10/04/12 10:42 PM ET
AL Wild Card position by position: O's-Rangers
By Paul Casella / MLB.com
The Orioles went 20-11 in September and October, thanks in large part to a boost in play from young backstop Matt Wieters. The 26-year-old batted .296 with six homers and 18 RBIs in that stretch. His numbers across the board trump those of Rangers catcher Geovany Soto, who will likely crouch behind the plate with Baltimore starting southpaw pitcher Joe Saunders. Soto hit just .196 in 47 games with Texas, but fared better against lefties with a .236 mark, and totes a .295 average against them in his career.
Mark Reynolds turned things around for the O's after a miserable April to finish with a respectable 23 home runs. He notched team highs in homers (nine) and RBIs (24) in September to help Baltimore secure its playoff berth. Michael Young, expected to start at first against the lefty, turned in his lowest batting average (.277) and RBI total (67) since 2002, with a career-low eight homers. Young, however, has hit .318 since the start of September and batted .333 this season against southpaws. This matchup could hinge on whether Reynolds sends a pitch over the outfield fence.
Ian Kinsler's numbers dipped slightly almost across the board from a season ago, but he still turned in 19 homers, 72 RBIs and 21 stolen bases while playing in 157 games. Kinsler, a sparkplug during the Rangers' run to back-to-back AL pennants, also has a .303 average with four homers and 20 RBIs in 33 career postseason games. The Orioles used a platoon of Robert Andino (.211 average) and Ryan Flaherty (.216) down the stretch.
Mega-prospect Manny Machado burst onto the scene for the Orioles in mid-August, hitting three home runs in his first four games on his way to winning the AL Player of the Week Award. The 20-year-old finished with respectable numbers, but he has a ways to go to match veteran Adrian Beltre. The Rangers' third baseman put up MVP-type numbers, hitting .321 with 36 homers and 102 RBIs while playing 156 games.
The Orioles' J.J. Hardy led AL shortstops in fielding percentage for the second consecutive year but suffered a bit of a decline offensively. His sub-.300 on-base percentage tied for the lowest among qualified AL shortstops, and he didn't even attempt a stolen base for the second straight season. Elvis Andrus, meanwhile, cut down on his errors this season while posting a career-best on-base percentage.
A midseason trade from the Pirates to the Orioles seemed to revitalize Nate McLouth. After hitting just .140 with no homers as a Pirate, he hit seven home runs after arriving in Baltimore in early August. As for the Rangers, David Murphy seemed to get stronger as the season went on despite playing a career-high 147 games. Murphy hit .315 in the second half to finish with a .304 average, 15 homers and 61 RBIs.
Adam Jones set career highs with both his .287 average and 32 home runs while being one of just three players to play in all 162 games for the same team. Unfortunately, he finds himself paired against Josh Hamilton, who wasn't able to keep up his torrid early-season pace for the Rangers but still coasted to 43 homers and 128 RBIs. He also had a historic four-homer game against -- of all teams -- the Orioles on May 8.
Nelson Cruz has been a postseason force for the Rangers the past two seasons and helped lift them to the World Series last year with six homers in the AL Championship Series -- a Major League record for any postseason series. Chris Davis, acquired from the Rangers in July 2011, figures to fill in for the injured Nick Markakis. Used primarily as the designated hitter, Davis went off for 33 homers this year and scorched his way through September, hitting .337 with eight homers.
Both teams will likely feature a slugger who could go boom or bust. With Soto setting up behind the dish, Mike Napoli is expected to serve as Texas' DH. After batting .320 in 2011, Napoli hit just .227 this season, but he still belted 24 homers and reached base at a .343 clip. As for the Orioles, with Davis shifting to right field, Jim Thome figures to take over the DH role. Thome is always a threat to go deep, but he went 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in his last three games.
The injury to Markakis again hinders the Orioles, as they likely lose the option of using Thome off the bench to pinch-hit. The top bench player on either roster figures to be Craig Gentry, who hit .304 in 122 appearances this season and can help the Rangers offensively while contributing as a defensive replacement if the need arises. Texas also will have Mitch Moreland (.275 average, 15 homers) at its disposal.
The Orioles decided on Joe Saunders over Steve Johnson. Saunders has playoff experience with the Angels, but he has struggled mightily against the Rangers, especially in Texas, where he is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA. The Rangers will call on the red-hot Yu Darvish. The first-year righty lived up to expectations in his first Major League season and would likely be an AL Rookie of the Year candidate if not for Mike Trout's MVP-worthy campaign. Darvish finished 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA, going 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA in his final eight starts.
Baltimore's bullpen has been lights-out all season, evidenced by the club's 29-9 record in one-run games and 16-2 record in extra-innings contests. The recent return of Troy Patton provides extra depth to a 'pen that also includes Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala and Brian Matusz. The Rangers' bullpen hasn't been nearly as solid and will be without its best arm, Mike Adams (neck), on Friday.
Joe Nathan has made the most of his opportunity in Texas, rejuvenating a career that many thought was all but finished. The 37-year-old righty converted 37 of 40 save opportunities this season after missing all of 2010 following Tommy John surgery and struggling with the Twins in 2011. The Orioles, however, have thrived because of Jim Johnson's ability to protect ninth-inning leads. In his first full season as a closer, Johnson converted a Major League-best 51 saves in 54 chances.
Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.