The Orioles haven’t clinched a wild card spot yet, and I’m not trying to jinx anything. That said, with three games left they’re in the first wild card slot and are two games up on Detroit in the win column.
Even the pessimistic fan in me recognizes that there’s a very real possibility of the Orioles making the playoffs, and there isn’t much regular season analysis to be done with three games left. So, let’s take a look at who might get the ball for a potential wild card game.
First of all, let’s talk about who won’t get the ball. Yovani Gallardo pitches tonight, and it’s not like he was going to start a win-or-go-home game anyway. Wade Miley pitches Saturday, so he’s out.
Sunday’s starter has not been announced, so that leaves four potential starters for Tuesday’s wild card game: Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Honestly, I just don’t see Bundy getting the ball in that game. He hasn’t been pitching all that well of late, and it just doesn’t make much sense to put him in there. There’s also the matter of managing his innings.
Bundy has already had success out of the bullpen this year, so of all the Orioles’ starters he seems like the obvious choice to move to a midde / long relief role similar to what Kevin Gausman did in 2014.
That leaves three. Let’s take a look at each.
If Sunday’s game still matters, Gausman will probably get the start since it’s his normal turn in the rotation. That’s highly likely; even if the Orioles are able to take the first two games of the series (or if Detroit and Seattle falter), there will still probably be home field to play for.
That would rule out Gausman for the wild card game, but just for fun let’s envision a scenario where the O’s win their next two and everybody else loses two in a row. That would allow the Birds to give Sunday’s game to someone like Tyler Wilson.
Even if this happens, Gausman is unlikely to be the choice for Tuesday if Toronto is the Orioles’ opponent. Why? He was roughed up by the Blue Jays yet again on Tuesday, bringing his ERA against them this year to 7.04 in three starts.
Yes, that’s a small sample size, but Buck has messed up matchups for reasons like this before. On the other hand, Gausman had a 1.83 ERA in the six starts prior to Tuesday’s, so he has that going for him.
In case you’re wondering, Gausman allowed three runs on eight hits in six innings in his only start against Seattle, and he has a 5.73 ERA and a 1.90 WHIP in two games against Detroit.
Tillman is the Orioles’ de facto ace, and the only starter of the three to start a playoff game for Baltimore. He has to be considered the favorite to get the start for this reason.
His results against Toronto this year have also put aside the narrative that Tillman can’t pitch against the Blue Jays. After getting completely demolished by them last season, Tillman has a 3.63 ERA in four starts against Toronto in 2016.
Another thing working in Tillman’s favor is that he’d be pitching on six days’ rest. Tillman has been very good in his career on 6+ days rest, with a 3.52 ERA in 35 such starts, compared to a 4.26 ERA in all other starts.
If Detroit were to make the game, Tillman looks even better. He’s started against them twice and given up just one run in thirteen innings. Tillman struggled a bit in his two starts against Seattle this year, but he’s pitched very well (3.36 ERA) against them in his career.
If Tuesday was a regular old game, Jimenez would probably get the ball. He would be pitching on a standard 5 days’ rest since he started last night. Also, he’s been arguably the Orioles’ best starter since his return to the rotation.
In his seven starts after re-joining the starting rotation, Jimenez has pitched to a 2.45 ERA and averaged nearly seven innings per start. While it would have seemed crazy a couple months ago, he is a legitimate option to pitch this game. The O’s wouldn’t be in this position without him.
Ubaldo has allowed 15 runs in 21 innings against the Jays this year, but ten of those were allowed over just 2.2 in a disastrous two-outing stretch in mid-June. That was when Jimenez was pitching at his worst. He’s clearly made some changes lately, and his 2-hit gem last night against Toronto was the latest example.
If I had to guess, my money would be on Chris Tillman to start the wild card game if the O’s make it there. He’s pitched well most of the year, he’ll be rested, and whether or not you believe this matters (I don’t), he’s got playoff experience.
Nobody is counting chickens yet - the O’s still need to play well against a division rival to make the playoffs in the first place. But if they get there, Buck Showalter will have three viable options at his disposal to try and pitch the Orioles through to the ALDS.