With all due respect to the Washington Nationals, the two biggest positive surprises in Major League Baseball this season have to be the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s. Both teams, projected to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions, would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The Birds and Vowels start a huge three-game series Friday night in Oakland that could help determine not only one or both AL wild-card spots but also the AL East and even the AL West title.
Entering Thursday’s games, the Birds are in a dead-heat with the Yankees for the East lead with the O’s/Yanks holding down the second wild-card spot behind the A’s. And Oakland still has a shot at winning the West, down three to Texas entering Thursday. Currently on Sportsbook.ag, Texas is -1400 to win the West with Oakland at +400.
Both Baltimore and Oakland have tough schedules to finish out. This series begins a nine-game road trip for the O’s, who then visit Seattle and Boston – you know the Red Sox, who also visit Baltimore Sept. 28-30, would love to punk the Orioles this season after Baltimore did the same to Boston on the 2011 season’s final day. Baltimore looks like it will have to finish the season without ace Jason Hammel and Nick Markakis, who had been raking since the all-star break. Hammel (8-6, 3.43) was due to have an MRI on his knee Thursday after leaving Tuesday’s start early with a knee injury. He was making just his second start since undergoing surgery on the same knee in July.
Markakis broke his left thumb Saturday after being hit by a pitch. He’s done for the regular season and probably the year – if the Orioles make a deep playoff run it’s possible he can return. Markakis (.298, 13 HRs, 54 RBI) had been energized by a move to the leadoff spot and was hitting .335 with five homers and 28 RBI since the break. Nate McLouth appears to be the replacement at leadoff – he would be the fourth full-time leadoff hitter this season for Baltimore after Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold were lost for the season earlier in the year.
The schedule for the A’s is probably the toughest in baseball to close the season. After this series, they travel to Detroit, the Yankees and Texas, and then close with home series vs. the Rangers and Mariners. That means 16 of Oakland’s final 19 games could be against playoff teams. Oakland traded away its three best pitchers this offseason, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey, but has just plugged in several rookies. It looks like Oakland will finish the 2012 season without Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy, a rare returning veteran in the rotation. He suffered a fractured skill and underwent brain surgery to potentially save his life after taking a line drive off his head during a Sept. 5 game.
The Orioles and A’s have split six games this season, all at Camden Yards. The most recent series was July 27-29 when Oakland won two of three. That was the month Oakland was nearly unbeatable and set a team record for wins. Baltimore can clinch its first winning season since 1997 this weekend.
Orioles at A’s Probable Starting Pitchers
Friday: Orioles LHP Joe Saunders (8-11, 4.22) vs. A’s LHP Tommy Milone (12-10, 3.90) – Saunders was a post-waiver trade deadline acquisition from Arizona. He is 2-1 with a 4.24 ERA in three starts with Baltimore. His first start was rough, but Saunders has allowed a total of two earned runs over 11.2 innings in his past two. Milone is one of those many rookies who have carried the Oakland rotation. He has allowed two earned runs or less in three of his past four starts. Milone hasn’t faced Baltimore.
Saturday: Orioles LHP Zach Britton (5-2, 4.72) vs. A’s RHP Jarrod Parker (10-8, 3.56): Britton had been terrific since being recalled from the minors but was roughed up for five runs in 3.1 innings in a loss to the Yankees last time out. But Britton’s ERA is nearly two runs lower on the road. Parker, another rookie, had a huge win vs. the Angels in Monday’s series opener, allowing just a run in seven innings. Parker pitched in Baltimore July 27, giving up six runs in five innings in a no-decision.
Sunday: Orioles RHP Chris Tillman (7-2, 3.39) vs. A’s RHP Dan Straily (2-0, 3.42): This would have been Hammel’s turn in the rotation and it’s not a lock Tillman will get the call; it could be reliever/spot starter Steve Johnson, who replaced Hammel when he was hurt Tuesday. But the O’s likely want to keep Johnson in the bullpen, where he has thrived. Tillman had a minor elbow issue and hasn’t pitched since Sept. 2 but had a good bullpen session this week. He hasn’t faced Oakland. Straily, yet another rookie, is taking McCarthy’s spot. In his first start back in the rotation, Straily held the Angels to three runs over 6.2 innings in a victory Tuesday. The Orioles have yet to see him.
Orioles at A’s Betting Odds and Trends
For the series, I project Oakland around -150, with Baltimore at +130. For the opener, the A’s are -130 with the total at 7.5 at BetOnline. Baltimore is 27-40-2 “over/under” on road and Oakland is 31-40-1 at home.
The Orioles are 6-0 ATS in their past six games vs. left-handed starters. They have won their past six series openers. Oakland is 7-0 in its last seven home games following a road trip of seven or more days. The A’s have won four of their past five openers and have won 10 of their past 14 overall at home. The over is 7-1 in Baltimore’s past eight games. The over is 17-4-1 in Oakland’s past 22 games vs. a left-handed starter.
MLB Picks: Orioles at A’s Betting Predictions
Both the A’s and Orioles had afternoon get-away games Thursday, but Baltimore had to fly across country and Oakland is just a short jump from L.A. For what it’s worth, the Orioles are 12-15 vs. AL West teams this year and Oakland is 25-15 vs. the AL East.
The key for Baltimore is for its starter to go six innings or more – it is 63-18 (entering Thursday) when that happens. Oakland, meanwhile, will face two lefties in this series and is 24-25 vs. southpaws in 2012. It’s just so amazing that in the team’s biggest series (at least until the next one) in years Oakland is starting all rookie pitchers. Kudos to Billy Beane and his scouts. It’s hard to ignore the ERAs of those A’s pitchers in this series, and the Birds will start to miss Markakis. Look for low-scoring games (four of the first six went under) and take Oakland in the series and the opener.
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