ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — 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 game 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. If the Orioles win Friday, they will play the Yankees Sunday at 6 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m. at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
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.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)