ARLINGTON, Texas — Buck Showalter often mixes gut feelings with statistical data to make his managerial calls on a case-by-case basis.
On Thursday, Showalter chose his instincts over statistical wisdom, selecting 31-year-old left-hander Joe Saunders to pitch for Baltimore in Friday’s one-game wild-card playoff against the Texas Rangers instead of rookie Steve Johnson, who hasn’t pitched since overextending his left knee Sept. 29.
“Joe is rested,” Showalter said. “He’s ready to go. Obviously, [he has] experience. He’s pitched some in the playoffs.
“We weren’t real sure 100 percent about Stevie’s knee. . . . Joe’s pitched well for us since he’s been here.”
Saunders, acquired Aug. 26 in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, is 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA in seven outings for the Orioles. He’s also started four postseason games in his eight-season career for the Los Angeles Angels and Diamondbacks, posting a 0-1 record and a 6.00 ERA.
But it’s his stats against the Texas Rangers that are specifically disconcerting. He is 3-7 with a 6.48 ERA against Texas in his career and 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six starts at Rangers Ballpark — the second worst ERA in the history of the stadium for an opposing pitcher with at least 30 innings (behind only Ryan Franklin’s 9.57 mark).
“You can make numbers look anyway you want to,” Showalter said. “If you’re looking for pitchers with good numbers against the Texas Rangers, they’re hard to find.”
Asked if he knew what his specific numbers were at Texas, Saunders responded, “I can imagine. I don’t care. Tomorrow is a new day.”
The left-hander points out that some of his starts here weren’t disasters. In fact, in his last outing in Arlington, on July 23, 2010, Saunders allowed one run in seven innings and lost a pitchers’ duel to C.J. Wilson. He also had a quality start (eight innings, three earned runs) in 2008. In his other four starts here, however, Saunders has given up seven or more runs.
Frankly, Showalter had few alternatives. His other starters hadn’t pitched in a while or have thrown recently and would have to be on short rest Friday. Additionally, Showalter is hesitant this early to use Jason Hammel, who had dealt with recurring pain in his surgically repaired right knee and hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 11. There is still optimism Hammel could pitch in the postseason, but he’s been ruled out for Friday after throwing a 73-pitch, pain-free instructional league simulated game Monday.
Johnson was the best alternative, but he also has made just four major league starts.
“Who else do we have?” first baseman Mark Reynolds said. “Joe’s got experience. He’s pitched well his last two or three starts and he knows what he’s doing.”
Saunders, who went to West Springfield High School and grew up an Orioles fan, said he is thrilled to have a chance to help the club extend its playoff run.
“It’s a huge opportunity. It’s been a blessing since I got traded over here,” Saunders said. “I am going to embrace it, not change anything and go out there and hopefully get a ‘W.’ ”