Rangers in unexpected spot vs O’s in AL wild card

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.”