I’ve said many times before that starting pitchers normally have 10 great starts over the course of the season, along with 10 bad ones and 10 in the middle. Tampa’s James Shields had one of those “great” starts last night, pitching a complete game and giving up two hits. Shields struck out a career-high 15 batters…and the Baltimore Orioles beat him. Chris Davis‘ 4th inning home run sunk Tampa as the Orioles won 1-0. What we saw last night was a rarity; a team beating a pitcher when he absolutely on his game. In the 3rd inning I though to myself that Shields had no-hit stuff last night. In fact, the Orioles managed only two hits…one of which was a homer. (And that homer incidentally went a long way into center field. It was estimated at 440 ft.)
Luckily for the Orioles, Miguel Gonzalez matched Shields point-for-point the entire night. Gonzalez’s line: 6.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 K. Those seven strikeouts are pretty impressive, but you almost feel as if they pale in comparison to what Shields did. Nevertheless in the column that truly counts (runs), Gonzalez was just a little bit better than Shields. The Orioles’ bullpen also came in and did what they’ve done all year, and that’s hold opponents at bay. Brian Matusz got the final two outs of the 7th, while Darren O’Day pitched the 8th, and Jim Johnson closed Tampa out for his 51st win of the season in the 9th inning. For those wondering if Oriole bats are cooling off as they head into the playoffs, chalk this up to just being a pitcher’s duel, and a great one at that.
So here’s the scenario for the Orioles that’s the most pressing: a win tonight guarantees a home game at Camden Yards in the playoffs. I was tweeting last night that a potential game 163 with NY could put the Orioles with a win percentage below either Texas or Oakland, giving that team home field in a Wild Card game (if the Orioles lost the division). However Oakland beat Texas again last night to draw even in the AL West. That means that tonight’s game will ultimately decide their division, the loser getting a Wild Card. If the Orioles played a game 163 and lost, their win percentage would be .576 whereas Oakland or Texas’ would be .574. So going into tonight’s game the Orioles are playing for the fans of Baltimore. They’re playing for their right to see their right to see their team in the playoffs at home in Camden Yards for the first time since 1997. A win tonight, and the Orioles earn a home game regardless of anything else.
New York beat Boston 4-3 last night (in extra innings), which means that the best the Orioles can do is tie New York with a win (and of course a NY loss) tonight. That would set up the aforementioned “game 163″ scenario where the O’s and New York would meet on Thursday at Camden Yards in a one-game playoff to decide the division. If NY wins their game, the Orioles would be eliminated from competition for the division crown and they would officially be the Wild Card team. However an Orioles loss tonight would also mean that they’d be the second Wild Card team, and they’d have to travel to either Oakland or Texas to play on Friday. Obviously your best-case scenario is to simply win and guarantee that one of those two teams will come to Camden Yards. Similar to last year, this is all coming down to the final game of the regular season. However the glaring difference is that in this case the Orioles will definitely be involved in whatever the outcome is after the regular season.
As I said above, James Shields was magnificent last night. However that can also be said for the team behind him. To the credit of the Tampa Rays and their manager Joe Maddon, they aren’t rolling over with nothing to play for. This is a concept that’s obviously not foreign to Orioles fans, as the O’s famously “played until the end” last season and knocked Boston out of the playoffs. Nothing that dramatic is going to happen tonight at Tropicana Field because the O’s are in the playoffs regardless, however Tampa is making the Orioles earn that home date. Again that’s to their credit, and that comes from their manager Joe Maddon. That home date is so important because the Wild Card round is one-and-done. Wouldn’t the Orioles want to be at home in front of their raucous fans as opposed to in front of someone else’s in an automatic game seven? I think that given the 14 years of losing especially, the atmosphere at Camden Yards would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen (aside from maybe Ripkin’s 2131 game). That in itself could lift the team up. However I will say that it seems the assumption is that if they had to go on the road, it would all but guarantee a loss. That’s not true in the least; this is a team that’s played well on the road, and they’ve proven that they can beat anyone anywhere on any day.
The Orioles will send perhaps their most reliable starter, Chris Tillman, to the mound tonight in Tampa. That tells you that they’re going all out to win the division and/or clinch that home date. Buck Showalter’s attitude has been all year that we’ll worry about today’s game today, and then worry about tomorrow. So to anyone who’s raising their eyebrows at using Tillman now as opposed to in the playoffs, keep that in mind! Tillman will be opposed by Tampa’s Jeremy Hellickson, who’s 9-11 on the year. It comes down to the immediacy of today folks…game 162.