By STEPHEN HAWKINS
ARLINGTON, Texas — After a grinding stretch when the Texas Rangers lost nine of their last 13 games, and the AL West crown in the process, manager Ron Washington gave his players the day off Thursday.
They get a chance to start fresh Friday.
One chance — or the season will be over for the two-time defending American League champions long before another World Series.
“I don’t feel any different,” Washington said. “Other than the fact we have an opportunity to get back in the playoffs if we win a ball game.”
Still, the team that twice came within a strike of winning last year’s World Series, never expected to be in this kind of postseason situation.
Instead of winning another division title, after being in first place for a majors-high 178 days this season, Texas hosts a winner-take-all AL wild-card ga,e Friday night against Baltimore and former manager Buck Showalter.
Yu Darvish makes his MLB postseason debut for the Rangers against the only AL team the right-hander from Japan didn’t face this season. Lefty Joe Saunders, a late-season acquisition by the Orioles, has never won at Rangers Ballpark.
The winner goes on to play the New York Yankees, another of Showalter’s former employers, in the AL division series and will host the first two games.
Baltimore is in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Showalter, hired by the Orioles midway through the 2010 season, dismissed any notion that it means more to him getting to face Texas, where he managed for four years and then was replaced by Washington after the 2006 season.
“For our players and organization to get an opportunity, it’s rewarding. We’re trying to do everything possible to get back to Baltimore,” Showalter said. “Personally, I thanked the players for letting me come along for the ride. “
Just a week ago, Texas had a four-game division lead with six to play after splitting a four-game series at home against Oakland. The Rangers lost five of those last six games, including a three-game sweep this week against the A’s, who clinched the division title on the last day of the regular season with a 12-5 victory.
The Rangers had a 5-1 lead in the season finale before Oakland’s big comeback, including center fielder Josh Hamilton missing a popup for a two-base error with two outs that allowed two runs to score and broke a 5-all tie.
The 4-9 span is their worst such slide of the season. The only other time they were swept in a three-game series was the first week of July at the Chicago White Sox.
“Just like any of our fans or anyone involved with our organization, there was a level of disappointment at first. A chance to win the division, and we couldn’t put it away,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “Then you take a step back and realize there are 20 teams that would kill to be where we are right now and would trade places with us in a heartbeat. … We’ve got one of our best pitchers on the mound at home.”
While Darvish (16-9) is a rookie in the majors, the 26-year-old starter had plenty of postseason experience before the Rangers committed more than $107 million last winter to acquire Japan’s top pitcher. He was 8-2 with a 1.38 ERA and five complete games in 11 postseason starts for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters from 2006-11.
“He’s an expensive one,” Showalter said. “He’s impressive. They gotten a return on everything they’ve invested. He’s pretty special.”
The Orioles acquired Saunders (9-13 overall, including 3-3 in seven starts for Baltimore) on Aug. 26 from Arizona. The lefty has previous playoff experience for the Los Angeles Angels.
But Saunders is 3-7 with a 6.48 ERA in 11 career starts against Texas, including 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six previous starts at Rangers Ballpark.
“You can make numbers any way you want to,” Showalter said. “If you’re looking for pitchers with good numbers against the Texas Rangers, they’re hard to find.”
It has been more than two years since Saunders pitched in Texas, and he allowed only one run in seven innings then. Now the Virginia native who grew up an Orioles fan is starting their biggest game of the season.
“It’s a huge opportunity. It’s been a blessing since I got traded over here, it’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “It’d be really nice to get a win for the club and get a playoff game back home. That’s what this organization is asking me to do.”
Texas won five of the seven games in the regular season and scored at least 10 runs three times. That includes the May 8 game in Baltimore when Hamilton, the free-agent-to-be slugger, became the 16th player in major league history with four homers in a game.
Hamilton (43) and Adrian Beltre (36), the standout defensive third baseman limited to being the designated hitter against Oakland because of a strained left shoulder, have the most homers by a pair of big league teammates this season.
The Orioles have a pair of 30-homer hitters in Adam Jones (32) and Chris Davis (33), who is among seven former Rangers playing for Baltimore.
Davis was traded to the O’s with right-hander Tommy Hunter in July 2011 for Koji Uehara, the righty reliever who retired 25 consecutive batters for Texas before giving up a single in his last outing.
“The big thing for us was coming in August and playing these guys and kind of dealing with the emotions of being back, being on the other side of things,” Davis said. “Right now we’re definitely excited to be in the postseason, and we really don’t care who our opponent is. … We’re just glad to be in this situation.”
At a glance
Schedule: Today, at Arlington, Texas (2:37 p.m. HST). (TBS) (850 AM).
Season Series: Rangers won 5-2.
Orioles: LF Nate McLouth (.268, 7 HRs, 18 RBIs, 12 SBs), SS J.J. Hardy (.238, 22, 68), RF Chris Davis (.270, 33, 85, 169 Ks), CF Adam Jones (.287, 32, 82, 16 SBs), C Matt Wieters (.249, 23, 83), DH Jim Thome (.257, 3, 10 in 28 games), 1B Mark Reynolds (.221, 23, 69), 2B Ryan Flaherty (.216, 6, 19), 3B Manny Machado (.262, 7, 26).
Rangers: 2B Ian Kinsler (.256, 19, 72, 21 SBs, 105 runs), SS Elvis Andrus (.286, 3, 62, 21 SBs), CF Josh Hamilton (.285, 43, 128, 162 Ks, 60 BBs, 103 runs), 3B Adrian Beltre (.321, 36, 102), RF Nelson Cruz (.260, 24, 90), DH Michael Young (.277, 8, 67), LF David Murphy (.304, 15, 61), C Mike Napoli (.227, 24, 56), 1B Mitch Moreland (.275, 15, 50).
Orioles: LHP Joe Saunders (3-3, 3.63 ERA, 23 Ks, 8 BBs in 44 2-3 innings over 7 starts with Orioles).
Rangers: RH Yu Darvish (16-9, 3.90, 221 Ks, 191 1-3 IP).
Orioles: RH Jim Johnson (2-1, 2.49, major league-leading 51/54 saves), RH Pedro Strop (5-2, 2.44, 3 saves, 58 Ks in 66 1-3 IP), RH Darren O’Day (7-1, 2.28, 2 saves in 69 games), RH Luis Ayala (5-5, 2.64), LH Brian Matusz (6-10, 4.87 in 34 games, 16 starts), RH Tommy Hunter (7-8, 5.45, 32 HRs in 33 games, 20 starts), LH Troy Patton (1-0, 2.43 ERA in 54 games).
Rangers: RH Joe Nathan (3-5, 2.80, 37/40 saves, 78 Ks, 64 1-3 IP), RH Alexi Ogando (2-0, 3.27, 3 saves, 66 Ks, 66 IP), RH Koji Uehara (0-0, 1.75, 37 appearances), LH Robbie Ross (6-0, 2.22 in 58 appearances), RH Scott Feldman (6-11, 5.09 in 29 games, 21 starts), RH Roy Oswalt (4-3, 5.80 in 17 games, 9 starts), LH Michael Kirkman (1-2, 3.82), RH Mark Lowe (0-2, 3.43).
Hamilton became the 16th player in major league history with four homers in a game, May 8 in a 10-3 win at Baltimore. He was 5 for 5 with an AL-record 18 total bases. Hamilton has 11 career homers in 38 games against the Orioles. … Baltimore is the only AL team that Darvish, the 26-year-old rookie from Japan, didn’t face in the regular season. … The Rangers acquired Uehara from Baltimore in a trade on July 31, 2011, a deal that sent Davis and Hunter to the O’s. … Before giving up two-out single to Oakland’s Brandon Moss in his last regular-season appearance, Uehara had retired 25 consecutive batters (15 strikeouts). … Texas scored at least 10 runs three times against the O’s this season. … Orioles skipper Buck Showalter was the Rangers’ manager from 2002-06 before being fired and replaced by Ron Washington. Showalter was 319-329 with the Rangers and never finished better than third in the AL West, even during an 89-win season in 2004 when Texas remained in the division chase until the final week. … Kinsler’s rookie season was in 2006 under Showalter. Other Texas players who were around under Showalter are Cruz, Feldman, injured pitcher Colby Lewis and Young. … Cruz is a .366 hitter with six homers and 30 RBIs in 35 career games vs. Baltimore. … Nathan made two non-save appearances vs. Baltimore this season, with four strikeouts in two innings. In 19 career appearances, he has converted all 10 save chances while allowing four runs with 25 strikeouts in 20 innings. … Texas went 5-1 last year against the Orioles, then opened this season’s series between the teams with wins of 14-3 and 10-3, a big reason why Baltimore had a negative run-differential until September. The Rangers also won 12-3 on Aug. 22. Baltimore’s two wins in the series this year were by scores of 6-5 and 5-3.
Orioles: First playoff appearance for Baltimore since 1997. Orioles (93-69) were in competition for AL East title until final day, then lost 4-1 at Tampa Bay to end up on road in wild-card round. … Baltimore had 14 consecutive losing seasons and four straight last-place finishes before turning it around under Showalter, now in his second full season. This is also Dan Duquette’s first season as executive vice president of baseball operations. Through shrewd trades and free-agents additions, he added much-needed depth to a thin roster. … Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games and have won amazing 16 straight in extra innings. … Johnson’s 51 saves are a club record, shattering Randy Myers’ mark of 45 in 1997. … Davis homered in six straight games before streak ended in regular-season finale. His late push enabled him to overtake Jones as team leader in HRs and RBIs. … Machado was playing for Double-A Bowie when the Orioles purchased his contract on Aug. 9 and made him the starting 3B. Although groomed to be a shortstop, the 20-year-old rookie has handled the hot corner efficiently and showed surprising punch at the plate. … Jones played in all 162 games. Orioles are 23-8 when he homers.
Rangers: Instead of winning their third consecutive AL West title, which for so much of the season seemed a foregone conclusion for the two-time defending AL champs, the Rangers (93-69) instead lost nine of their last 13 games. That was their worst such stretch all season. … Texas was 17-6 in April and went on to spend 178 days overall in first place. That was the most in the majors this season, and the most for any team in major league history that failed to win a division title. … Texas won 14 of its last 16 regular-season games last season. … Needing to win only once in the final series of the season to win the division, Texas was instead swept by Oakland, which overcame a 13-game deficit to take the title on the final day. The only other time Texas was swept in a series of at least three games was July 3-5 at the Chicago White Sox. … Hamilton and Beltre have the most homers by any pair of teammates in the majors. It’s the most for a Rangers duo since 2005 with Mark Teixeira (43) and Alfonso Soriano (36). … After his four-homer game in Baltimore, Hamilton was on a Triple Crown pace, leading the AL in hitting (.406) with 14 homers and 36 RBIs. In 48 games between June 1 and Aug. 1, he hit a paltry .197 with eight homers and 28 RBIs. … Hamilton is eligible for free agency after the season, and the Rangers might not be willing to pay the lofty price the former AL MVP and batting champion could demand. … For the first time under Washington, who is in his sixth season, the Rangers didn’t increase their win total from the previous year. They won a franchise-record 96 games last year. … Texas had seven players who appeared in at least 147 games. Five of them (Beltre, Andrus, Young, Cruz and Kinsler) played 155 games, a club record. … The Rangers had a franchise-low 85 errors in the regular season, two less than their 1996 total. The 99 errorless games was another franchise record. … Texas made three errors in the last game, including Hamilton’s dropped fly ball that put the A’s ahead to stay . … Kinsler hit .293 at home and .220 on the road. … Colby Lewis (forearm) and Neftali Felix (elbow), who were both in Texas’ opening-day rotation, were lost to season-ending injuries. Oswalt, a three-time All-Star and a free agent Texas considered last winter, joined the team at the end of June. A month later, he was working out of the bullpen and spot starting after the Rangers obtained Ryan Dempster in a trade from the Chicago Cubs.
— Going Deep. These Orioles are patterned after those Earl Weaver teams of long ago. Rarely do they seek to manufacture runs with bunts and steals; rather, they rely on the three-run homer. The formula has worked. Baltimore hit 127 homers at Camden Yards, its most at home in one season.
— Banged-Up Beltre. A top-five MVP candidate with his performance at the plate and in the field (career-low eight errors), Beltre was the DH during the final series in Oakland because of a strained left shoulder. He has also been dealing with stomach pain caused by what doctors believe is scar tissue from appendix surgery more than a decade ago, and could require additional surgery after the season.
— Closing Time: If the Orioles take a lead into the ninth, Johnson is a pretty good bet to seal the win. He hasn’t blown a save opportunity since July 27 and has 20 saves and an ERA under 1.00 since July 30. The right-hander didn’t allow an earned run until May 10 and hasn’t given up a HR since June 5. The only players on the Rangers with homers against Johnson are Murphy and Kinsler. Johnson’s 2.49 ERA would be a whole lot better if not for two appearances in which he yielded a total of 11 runs. He allowed 10 runs in his other 69 games.