With the Wild Card situation finally sorted out and a mere day separating the baseball world and Blue Jays nation from the most important 9 innings of the season, it's time to think about who's going to get the ball for that ever important one-game winner-take-all.
In this, the omens are clear: Francisco Liriano, the newest Blue Jay in the starting rotation, should get the ball to start the game.
With Aaron Sanchez having pitched during Sunday's clinching game, J.A Happ only pitching a day earlier and Marco Estrada on Friday, the only options with ample rest for this game are R.A Dickey, Marcus Stroman and Liriano. With Dickey all but being publicly announced as being off the playoff roster, it's down to Liriano and Stroman. That said, there are a cadre of reasons why Liriano deserves the nod over Stroman.
First off, he's better of late. Even if you don't want to buy into the idea of momentum carrying into the playoffs, it's undeniable that Liriano has been the better pitcher of late. Stroman's 3.41 ERA in the month of September is impressive and all, but it's not nearly as remarkable as the 2.03 mark set by Liriano.
Second, Liriano has done this before and succeeded. In 2013, his former Pittsburgh Pirates handed the ball to Liriano in the NL Wild Card game versus the Cincinnati Reds where he was dominant, allowing just one run on four hits over seven innings pitched. Oh, and they won 6-2 moving on to the divisional series--that's kind of important.
More than this though, Liriano is the type of pitcher you would dream about when facing the Baltimore Orioles. Looking at the general offensive numbers from the Orioles, you'd quickly discover they have a glaring weakness in their ability to hit left-handed pitching. Their .237 batting average versus lefties ranks 29th in the league, giving Liriano an additional strategic advantage over that of his right-handed teammate Stroman.
Now, one of the reasons the Jays were able to acquire Liriano in the first place was because he was having a down year with the Bucs due in large part to a lack of command over the season. His former manager Clint Hurdle pointed out this regression may be due to a change in approach from hitters simply watching more of his pitches as Liriano became infamous for being the pitcher who throws the least amount of his pitches in the actual strike zone. Thus, hitters watched more often and were rewarded with a more leisurely stroll down to first base that affected Liriano's overall numbers.
Since coming to Toronto though Liriano has been able to Buc' that trend, nearly cutting his walk rate in half from 5.5 per nine innings to 2.9 in Toronto. Even if that achilles heel of Liriano's resurfaces Tuesday night, the Orioles are the type of free-swinging team who are least likely to take advantage of that weakness. In terms of walk rate, the O's rank 20th in the entire major leagues, closely followed by an on-base percentage that puts them in 21st place. If Liriano's control isn't spot on Tuesday night, there's a good chance the Orioles will forgive him with some hacking and slashing that may be in the Blue Jays favour.
However, there is the chance that they suddenly wake up patient on Tuesday and take a walk. With runners on base, the obvious concern, especially in the playoffs, is that they swipe a bag or two and that one-meaningful run wins them the game. Except, that's not really the Orioles game either. Look at the leaderboard again and you'll see that their 19 stolen bases--yes that's less than Melvin Upton Jr. alone--ranks dead last in the entire major leagues. Thus, if Liriano does happen to walk someone in the Orioles lineup, it's not like it's a major concern that they're all of the sudden going to take off and run wild on Russell Martin and the Blue Jays.
Add onto this that Marcus has better numbers on the road versus at the Rogers Centre and you should be sitting comfortably in a chair as you get ready for Liriano to take the hill on Tuesday night.
Would it be nice to see Sanchez waltzing out to the mound to send the Orioles home early? Without a doubt, yes. But such is the hand that was dealt. It's not a full house, nor is it a pair of pocket aces.
But it's not nothing either. We've got the cards, now we just need to see what the river gets us.