By Steve DeClue
The Baltimore Orioles surprised just about everyone but themselves by defeating the Texas Rangers in the wild card game and moving on to the ALDS, but the club is far from satisfied after their first playoff win in in 15 years.
The O’s will play host to the New York Yankees for the first two games of the series before heading to the Big Apple. The two teams split the 18 games they played against each other this year, though the Orioles won or split all but the first series of the season. Given their success against New York, it’s hard to envision the O’s being intimidated by their AL East rivals.
The Orioles announced that Jason Hammel will start Game 1. Hammel’s had a breakthrough season as the club’s ace but troubled by a left knee injury that has caused him to miss extended periods of time. It will be Hammel’s first start since mid September, but Buck Showalter is happy with the way he has thrown in bullpen sessions.
Hammel didn’t get the win but pitched very effectively in a win over the Yankees on September 6. However, he will be opposed by C.C Sabathia in Game 1, who will pose a significantly tougher challenge than his opponent on September 6, David Phelps.
The Orioles have had success in the past against Sabathia, but have never faced him with so much on the line. Then again, the Orioles were in the midst of a pennant race for the first time in over a decade and never wavered down the stretch while trying to outduel the Yankees for the AL East crown.
Baltimore seemed to relish the underdog role throughout the year, and it definitely played a factor in their win over the Rangers. The Orioles felt disrespected by the media, which essentially wrote off the club and their chances of taking down the two-time defending American League champions in their own ballpark.
To have success against Sabathia, Baltimore’s lineup will need to be patient at the plate and have success with runners in scoring position. The Orioles rank when it comes to pitches seen per plate appearance, but much of that is due to the number of hitters with a high strikeout rate.
The club has also really struggled at times with runners in scoring position. Opportunities to get a run across the plate can’t be wasted in the postseason, especially against such a tough pitcher. With so many power hitters on the club that do not possess speed, the Orioles are very susceptible to grounding into double plays. It also wouldn’t hurt if the home run became a factor again after the O’s failed to hit one in their wild card win. When the Orioles hit a home run in a game, their winning percentage jumps drastically.
On the other side, keeping the ball down and in the ballpark will be the big key for Hammel. Few teams in baseball were more dependent on the home run ball than the Orioles, but the Yankees were one of them. Hammel throws a fairly heavy sinker that is effective in inducing ground balls, which could also prove helpful to turning double plays when a Yankee does reach base. If Hammel has the Yankees beating the ball into the ground early and often, the O’s should get a very solid six innings out of him.
Robinson Cano has been on fire, and it’s critical that the Orioles don’t allow him to beat them single-handedly. Of course, that is easier said than done with a lineup as loaded as the Yankees, which doesn’t really allow you to pitch around many of their hitters.
The weather could play a major factor in the game. Rain is expected much of the day in Baltimore, and though it should end by gametime, the field will still be wet and slick. The biggest issue could be the cold and the wind. Temperatures are only expected to be in the mid to upper 40′s at gametime with the possibility of a cold breeze out of the northwest.
One player to watch in particular with the cold temperatures is Mark Teixeira, who has been plagued by a calf injury that still isn’t 100 percent. If Teixeira can’t keep his calf loose, he could easily re-injure it and risk missing the remainder of the postseason.
Steve DeClue is a freelance writer covering all things Baltimore Orioles. His work can be found on Examiner.com.