Wild Scenarios For AL's Division, Wild-Card Races
By Jim Henneman
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Even during the craziest of seasons, this isn't exactly what the baseball planners had in mind. But you can't regulate the baseball gods, who may have gone overboard on this one. Consider the events that have transpired during the last 48 hours:
* After an absence of 14 years, the Orioles clinched a spot in postseason play. But when it became official, they were on a plane, somewhere between emergency and routine landings, probably at about 30,000 feet, and with no real opportunity to celebrate. We won't even get into the fact that a familiar malady we thought had been cured -- E5 -- opened the gates on a loss that left the O's in a precarious position with two games left during the season.
* The team with the worst record among the five American League playoff qualifiers, the Detroit Tigers, became the first to secure its position. Plus, they are sitting in the catbird seat with one of the game's best pitchers, Justin Verlander, set to possibly open and close a five-game series. And because of this year's bizarre schedule, the Tigers will start with two games at home. Owning the No. 3 seed may be the shortest route to the American League Championship Series.
* While the Angels and Rays were looking for sweeps on the West Coast to keep their playoff hopes alive, nobody gave much thought to the one possible sweep that could really turn the AL playoff scenario upside down.
When the Oakland A's won the first game of a three-game series against the Texas Rangers, the Rays and Angels were officially dismissed from the proceedings. All of a sudden, that "other" sweep possibility is front and center.
Going all the way back to early August, the vowel teams, the A's and O's, were the cute pair that showed up unannounced for the wild-card party. And while many of the talking heads predicted Oakland's and Baltimore's imminent demise, a funny thing happened on the way to the prom: the A's and O's became legitimate candidates to win their respective divisions.
The O's cause took a big hit Oct. 1 with a 5-3 loss to the Rays, but on the West Coast, Oakland clinched its playoff spot with a 4-3 win, which left the division-leading Rangers facing the distinct possibility of a sweep that could knock them as low as the No. 5 seed in the AL playoffs.
And don't rule that sweep out. Despite a favorable pitching matchup tonight, the Rangers hardly looked like a supremely confident bunch Oct 1. At the moment, by virtue of the league's tiebreaker, the A's have home-field advantage in the wild-card game. The Orioles, meanwhile, went from a tie for the East Division lead to the fifth spot in the AL pecking order. The O's now trail the Yankees by a game for the division lead and are even with the A's, a position that would force them to play the one-and-done game in Oakland.
But (and there always seems to be a but in these things), if the A's should go on and complete a three-game sweep of the Rangers, they would finish as AL West Division champions. Carrying it to the next step, if the Orioles could close out with two wins against the Rays, then the Rangers would drop to the No. 5 seed and would have to come to Baltimore for a one-game play-in. The O's don't match up well against the Rangers, but then again, they didn't figure to match up against most playoff contenders. Playing at Camden Yards would definitely alter the picture.
It's now likely the only way the Orioles can return to Camden Yards, a high priority for manager Buck Showalter, is to win their last two games against the Rays.
It doesn't figure to be any easier than the Oct. 1 game, when an unfortunate error by rookie third baseman Manny Machado on a relatively routine ground ball opened the gates for three unearned runs and a 4-1 Rays lead, which wiped out a strong outing by left-hander Wei-Yin Chen. As good as Chen was, though, he was outpitched by rookie Alex Cobb, who is just the latest in a long line of Rays pitching phenoms.
Other than giving up catcher Matt Wieters' opposite-field home run into "Longoria Land" down the left-field line, Cobb overmatched the Orioles. The O's were able to make it close and even bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning, but only because Rays manager Joe Maddon followed the save rule guidelines and waited until after Chris Davis' two-run homer -- a C-ring shot off the Tropicana Field roof system -- to bring in closer Fernando Rodney.
Rodney promptly gave up a single to Adam Jones and an infield hit to Wieters before wiggling out of the jam by striking out Jim Thome and Mark Reynolds and getting pinch-hitter Endy Chavez to ground out on a comebacker to end the threat.
Posted Oct. 2, 2012