This is it, folks. The regular season concludes at the end of this week, and all that we have left is four road games against the Texas Rangers. The magic number to reach the Wild Card play-in game is two, meaning that even if the A's get swept in this one the Mariners would still need to win three of their final four against the Blue Jays and Angels just to force a tie. It's still physically possible to complete the collapse by missing the playoffs, but it is exceedingly unlikely. (Note: The Mariners would likely have to burn Felix Hernandez in Game 162 just to make it to the Wild Card play-in, or even to a tiebreaker against the A's, so there is virtually no scenario in which we have to see him again in 2014.)
These are the expected pitching matchups for the series:
Thu: Jason Hammel vs. Colby Lewis
Fri: Scott Kazmir vs. Nick Tepesch
Sat: Jeff Samardzija vs. Derek Holland
Sun: Sonny Gray vs. Nick Martinez
Rather than forcing Adam J Morris of Lone Star Ball to spend any extra time dwelling on his team's absolute nightmare of a season, let's just have our own look at the pitching matchups as well as the key hitters we may see this weekend.
Lewis is in the decline phase of his career, at age 35 and in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He has a 5.34 ERA on the year, and while a lot of that is due to an inflated hit rate there is no guarantee that regression can be counted on to balance that stat back to his career norm given his overall situation. He's always given up lots of homers and he is still doing so, but now his strikeout rate is down by a full strikeout per nine innings. He got lit up by the first-half A's in June, but that doesn't seem particularly relevant anymore. He reached back to throw a shutout against the White Sox in August, and he threw another complete game at the end of that month. He strung together four solid (if not technically quality) starts before getting burned by the Angels in his last game for eight runs in five innings -- again, that hardly seems relevant given how much better the Angels' offense is than Oakland's at the moment. Hammel, on the other hand, hasn't started since Sept. 12, but he did make a relief appearance against Texas on Sept. 18 and tossed three scoreless innings with four strikeouts. He has a 2.81 ERA in his last seven starts, four of which have registered as quality outings, and has racked up three strikeouts for every walk during that time. Advantage: Oakland
Tepesch threw six innings and allowed only one earned run (three runs total) against Oakland on Sept. 16, and then followed that up with seven sparkling innings against the Angels. He's not overpowering -- only around four strikeouts per nine innings -- but he only needs to be mediocre to beat second-half Kazmir. The lefty has an 8.58 ERA in his last six games, with four disaster starts against only two quality outings. He failed to make it out of the fifth inning against Texas on Sept. 16 while being tagged for six runs, and then wasn't much better against the Phillies in his last appearance. He might be auditioning for his chance to pitch in the ALDS, if the A's even make it there -- another bad day on Friday would make it tough to count on him in the playoffs next week. Advantage: Texas
There may not be any runs scored on Saturday. Holland has allowed only five earned runs in his five starts since returning from offseason knee surgery, and he kept the A's in check on Sept. 17. At this point, all you need is a dominant left hand and a pulse in order to shut down Oakland's lineup, and Holland has both in addition to actually being good at pitching. It's hard to see the green and gold making much noise against the southpaw, but it helps that they'll have the Shark matching zeroes against him. Samardzija is on such a tear that he might even be pitching better than Jon Lester right now -- in his last six starts, he's got a 1.40 ERA in 45 innings (that's over seven innings per game on average), 47 strikeouts to three walks, and three games in which he's completed eight frames. He's pitching like an ace, and he's doing so at the perfect time. It's tempting to pick the lefty against the A's, but Shark threw eight shutout innings when he faced Texas last week so this one may as well be a coin flip. Advantage: Even
Martinez was "meh" in his last start against Oakland, but then he followed that up by pitching into the seventh against Houston (who is a decent team now) without allowing a run or a walk. Like Tepesch, he doesn't strike anyone out (five per nine innings), but it's almost irrelevant what he does in this game. All that matters is which Sonny shows up -- the one who was disastrous on Sept. 2 and 18 (11 runs in 10 innings), or the one who was nails on Sept. 8, 13, and 23 (22 innings, 2.05 ERA, 23 K's). If Sonny is on, like he was when he fanned 12 Angels (equivalent to about 16 Rangers) on Tuesday, he's a good bet to win. If he serves up five runs, you can't count on the lineup to make up that difference against even the worst opponent. Advantage: Oakland
The Rangers have a few hot hitters to look out for. There's Adrian Beltre, of course, who is always dangerous in any game. Ryan Rua has two homers in his last four games, and Jake Smolinski has two in his last nine, and those are only the guys you've never heard of. J.P Arencibia drew a walk on Tuesday, which is astonishing. Rougned Odor and Robinson Chirinos are each hitting well over the last couple weeks. In fact, Texas has six hitters batting at least .300 over the last 14 days. So, while the Rangers' record is only 65-93, they have two potentially favorable pitching matchups and a lineup full of guys who are quietly hot. We already knew that this wouldn't be a cakewalk based on the fact that the Rangers swept the A's in Oakland last week, but upgrade it from "not easy" to "legitimately challenging." Good thing the Wild Card is all but wrapped up.
The series starts tonight. First pitch is scheduled for 5:05 p.m., Hammel vs. Lewis. Brandon Moss is in the lineup batting fifth, and Geo Soto draws the start behind the plate. Adam Rosales is lurking in Texas' order, batting ninth, just waiting to hit a backbreaking homer and complete the Curse of the Former A's. But that totally won't happen ... right?