Welcome to the game the Texas Rangers didn’t want to play, against the opponent from hell.
It’s not that the Baltimore Orioles are the best team in the American League. They’re not. They won 93 games and finished second in their division, just like the Rangers.
But they are a frightening adversary in the inaugural American League wild-card game for two reasons: They are unburdened by preseason expectations, and their roster consists of more ex-Texas Rangers than a black-and-white Western.
Friday will be an anxious night for the Rangers, for the same reason that general managers prefer trading players to the opposite league: Particularly in the most important games, baseball tends to remind its practitioners of the wisdom (or lack thereof) in their past decisions. One of the most famous home runs in winner-take-all history — Bucky Dent, Fenway Park, 1978 — was surrendered by a Red Sox pitcher (Mike Torrez) who was a Yankee the previous year.
I don’t know who will win Friday’s game. But I can just about promise that Baltimore slugger Chris Davis, a Ranger from 2008 through 2011, will step to the plate with the tying run on base in the seventh inning.
How do I know? This is October baseball, that’s how.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels — who traded Davis and right-hander Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara last July — smiled Thursday as I described the inevitable encounter.
“Is Uehara pitching?” Daniels asked, thickening the plot. “I’m happy for those guys. There’s not one guy there we were looking to get rid of because of anything negative. I still keep in touch with a few of them. I’m genuinely happy for that whole group. But hopefully it ends there.”
The Orioles’ 40-man roster includes a remarkable seven players who reached the majors with the Rangers during their pennant-winning seasons of 2010 or 2011: Davis, Hunter, Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Taylor Teagarden, Endy Chavez and Omar Quintanilla. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter held the same position in Texas from 2003 through 2006, and Orioles coaches Rick Adair and DeMarlo Hale worked for the Rangers, too.
It’s not as if the ex-Rangers are role players in Baltimore. Davis led the Orioles with 33 home runs and recently joined Reggie Jackson as the only players in club history to homer in six consecutive games. Now a reliever, Hunter’s fastball finally is equal to his confidence. O’Day, the side-arming right-hander, has enjoyed success against lefties. Strop has developed into one of the AL’s most electrifying setup men.
Not long ago, the Rangers’ postseason history was almost nonexistent. Now the ghosts of their World Series failures have returned to Arlington, ready to haunt. O’Day, replacing an ineffective Cliff Lee, surrendered the Juan Uribe home run that burst open Game 1 of the 2010 Fall Classic. Hunter took the mound for Game 4 with a chance to square the Series but lasted only four innings while Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner starred in a 4-0 San Francisco win.
Most agonizingly of all, Chavez revealed in a Wednesday interview with FOXSports.com that the Rangers’ coaching staff considered inserting him into right field for the fateful bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. Chavez flied out as a pinch-hitter for reliever Mike Adams in the top of the inning and was under the impression he would replace Nelson Cruz in right field. He didn’t. David Freese happened. You know the rest of the story.
“I was supposed to be in the outfield, and they just called me from first base, like, ‘No, come (back),’” said Chavez, who is known for his expert defense. “They called me in from the field.”
Chavez said he’s never received an explanation as to why the plans changed — nor has he asked.
“I was surprised,” Chavez said. “I didn’t know (Freese’s) ball was going to be hit that way. We were winning the game by two runs. I didn’t think that was a big deal.
“I know something for sure: I didn’t sleep that night, just thinking about it.”
The Rangers have had a similarly restless year, since their 2012 season can’t be deemed a complete success unless they get the final strike that eluded them last October. That’s going to be more difficult than originally thought, now that the Rangers must win Friday’s game in order to reach the AL Division Series.
Their pitching rotation isn’t lined up particularly well, with No. 1 starter Matt Harrison unavailable for the winner-take-all game because he pitched Tuesday; Yu Darvish, the impressive rookie, will draw the assignment instead.
The Rangers’ confidence may be on the wane, after blowing a five-game lead over the Oakland A’s with nine to play.
And they face greater pressure to win than the upstart Orioles.
“Undoubtedly,” O’Day concurred. “I think they’ve got some expectations they’re dealing with. It’s a good thing, to expect to win every year. They’ve been to the World Series the past two years. If you wanted to say there was a favorite in the American League before the season started, it would be them.
“But we like where we’re at. We’re having fun.”
The Orioles are having fun, frankly, in a way the Rangers did two years ago — when playoff baseball in Texas was an exotic notion. If the Orioles score an upset Friday, they will do so in part because of the easygoing confidence that Davis, O’Day and Hunter developed in Texas.
Ironic, isn’t it?
“They have a lot of very professional guys — Michael Young, Adrian Beltre — who really know how to carry themselves and are good people,” Davis said of his former club. “I definitely think that rubs off (on us).
“That’s one thing I will always say about Texas: They have a knack for drafting not only great baseball players but quality human beings. There’s a lot to be said for that in this game.”
Chavez sent a text message a few days ago to Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, his friend and fellow Venezuelan, as playoff scenarios swirled around baseball. Chavez predicted that Baltimore and Texas were going to meet. “I told him that they’re kind of nervous,” Chavez recalled.
Chavez laughed as he said that, because he knows it’s true. There is a difference between the two teams: The Orioles want to win. The Rangers have to win.