Orioles fans are used to going into “wait and see” mode come October. However, this year, instead of waiting to see who will win the World Series and waiting to see when the Orioles can get a jump on their offseason plans, we’re doing a different kind of waiting. After clinching the AL East and home field advantage throughout the American League playoffs, the O’s (and all of Birdland) are waiting to see who they’ll face in the ALDS.
We already detailed yesterday why the Orioles would rather see the Rangers come out on top of the Rays in their AL Wild Card matchup. After all, the Rangers are the AL playoff team with the fourth-best regular season record—a natural fit to play the #1 Orioles in the Divisional round. However, we all know that the other possibility is for the one-seed Orioles to open their postseason against the rightful two seed in the Tampa Bay Rays.
The arguments for why the O’s would want to avoid the Rays are fairly obvious. However, there are still some arguments as to why Birdland should be angling for a showdown of AL East titans in the ALDS. The primary benefit of playing against Tampa instead of Texas is a measure of familiarity. Baltimore faced off against Tampa Bay 13 times in the regular season, and it was as recently as 15 days ago that the two rivals squared off in Camden Yards. By virtue of not being division rivals, the O’s and Rangers only played six times this season and they haven’t seen each other since May 28th.
The Orioles have routinely squashed any doubts the general public may have about them en route to compiling the second best record in all of baseball. However, it is still true that this team lacks significant postseason experience. After all, of the regulars in the Orioles lineup, only Adam Frazier, James McCann, and Aaron Hicks have postseason at-bats on their resumes. Unless Jack Flaherty sneaks his way on the postseason roster, Kyle Gibson and Jacob Webb will be the only pitchers with postseason experience.
Playing the Rays should provide the Orioles with a sense of focus and familiarity that allows them to push past any postseason jitters. After all, both of the four game sets the Rays and O’s played in the second half felt very much like a playoff series—especially the most recent one in Baltimore. In both of those series, Baltimore showed the qualities you look for in successful playoff teams: the ability to win close games, the ability to come up with hits in the clutch and the ability to respond when your backs are against the wall.
Yes, the Orioles should be able to play that same type of baseball against the Rangers if they’re the ones who make it through. However, there’s something to be said about having been there and done that when it comes to executing in the most pressure packed scenarios. The Orioles have that experience against the Rays. They don’t have that experience against the Rangers.
The other thing working in the Orioles favor, should they match up with Tampa, is the Rays’ bats have gone almost completely silent in each of the last two postseasons. In a two-game sweep at the hands of the Guardians last postseason, Tampa only put up nine hits and one run across 24 innings. The team’s triple slash was .115/.179/.154 and Jose Siri’s Game 1 solo HR was their only extra-base hit. The Rays offense wasn’t all that much better in the 2021 ALDS that they lost to Boston in four games. Sure, they managed to put up five runs per game, but they were overly reliant on home runs, only managed a .266 OBP and struck 46 times across the four games.
Those struggles show up in the postseason numbers posted by the heart of this Rays’ lineup. After earning MVP honors in the 2020 ALCS, Randy Arozarena hasn’t been quite the same destructive force, batting only .250 over the last two postseasons. However, those numbers are dazzling compared to other members of the Rays batting order. This season’s AL batting champion Yandy Díaz is hitting only .120 with a .279 OPS in the Rays’ last six postseason games. Brandon Lowe missed out on the 2022 postseason due to injury, but he’s currently in a 0-25 postseason hitless streak that dates back to the 2020 World Series. Siri, who’s been a constant source of power this year for the Rays, is batting .130 with a .391 OPS in his postseason career.
Finally, while we know the Rangers’ bullpen is constantly in shambles, their rotation certainly boasts a higher upside than the Rays. As good as Tampa’s Zack Eflin has been throughout 2023, Jordan Montgomery has been even better down the stretch this season. The lefty has a 2.79 ERA to go along with .240 BAA in 11 starts since joining the Rangers. Nathan Eovaldi and Dane Dunning have both struggled since the All-Star break, but at one time this season they both looked like guys with true top-of-the-rotation stuff. Meanwhile, Andrew Heaney has quietly put together a 3.38 ERA while striking out almost a batter per inning in his 17 second-half appearances.
So while the Tampa quartet of Eflin, Tyler Glasnow, Aaron Civale and Zack Littell are certainly less volatile than Texas’ bunch, they don’t offer nearly the upside. And that’s before we get into the potential return of trade deadline acquisition Max Scherzer. The further the Rangers go in the postseason, the more likely it is that the future Hall-of-Famer works his way back from a shoulder injury that’s sidelined him since September 13th. I think we can all agree that, in designing the Orioles path to a potential World Series birth, it’d be nice to avoid the possibility of Scherzer at all costs.
So while it might seem unconventional to root for a matchup with the 99-win Rays, there’s still plenty of evidence that points to Tampa as a better matchup than the Rangers. Also, I’m sure there’s a little part of every Orioles fan that wants these O’s to stick to the Rays one last time—and finally extinguish any doubt as to who was the AL’s best team. No matter who the Orioles draw, however, we can all take solace in the strength of this O’s team. The Orioles haven’t lost a home series against AL competition in nearly two months and also posted the most road wins in the league. No matter if it’s the Rays or the Rangers, Baltimore will be ready.