It All Comes Down To This

One win and the Oakland A's are in the playoffs. Three wins and they are the AL West champions. One loss and the A's watch the Texas Rangers celebrate another division crown on the A's home turf. The A's-Rangers series will be filled with compelling storylines as the 2012 regular season comes to a close in Oakland.

With three games left in the regular season, the Oakland A's path to the playoffs is clear and complicated at the same time. The A's magic number for clinching a spot in the Wild Card play-in game is down to one, meaning that Oakland will need only one win in their final three games to earn that spot. The A's are also still alive for the AL West crown, but that will require the A's pulling off a three-game sweep over the division-leading Texas Rangers.

Where the A's playoff picture gets more complicated involves the tie-breakers. Should the A's lose all three games to Texas, while the Los Angeles Angels or the Tampa Bay Rays win all three of their games (versus the Seattle Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively), then the A's would need to play in a tie-break game in order to advance to the one-game Wild Card playoff. Should the A's, Angels and Rays finish tied for the second Wild Card spot, then things get really complicated (check out the rules on this MLB.com page).

The A's would prefer a clean path to the post-season, whether that be into the Wild Card game or the ALDS. They will send Jarrod Parker to the mound on Monday night to face fellow rookie Martin Perez. Parker will be looking to clinch the A's spot in the post-season with a win while also keeping Oakland's chances for a division title alive.

Parker will be making his second consecutive start versus the Rangers. He faced Texas at the Ballpark in Arlington last week and earned the win despite getting off to a rocky start. Parker was buoyed by an early offensive explosion from the A's that saw them score five times against Perez and the Rangers in the first inning. Parker battled himself early in that contest and allowed the Rangers to draw to 5-3 before he settled in and the A's pulled away for a 9-3 win.

The A's rookie is 12-8 with a 3.44 ERA and a 134:61 K:BB ratio in 175.1 innings thus far this season. Parker threw 20.1 innings for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats earlier this season, so he has a chance to move over the 200-inning plateau for the year on Monday. That is a significant number because Parker had Tommy John surgery in 2009 and missed the entire 2010 season. Parker has gone at least six innings in each of his last five starts. The A's bullpen could use another six-plus inning outing from Parker after Oakland starters failed to complete the sixth inning in all three games over the weekend.

Perez struggled against the A's in his last start but the talented lefty has the stuff to shut-down any offense on any given evening. Perez pitched well in his other start against the A's earlier this season. He allowed two runs in 5.1 innings with five strike-outs and one walk. He has split his season between Triple-A Round Rock and the big leagues. In the minors, Perez had a 4.25 ERA in 127 innings. His ERA is 5.03 in 34 big league innings this season. The left-hander can be inconsistent with his command and the A's will look to work his pitch count early in the game. The Rangers are coming off of a day-night double-header and their bullpen may be a little thin during the first game of this series.

Perez and the Rangers will benefit from having Adrian Beltre and Michael Young available after both players missed time with minor injuries over the weekend. Craig Gentry (1214 OPS in 28 at-bats) and Mitch Moreland (1095 OPS in 18 at-bats) are two lesser-known Rangers hitters who have done damage against Oakland this season and should see time during this series.

The second game of the series will be a rematch of the final game of last week's four-game set, which the Rangers won, 9-7. Texas ace Matt Harrison wasn't at his sharpest last Thursday in that game, but he didn't need to be, as Travis Blackley allowed five runs in the first inning and the A's bullpen couldn't shut the door on the Texas offense over the next several innings. Oakland hit five homeruns in that game and mounted a late comeback but still fell short.

Harrison is a strong candidate to be the Rangers' number one starter in the playoffs, especially if Yu Darvish isn't 100 percent. The left-hander has 18 wins this season and a 3.26 ERA. He is 6-1 lifetime versus Oakland, although his career ERA against the A's is over 4.00. Before allowing four runs against the A's in six innings last week, Harrison had a run of four straight starts allowing two earned runs or less.

Blackley has been a valuable member of the A's pitching staff since he joined the A's midseason, but he has been struggling of late. In two starts since he moved back into the rotation, Blackley has allowed 10 runs in three innings pitched. The lefty is 5-4 with a 4.25 ERA overall and he has moved around between the rotation and the bullpen.

The series and regular season finale on Wednesday is set to feature A.J. Griffin and Ryan Dempster, although the pitching match-ups could change considerably if one or both teams have their playoff fates decided by then. Griffin was the only A's starter who didn't face Texas in the series last week. He struggled on the A's roadtrip against Detroit and New York (nine runs allowed in nine innings pitched), but pitched fairly well on Friday night against the Mariners (one earned run in 5.2 innings pitched). Overall, Griffin has a 7-1 record and a 2.71 ERA in 79.2 innings for his rookie season. He had a 2.82 ERA in 102 innings at the Double-A and Triple-A levels earlier this season. Griffin's only start against Texas came in June, which was the second start of his major league career. He allowed only two hits and two walks in six shut-out innings.

Dempster was the Rangers' big trade deadline acquisition. The right-hander had a 2.25 ERA in 104 innings for the Chicago Cubs, but he has struggled somewhat with the Rangers. In 66 innings, he has struck-out 67 for Texas, but he has allowed 10 homeruns and has a 4.64 ERA. The Rangers have done well in the starts Dempster has made, however, as he is 7-3 in 11 starts.

The weather is supposed to be unusually warm in the East Bay over the next three days, so the series may come down to which pitching staff can keep the other team in the ballpark most frequently. The Rangers have a powerful line-up led by Josh Hamilton, Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli. All but Kinsler have eclipsed the 20-homer plateau and Kinsler is closing in at 19. Moreland and David Murphy each have 15 homeruns. The Rangers are fourth in the AL in homeruns and tied for first in team slugging percentage.

The A's have been a homer-happy club in 2012, as well. Over the past seven games, the A's have homered 16 times. Four of the A's homers came late in games on Saturday and Sunday, propelling Oakland to wins in tight ballgames. The A's have seven players on their active roster with at least 10 homeruns (Brandon Inge is on the 60-day DL) and three with more than 20. Josh Reddick has snapped out of his September funk in a big way, hitting three homeruns in his last four games. He is eighth in the AL in homeruns and leads the team with 32. Yoenis Cespedes has four homers in his last nine games and 23 overall. He is batting .396 against the Rangers this season. The hottest hitter in the A's line-up, however, has been Brandon Moss. Moss had the walk-off homer for Oakland on Saturday and has 10 hits (six for extra-bases) in his last 26 at-bats.

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