count "breaks" ... whatever those are, and everyone's going to come up with a different definition. I think I'll leave this subject for another night, though. Because after the first couple of innings, there just weren't many easily identifiable breaks ... and 16 of the game's 18 runs were scored after the first couple of innings.

Earlier today, I suggested that the Giants could beat the Rangers in the World Series in a variety of ways. Bochy could out-manage Washington. The Giants could catch more breaks than the Rangers. Or -- and this is the most obvious way, and also perhaps the most difficult -- the Giants could actually outplay the Rangers.

Well, that's exactly what happened in Game 1. Sure, we can talk about all those strikeouts recorded by the Texas pitchers (12 for them, only five for San Francisco's). But this time out, the Giants were simply better than Cliff Lee (and Darren O'Day), particularly in the fifth inning when they scored six runs. They were also better than Lee in the third inning, when they scored just twice but forced Lee to throw 32 pitches.

Game 1 wasn't particularly complicated. Cliff Lee never could locate his curveball, and he missed his spots with his fastball -- something he almost never does -- too many times. When he did, the Giants usually took advantage.

For one night ... for one game ... for two innings ... the San Francisco Giants were better than Cliff Lee. And later, their bullpen was better than the Texas Rangers' bullpen.

The Giants just outplayed the Rangers. Sometimes, that's the easiest way to win.

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