8:05 PM EST, TBS – Money Line: Blue Jays -155, Run Line: 8.5
Two teams that should be very acquainted with each other face off in tonight’s American League Wild Card Playoff, as the Toronto Blue Jays host the Baltimore Orioles for the right to face the Texas Rangers on Thursday Night. Though it may be hard to believe, after 162 games, including nineteen meetings, the Jays and O’s ended up with the exact same record, as they both landed on the same mark in what could only be described as a photo finish to end the Regular Season this past Sunday. For Baltimore (89-73, T-2nd in AL East), Buck Showalter’s charges return to the postseason for the third time in five years, hoping their recent momentum (winners of seven of their last nine) carries them to their first World Series since 1983. For this team, it’s been the tale of two seasons; Baltimore led the division by a healthy margin at the All-Star Break on the strength of a 51-36 record, but was barely over .500 for the remainder of the term, going 38-37 over the course of the schedule’s second half. Furthermore, during the first half of the season they outscored their opponents by forty-one runs, only to in turn be outscored by a dozen over the latter half. With that said, scoring runs is not the problem for this group, for few teams possess the sheer power that they do. The Orioles hit a Major League-leading 253 home runs in 2016, while ranking second in the American League in Slugging Percentage (.443) and third in OPS (.760), with six different players logging twenty or more dingers. Mark Trumbo led the Majors with forty-seven, while former league-leader Chris Davis jacked thirty-eight himself. In their nineteen meetings with the Blue Jays, the Orioles batted .256, hit twenty-eight homers, and drove in seventy-five runs, with seventeen and forty-three of those totals occurring at tonight’s venue, Rogers Center. Against Toronto this season, their premier bats have made an impact, as the likes of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, Jonathan Schoop, and the aforementioned Davis have each hit four home runs and drove in at least nine runs apiece. Be warned though, these guys are far from the most disciplined at the plate; while Baltimore has quite the affinity for the long ball, they also strike out A LOT, racking up 1,324 strikeouts this season, fifth-most in the American League. Hell, Davis alone had a whopping 219. However, what will ultimately determine whether or not the O’s advance tonight, and do anything of consequence in these Playoffs, is the quality of their Starting Pitching. Simply put, Showalter’s Rotation has been a mess for the majority of the campaign, with tonight’s starter Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.77 ERA) serving as the only thing remotely resembling an ace. Apart from Tillman, the other five starters comprising the Rotation were a dreadful 30-42, with four of that number amassing an ERA well over 5.00. While he doesn’t have the raw stuff that some of his teammates possess, the veteran righthander remains the clear choice to take the mound against the Blue Jays, who he was 1-0 with a 3.63 ERA in four starts against in 2016. Furthermore, he’s got the most recent Postseason experience among the group, despite owning a 6.75 ERA during the 2014 Playoffs. A shoulder injury dogged him throughout the second half of the season (in which he compiled a 4.45 ERA), but based off his latest outing (allowed one earned run against Toronto last Wednesday), that no longer seems to be the case. Fortunately for Showalter and his Staff, the Bullpen has had no such issues, for the Orioles’ stable of arms is powerful and deep. Led by closer Zach Britton, who is a dark horse contender for the Cy Young, Baltimore owns arguably the top relief unit in the Playoffs. The Lefthander successfully closed all forty-seven of his opportunities, earning a ridiculous 0.54 ERA with a stellar 4.11 SO/BB Ratio in the process. Buoyed by quality arms such as Brad Bach, Michael Givens, Donnie Hart, and Darren O’Day, the Orioles realistically only need five solid innings out of their starters. The question remains though, will they get it?
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays (89-73, T-2nd in AL East) are back in the Playoffs for the second consecutive season, but like tonight’s opponent proved wildly inconsistent over the course of the second half the year, going just 38-33 after a stellar 51-40 start. John Gibbons’ charges were on quite the power trip before the All-Star Break, outscoring the opposition by a staggering seventy-five runs in comparison to only eighteen over the second half. Baltimore grabs the majority of the headlines in terms of Offense, but it would be unwise to sleep on this group; Toronto ranked fifth in the American League in runs scored (759), third in home runs (221), and third in On-Base Percentage(.330). However, they too carry their counterpart’s penchant for striking out, getting fanned 1,362 times, third-most in the league. Six different players have accounted for twenty or more dingers with Designated Hitter Edwin Encarnacion chief among them, leading the team with forty-two homers and 127 RBIs. Third Baseman Josh Donaldson had another strong campaign, logging thirty-seven homers, ninety-nine RBIs while posting a .284 batting average. However, among them Left Fielder Michael Saunders (.253 BA, 24 HR, 57 RBI) has been the veritable Oriole Killer, batting .397 with seven home runs and fifteen RBIs in eighteen games against them. However, unlike the O’s this team has no problems with their Starting Rotation, which ranks among the league’s best. Toronto ranked first in the American League in ERA (3.78), with a wide variety of arms featuring plenty of experience and raw talent. With that said, Gibbons has found himself at the mercy of the scheduling gods here, folks. Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00 ERA), their 23-year old starlet who led the American League in ERA, started Sunday, while twenty-game winner J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18 ERA) started this past Saturday. While those guys could possibly see brief action if needed in Relief, conventional wisdom dictates that it’s far too soon to deploy them. Marco Estrada, who was 2-0 in four starts against the Orioles with a 3.00 ERA, twenty-seven strikeouts and eleven walks would have to give it a go on three day’s rest. Curiously, Francisco Liriano (8-13, 4.69 ERA), who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates shortly after the Break, who passed over; the 32-year old has by far the most recent postseason experience, starting Pittsburgh’s 2014 Wild Card victory over Cincinnati, and tossed 6.2 scoreless innings with ten strikeouts against Baltimore in his last start. Perhaps he’s another option for relief, as Gibbons has settled on Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA), the young Righthander who was supposed to be the star of the Rotation heading into the season. The 25-year old is the freshest of the candidates, and as an added bonus, very recent possesses postseason experience, starting three games in Toronto’s trip to the ALCS last year. However, while he sports some of the most electric stuff on the Staff, he struggled throughout the term with his consistency; Stroman has plenty of strikeouts (166), but has relinquished a number of walks (54) and twenty-one home runs. He’s cleaned things up since the All-Star Break, posting a 3.68 ERA in fourteen starts, but that doesn’t apply at all to his relationship with the Orioles, who have touched him up for eighteen earned runs in twenty-three innings of labor this year.
Predicted Outcome: Orioles, 6, Blue Jays 4