For many folks, the autumn months, October in particular, are built for bonfires and weekends on the gridiron. But for 10 baseball fan bases, October is a little more than pumpkin spice lattes and college football tailgates.
As Texas poet, and avid baseball fan, Randy Rogers once sang, “All the leaves have turned to rust, the air is getting thin, I can see my breath... the sky is gray, it’s as cold as a stone.” While the longer nights and brisk winds may not immediately conjure up baseball nostalgia for many, for baseball fans, October is the best of America’s pastime, a culmination of six months, 162 games and roughly 1,450 innings for one chance to defy the odds and watch their team raise the Commissioner’s Trophy in victory.
In baseball, October is the month where legends are made, heroes reign, hearts break, generations are intertwined, and curses are broken — all over a kid’s game using a wooden stick and a cowhide ball. October is meant baseball, and the quest for immortality starts tonight as the Baltimore Orioles travel north of the border to face the Toronto Blue Jays in a one-game, winner-moves on, American League Wild Card game.
2016 AL Wild Card Game – Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays
First Pitch: Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: TBS (US), SportsNet (Canada)
Matchup: Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.11 ERA) vs. Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA)
Three Things to Watch
1. High-Flying Offense
The Jays and O’s have more in common than being AL East teams named after birds — both teams live and die by the long ball.
For the past four seasons, the O’s have been home to the American League leader in home runs (Chris Davis: 2013, ’15, Nelson Cruz: ’14, Mark Trumbo: ’16). But this season its more than just one or two big bats carrying the Baltimore lineup. This season, Davis’ (.221, 38 HR, 84 RBI) and Trumbo’s (.256, 47, 108) power bats are actually the complementary pieces to one of the game’s best all-around players in third baseman Manny Machado (.294, 37, 96, 40 2B, .878 OPS).
With a healthy Machado, Buck Showalter’s lineup has more than made up for an often-times frustrating starting rotation, as the Orioles’ deep and dangerous lineup kept the team in the playoff hunt (almost miraculously) during the club’s rough July and August stretch (25-30).
In the other dugout, Toronto manager John Gibbons has a stacked lineup of his own, and much like Baltimore, the Blue Jays’ offense goes as third baseman and AL MVP candidate Josh Donaldson (.284, 37, 97 RBI, 32 2B, .953 OPS) goes.
Last season the Jays made their first postseason appearance in a generation by blitzing opposing pitching, leading the AL in most every major offensive category. Thanks to a banged-up Jose Bautista and natural regression, the Toronto offense isn’t as dominant as it was a season ago — but it’s still scary — especially against a shaky Baltimore starting rotation. While the numbers aren’t as gaudy as they were from a season ago, the Jays still roll out a lineup that has six players with at least 20 home runs this year.
From top to bottom, both lineups feature a lot of pop and a lot of opportunity for some major league bat flips — we hope.
2. Rockin’ Rogers Centre
Last season, the Rogers Centre provided one of the best baseball backdrops that we’ve seen in a long, long time. The city of Toronto provided one of the best, most raucous, home-field advantages as the Jays were tied for the best home record in baseball a season ago. As the season progressed, the crowd effect in Toronto was palpable, as the Jays doubled up their opponents in runs while playing on the friendly turf.
Again, with natural regression, and the improvement of opposing offenses, the Jays’ video game numbers at home have slipped a bit. But that doesn’t make the Rogers Centre any less intimidating of a ballpark for opposing teams. The Jays once again have one of the better home records in baseball (46-35), and have jumped from eighth in attendance in 2015 to third this season.
With the drama that the Wild Card game creates, there may not be a more lively or loud ballpark for this game to be held… especially if we get another one of these amazing October moments from Jose Bautista:
3. The Closer
It’s a historical rarity in baseball that the closer is seen as such a dominant, season-saving, life raft for a team. But that may be exactly what Orioles’ closer Zach Britton is, as well as a legitimate (to some baseball writer’s) Cy Young candidate.
The Lefty was a perfect 47-of-47 in save opportunities this season. But Britton is more than just saves, which by itself is a somewhat flawed statistic. What stands out the most is that Britton has allowed just one run since June 21, when he gave up three to the Padres, and has allowed only four earned runs all season long.
His ERA of 0.54 is the lowest of any pitcher in baseball history who has thrown more than 65 innings in a season. If ERA isn’t your cup of tea, perhaps his minuscule 1.94 FIP, 0.84 WHIP, and 29.1 percent strikeout rate (74 SO in 254 batters faced) could make you a believer.
In a do-or-die situation, especially in a hostile environment and against a heavy-hitting Jays’ lineup, it would be hard for Showalter to not put Britton on the mound for more than three outs should the O’s find themselves ahead in the later innings, or in a must-have, high-leverage situation.
Britton has pitched more than one inning in a game five times this season, but has only seen two consecutive innings of action just once — against these same Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre on July 31. That game, Britton was his typical electric self, using only 26 pitches to face seven batters, striking out two, and not even giving up a single hit en route to a 6-2 win.
This game is as much of a toss-up as a one-game playoff can be. Both teams are running out starting pitchers in Chris Tillman and Marcu Stroman that have turned in up-and-down performances this season, and both teams are stout offensively with the power to change a game with one swing of a bat.
If the Jays can attack the vulnerable Tillman in the early innings and turn Zach Britton into a stopgap rather than a game-ender, the Jays have a better chance to march on to Arlington to face the Texas Rangers — the series that everyone wants to see. A lot will be riding on the arm of the fiesty fireballer, Stroman, who has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but thrives on big-game pressure.
Prediction: Blue Jays 7, Orioles 5
— Written by Jake Rose, an avid baseball fan who also is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.