AL wild-card preview: Can Orioles tame Rangers' bats?

Adam Jones's Orioles will face off against Yu Darvish and the Rangers. (AP)

Orioles at Rangers, 8:37 p.m. ET Friday night. TV: TBS

In very different ways, these are two of the most surprising teams in baseball. Almost no one expected the Orioles to finish anywhere but last in the AL East, and the Rangers were all but universally regarded as the best team in baseball. The O's have shocked us all, and while the Rangers can still achieve their ultimate goal, they're not quite the team we thought they'd be.

Those dynamics will be in play, as Baltimore and Texas meet in the AL wild-card game. The winner earns the right to face the Yankees in the ALDS. 

Pitching matchup: The visiting Orioles haven't yet decided whether they'll pitch lefty Joe Saunders (4.02 ERA, 174 2/3 IP with Arizona and Baltimore this season) or right-hander Steve Johnson (2.11 ERA, 38 1/3 IP), but the Rangers have named Yu Darvish (3.90 ERA, 191 1/3 IP) as their wild-card starter. 

Darvish vs. Orioles hitters

The rookie Darvish has yet to face the Orioles. While not specific to his Friday opponent, it's worth noting that Darvish has been a wholly different pitcher since tweaking his mechanics in mid-August. Over that seven-start span, he's posted a 2.13 ERA and struck out 59 batters against just 10 walks. 

Saunders/Johnson vs. Rangers hitters

In his career, Saunders has been cuffed around pretty badly by current Rangers hitters -- cuffed around to the tune of .347/.407/.669. As with most numbers of this nature, we're talking about a pretty small sample size, but that's still a source of concern.

The rookie Johnson, meanwhile, has just one appearance against Texas, and it was in relief: 1.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 K, 0 BB. It's worth noting that the Ranger offense this season has been slightly less effective against right-handers, so that's a possible point for Johnson. 

Regular-season series

Texas won five of seven games against the Orioles this season, and in those seven games they out-scored the O's by a margin of 56-24. They last met for a three-game set that concluded on Aug. 22, and the Rangers took two of three in Arlington. 

The Orioles will win if ...

... they lean heavily on a rested bullpen to keep the Texas bats in check.

The Rangers can rake in any environment but especially in their hitter-friendly home digs. Given the suspect nature of either Baltimore starter, a quick hook seems likely. Then it will fall to the bullpen to keep runs off the board.

The good news is that the Oriole bullpen has a very strong arrangement right now, and a number of their very best relievers -- namely Jim Johnson, Darren O'Day and Troy Patton -- are coming off a day of rest.   

The Rangers will win if ...

... Darvish pitches like he did down the stretch.

It's that simple, really. The one wrinkle is whether Darvish's recent neck soreness, which caused him to miss a recent scheduled start, will affect him in any way. If he's on, there may be little the Orioles can do. 

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