All wild card games – any single MLB game for that matter – is pretty close to a coin flip. When you factor in how close these two teams played – the 10-9 head to head record and shared 89-win total tells that story – the Blue Jays versus Orioles is about as much of a 50/50 proposition as you could imagine. Even the starting pitchers share similar struggles against the other team. I have no interest – and certainly lack the ability – to make any sort of educated prediction about a game this unpredictable, so here are a handful of random thoughts I have. Let’s Go O’s!!
The Chris Tillman Advantage
There has been quite a bit of hand wringing over the Orioles’ decision to start Chris Tillman by fans of the team and there will definitely be even more of that if Tillman is ineffective early. There is certainly cause for concern. Tillman has averaged nearly 93 MPH on his fastball this season according to Brooks Baseball, but has been under 92 MPH since he began dealing with shoulder discomfort in mid-August. In his last start – last week versus Toronto – Tillman struggled to break 90 MPH, lacked command of his fastball and had to lean heavily on his changeup (which to his credit he had working) to get him through the game. On the season, Tillman throws his changeup about 15% of the time but last week he went to the off speed pitch nearly 24% of the time. There is a concern that Tillman is still hurting (he almost certainly is) and his fastball velocity and command will remain off in the wild card game.
The kicker might be that if Tillman’s fastball is better – let’s say an average of 92 MPH with his normal command – and he can keep the Jays hitters believing he might throw 24% changeups again (which will involve throwing a lot of changeups early) he might be at a real advantage. Players from both sides have talked in recent days how there are no secrets between the teams and that they know each other really well. The catch is that the Tillman the Jays saw last week and who pitched well against them is not the same one they were used to. Assuming his fastball comes around tonight, he has the opportunity to keep the Jays’ hitters guessing in a way he would not have been able to without that changeup heavy performance from a week ago.
My Only Prediction: Liriano Will Get in Early
The one thing I am most certain will happen – maybe the only thing I am certain about at all – is that Liriano will get in the game relatively early. The Blue Jays – from their general manager on down – have stated that they expect the left-handed starter to make an impact out of the bullpen. While not a flaw unique to him, Marcus Stroman tends to stumble the third time through the order which means the Jays might want to get him out of the game sooner rather than later. Stroman also has struggled against Baltimore this season. The Orioles do not hit left-handed pitching well at all relative to right-handed pitching. With Stroman starting, the O’s are starting left-handers Hyun Soo Kim and Chris Davis, and Michael Bourn. Getting Liriano in early might cause Buck Showalter to burn Kim, Bourn or Alvarez early in the game by pinch hitting for them.
There are so many reasons to get Liriano in the game early that it is difficult to believe John Gibbons won’t do just that.
Does Ubaldo See Action?
If Buck was 100% certain that he was not going to pitch Ubaldo Jimenez unless he had no other options, I doubt the resurgent right-hander would have made the wild card roster. I don’t believe Buck would waste a spot on a player who served no utility. I believe that Ubaldo is on the roster because Buck envisions a way in which he can help. That doesn’t mean he will play – one has to think the ideal plan is for 4-5 innings from Tillman and 4-5 from the short relief group – but I do think Buck has some scenarios in mind where he would like to get Ubaldo in the game. If true and if Buck gets the opportunity it will be interesting to see how he utilizes Ubaldo. Personally, I would be leery of bringing Ubaldo out of the bullpen at all in a must-win game. That doesn’t seem like the ideal role for a starter who has only recently gotten his command and mechanics under control. Buck is very, very good at using his pitchers – especially when he isn’t worrying about tomorrow – so I am interested in seeing how he thinks Ubaldo could best contribute (although hopefully the game goes so well that it becomes a moot point).
The O’s are carrying a six man bench comprised of Ryan Flaherty, Caleb Joseph, Pedro Alvarez, Drew Stubbs, Trey Mancini, and Nolan Reimold. Under many other situations, I would assume that most of those guys won’t see significant action. Maybe Flaherty would get in the game as a defensive substitute in the later innings. Maybe Stubbs pinch runs and Reimold replaces Kim in the outfield later for defense purposes. Alvarez could definitely see an at bat against a right-handed reliever late in a normal game. However, this might not be a normal game given the possibility discussed above of the Jays using a two-handed starting pitcher approach. If Liriano does come in early, it will put pressure on Buck to swap out his lefty bats. Does he remove Kim in the fourth or fifth inning knowing that likely means a lesser hitter will face a right-handed reliever late in the game? The same goes for Bourn. Does Buck take him out in the 5th for offensive help and downgrade the outfield defense in the process? At some point I am sure we will see this game of chicken. If Buck does opt to remove a left-handed batter or two, that suddenly thrusts some of the right-handed bench players – Reimold, Stubbs, Mancini – into possibly bigger roles than they would otherwise have in this game.
How Long Could Zach Go?
Buck has used Zach Britton for more than three outs seven times so far in 2016. In fact, he just did it on Sunday against the Yankees with a 5-1 lead in what at first seemed like a curious move. Sure, the O’s needed to win that game in order to control their own playoff destiny but it still seemed like an odd move. Was the primary or secondary motive behind the decision to give Britton a warm up five out save for possible wild card scenarios? I think that at least played a small role in the decision. So the question is – now that Buck has shown the willingness to use Britton for multiple innings (and relied heavily on his best reliever, Andrew Miller, in the 2014 playoffs) and maybe given a hint that he plans on doing it in the playoffs, how far will he push Zach in a winner takes all game?
A two-inning save if the Orioles are holding onto a narrow (one to two run) lead would seem to almost be a given. But what about other situations? Does Buck go to Zach to start the 7th (or during the 7th) if the Orioles have a narrow lead? Does he got to him in a tie in 8th? What about the 7th? Could Britton see action in the 7th inning (or even earlier?!?) during a big spot in the game? Or does Buck stick to what brought them to the dance and roll out his set up men one after one leaving Britton to get three outs at the end of a tight game? Of course, all of this is dependent on the situation – mainly, the O’s having a lead late or being close late. The last thing any manager wants to do in a winner-take-all game is not utilize their best weapons to the fullest and Britton is clearly on the O’s best weapons. It is just the meaning of fullest is a bit trickier to nail down when Buck has no way of knowing what the biggest moment in the game might be.