The Baltimore Orioles have punched a ticket into the postseason, but their work is hardly done. They are currently tied with the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East entering the final series of regular season. The Orioles will play the Rays in Tampa Bay, while the Yankees will face the Red Sox at home. With the new playoff format, there is a clear advantage in winning the division over winning the wild card, since the 2 wild card teams have to play a wild card game before getting into the “real” postseason. As a result, the Orioles should treat the last 3 games of the regular season as importantly as they have the first 159 games. The Orioles have set their starting pitchers for the first two games of the series, Wei-Yin Chen for the first and Miguel Gonzalez for the second. The question remains: Who should the Orioles start on Wednesday, Thursday (if they are tied with Yankees for the lead in AL East) and Friday (if they lose the division and play the Oakland Athletics in the wild card game)?
There are five possible scenarios after Tuesday’s games. The Orioles may be two games up, one game up, tied, one game back or two games back of the Yankees. I do not consider home court advantage in the wild card game a factor in setting up the starters, though it may be in real life for economic reasons.
If the Orioles are two games up or two games back in the AL East, the last game of the regular season does not mean much to the team. Hence, they should rest their best starters, and have either Jake Arrieta or Tommy Hunter to start the game. Both are unlikely to start in the postseason, so the Orioles do not burn one of their starters for a meaningless game. If the Orioles clinch the division, they would go straight to the division series. On the other hand, if the Yankees emerge victorious, the Orioles will play in the wild card game against the Oakland Athletics. There are two options for the game, Chris Tillman on six days rest or Joe Saunders on regular rest. Chris Tillman has been the better pitcher lately. He has had five straight quality starts, excluding the game against the Yankees in which he left early due to injury. On the other hand, the Athletics have played much worse against southpaws this season, with a 28-29 record against left-handed pitchers compared to 63-39 against right-handed pitchers. This is logical, as the core of the Athletics lineup is heavily left-handed, including Stephen Drew, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss. In the end, I still choose Tillman over Saunders, as the homer-reliant Athletics can certainly take advantage of a homer-prone pitcher like Saunders who has given up 21 homeruns this season.
If the Orioles are up one game on the final day of the regular season, Tillman should be the one taking the mound, since he is on regular rest. If he wins, the Orioles clinch the division. If they lose and the Yankees win, they will face the Yankees in the 163rd game. The Orioles will have no starters on regular rest for this game, as it is Steve Johnson’s turn in the rotation. As a result, the Orioles should turn to Arrieta or Hunter. If I were Buck Showalter, I would ask both of them to provide 3 innings for the game before turning the ball to the bullpen. If the Orioles lose the tiebreaker, they would then face the Athletics. This time around, Saunders is the only logical choice.
If the Orioles are one game back of the Yankees, they would have a tough decision. Start Tillman and hope the Yankees lose, or save Tillman for the wild card game. Given that the Yankees will start Hiroki Kuroda against Daisuke Matsuzaka on Wednesday, I don’t see a high possibility of the Red Sox winning the game and thus I would start the Arrieta/Hunter pair on Wednesday. If the Orioles get lucky and pull even with the Yankees, Tillman will start Thursday. Saunders will start Friday if the Orioles lose that game. If the Yankees win the division, Tillman will then start against the Athletics on Friday.
Lastly, the Orioles may be tied with the Yankees entering the final day. Tillman should start on regular rest and try to win the division for the Orioles. If the Orioles win and Yankees lose, they would play the division series starting Saturday or Sunday. If both teams win or lose, the Orioles will again have a lack of starters, and can only rely on the pair of Arrieta and Hunter. Saunders will start the wild card game on Friday either if the Orioles lose the tiebreaker on Thursday or if they lose the division on Wednesday.
Injuries to starters have really hurt the team, as either Arrieta or Hunter may have to start in place of Hammel and Johnson. If either of them proves healthy over the next two days, he should take over the game Arrieta or Hunter is starting, but not over Tillman or Saunders as the injuries may still have a lingering effect. We can only hope that the Orioles would have clinched the division by the final day and all these speculations will be pointless.