AL Wild Card Preview

Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) vs. Baltimore Orioles (89-73)

 

When: Tomorrow, October 3rd. 8:00 p.m.

Where: Rogers Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

 

Welcome to October. It’s what you play 162 games for. 162 games and the postseason race still comes down to the final day. The American League has the honor of the first game tomorrow night between the Blue Jays and the Orioles. Birds vs. Birds.

These teams are familiar with each other, and I am more excited for this game than I am for the National League Wild Card game. Toronto and Baltimore met 19 times this year in the AL East with Toronto taking the head-to-head series 10-9. They finished with identical records, but the season series victory puts the game in Toronto. All of that doesn’t matter, because these teams will lay everything on the line and stop at nothing for a chance to win this best-of-one showdown.

As a Pirate fan, I am all too familiar with this new best-of-one play in game that was established in 2012. It can be magical for a team, or it can be gut wrenching. It seems unfair to play nothing but 3 or 4 game series all year only to have a chance to pack it up after game 163. But this game is going to be electric. Division rivals going at it for a chance to play a best-of-five game series starting in Texas.

Since the new Wild Card format in 2012, the visiting team is 6-2 in the eight games played. Home field advantage doesn’t mean everything.

Pitching Matchup

Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA) vs. Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.77 ERA)

It all starts with pitching, and it will make or break your teams October [See Madison Bumgarner, 2014]. The Orioles are throwing Chris Tillman who went 1-0 with a 3.63 ERA in his four starts against the Jays this year. Tillman struggled against the Jays in 2015 going 0-4 with a 11.72 ERA. Starting pitching wasn’t the story for the 2016 Orioles, but Tillman was a bright spot going 10-1 in his first 15 starts of the year.

Toronto will toss Marcus Stroman who went 1-2 with a 7.04 ERA in four starts against the Orioles. Stroman got the nod over lefty Francisco Liriano and creates an interesting match up for the O’s. The Orioles prefer to hit right handed pitching, but Stroman has a ground ball rate of 60.1% which is the highest of all qualified starters. The 25 year old has 2 postseason starts under his belt, but Liriano also has experience in the wild card game, winning the best-of-one game with 7 innings of 1 run ball in 2013 for the Pirates.

The Jays would prefer the have J.A. Happy or Aaron Sanchez throwing this game, but in a close Wild Card race, they did the right thing in throwing their best pitchers to make sure they get in. You can’t use your best pitchers in the postseason if you don’t get in. Plus, if they win, they’ll be ready to go in games 1 and 2 of the ALDS.

The Offenses

The away team hits first, so let’s start with Baltimore. The Orioles LOVE to hit the long ball. This lineup is dripping with power. There are 6 guys that hit at least 22 home runs. They led the MLB in homers hitting 253 as a team this year, and the Rogers Centre plays well to hitters with the way the ball carries. Mark Trumbo was the MLB home run king this year with 47 long balls, keeping the home run champion in Baltimore for the fourth consecutive year.  Chris Davis (38), Manny Machado (37), Adam Jones (29), Jonathan Schoop (25), and Pedro Alvarez (22) round out the rest of the 6.

The O’s finished 3rd in the MLB  with a .443 team slugging percentage. They’re built to rake. They hit 265 doubles as a team, yet only 6 triples, which is the least by a team in a year ever. There isn’t a lot of speed on this team, only stealing 19 bases combined this year, but it doesn’t matter with the line up they post. They finished 21st in OBP with .317 as a team.

Toronto is no stranger to the long ball themselves. The Jays finished 4th in the MLB with 221 homers. They had 6 players as well hit 20 home runs or more with Edwin Encarnacion leading the club with 42, Josh Donaldson (37), Troy Tulowitzki (24), Michael Saunders (24), Jose Bautista (22), and Russell Martin (20). They slugged at a .426 clip and got on base .330 percent of the time. They hit 276 doubles and 18 triples, which was the 3rd least in the league. There aren’t many threats to run on this team either. Kevin Pillar led the squad with 14 swipes.

I love both lineups on these teams. They haven’t been officially announced and won’t be until a few hours before game time, but I think it could be an offensive showdown. Who doesn’t love that in a best-of-one game?

The Defenses

Both teams have top 10 defenses in the MLB. Baltimore finished the regular season 6th in fewest errors and 6th in fielding percentage. Toronto finished 10th in fewest errors and 8th in fielding percentage.

Baltimore has a few liabilities in the outfield playing Trumbo in right and Kim in left, but center fielder Adam Jones has 4 gold gloves to his name. They both have solid gloves, they just don’t have the speed you desire in a corner outfielder. It shouldn’t make a difference with not much speed on Toronto’s roster and no quirky outfield dimensions.

The third basemen are where these teams shine in the field. Two of the best defenders in the game that can dazzle with any play. Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. Great gloves and even better arms. It’s a shame they’re both in the American League so one can’t win a gold glove while the other does. Upper hand goes to Machado. He has 2 GG awards in his short career and is only 23 years old. He has one of the strongest arms across the diamond I’ve ever seen. Donaldson one-ups the gold gloves with his 2015 AL MVP award.

There likely won’t be any errors by either team that lead game deciding runs.

The Bullpens

This is where Baltimore has a big upper hand. Zach Britton was remarkable in 2016 and is a candidate for the 2016 AL Cy Young Award. He was 47 for 47 in save opportunities and posted a 0.54 ERA with a 0.836 WHIP in 67.0 innings. Britton hasn’t allowed an earned run since August 24th and has only given up 1 home run all year, which came on April 11th. His sinker is the filthiest pitch I have ever seen. There’s a reason he has been unhittable.

Toronto’s bullpen isn’t bad by any means, but they have struggled towards the end of the season. Roberto Osuna had a terrific year as the Jays closer locking up 36 saves in his 21 year old season. If the bullpens get gassed out and this game goes to extras, Liriano should be available in relief as well as Marco Estrada on three days rest. You have to do whatever you can to win this game.

Managers: Buck Showalter vs. John Gibbons.

Buck has been great for Baltimore, winning 2014 Manager of the Year and leading the Orioles to their first division title since 1997. Gibbons led the Jays to a division title in 2015, which was the first for Toronto since 1993, a year they won the World Series. I love the coaching styles of both managers. It’s the first time in the new Wild Card format for both managers. Extra points to Buck for the stirrups with the uniform. Look good, manage good.

Key Players

For Toronto, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. Russell Martin made magic happen for the 2013 Pirates in Pittsburgh and is primed to do it again for the Jays. He is a career .429 hitter against Tillman with 3 doubles in 14 at-bats. Tulo is in a similar boat. He is a career .417 hitter vs. Tillman with 3 home runs and a double in 12 at-bats. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion both have 3 home runs off Tillman as well.

For Baltimore, Hyun Soo Kim and Brad Brach. Kim was on fire for the O’s ending the season and should carry that hot streak with him into the Postseason. He was 3 for 7 this year against Stroman and has momentum on his side. Kim hit a go-ahead home run in the 9th inning off Roberto Osuna to give the O’s a win in Toronto late in the season. Brad Brach is another filthy piece in the dominant Orioles pen. Britton can’t close the game down if someone doesn’t get it to him. Especially since I don’t see Tillman going more than 6 innings.

Location

The game is being played in Toronto. You know these fans will be showing up early and in full force ready to give their team the advantage they’ll need. Think back to last year’s ALDS with Toronto and Texas. We all remember the Jose Bautista bat flip of all bat flips that set the Rogers Centre off in a storm. You could feel that energy through the TV. A few innings later their fans were throwing trash from the upper deck onto the field during a review from a controversial play causing the players to come out to say “Stop it before people get hurt.” I think a few people got hurt. Expect the Rogers Centre to be rocking. The fans will do all they can to give their team an edge. Plus, the roof will probably be closed, making it even louder inside.

Prediction

I’m more excited for this offensive battle than I am for the likely pitcher’s duel in the National League on Wednesday. My gut tells me I have to take Baltimore on the road. Feel free to disagree and tell me why. I really wouldn’t mind seeing another Jays and Rangers Postseason series though. Jose Bautista would love a chance to bat flip in the Rangers faces.

Baltimore just took 2 out of 3 in Toronto at the end of September and I think they jump on Stroman early and get it to the bullpen to shut it down. It won’t be a shut out though for the O’s. Tillman will have to be on his A-game and any mistake in location will be devastating for him. You can’t predict baseball, but we can all try!

Score: 5-3 Orioles.

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