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O's Saunders, Rangers' Hamilton the focal points of AL wild-card game

The SportsXchange

Less than five weeks ago, Joe Saunders was a member of the Arizona Diamondback, but on Friday he will be the Baltimore Orioles' starting pitcher in the Orioles' most important game of the season so far.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter announced Thursday that Saunders will be his starting pitcher in Friday's one-game wild-card playoff against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, even though Saunders' numbers in Arlington are lousy.

He will face a Rangers team that is reeling after losing nine of its final 13 games, including the last three in a row to the A's, to slip into the wild-card spot after leading the American League West virtually the entire season.

An error made by star outfielder Josh Hamilton helped to put the Rangers in the wild-card game, and there will be a lot of attention focused on the left-handed-hitting Hamilton when he faces the left-handed Saunders.

Saunders was traded to Baltimore for Matt Lindstrom on Aug. 26, and he has made seven starts for the Orioles, going 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA.

Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington. But he has not pitched there since 2010, and he allowed just one run on seven hits in his most recent start in Arlington.

"You can make numbers any way you want to," Showalter told reporters Thursday. "If you're looking for pitchers with good numbers against the Texas Rangers, they're hard to find. We have to pitch well and do things out of the bullpen and swing the bat and catch the ball. It's an opportunity for Joe. He's pitched some good games."

Showalter based his choice on the fact that Saunders has postseason experience, plus the fact that he was not sure whether the other possible starter for the game, Steve Johnson, would be 100 percent because of a knee injury.

"It's a huge opportunity," Saunders told reporters. "It's been a blessing since I got traded over here. I came over to a great organization and a great team they have in place. I'm going to embrace it."

The Rangers will counter with Yu Darvish, who is 16-9 with a 3.90 earned run averages. In his past eight starts, Darvish has a 2.35 ERA and opponents are hitting just .176 off him in that span.

Plus the Orioles have never faced Darvish, who is 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA against teams he's pitched against for the first time.

But the focus will not be on Darvish as much as it will be on Hamilton, who dropped a routine flyball in Wednesday's game that allowed the A's to score the go-ahead runs in what became a 12-5 Oakland victory that knocked the Rangers out of first place.

"It's easy to pick out one guy, but it's been more than that," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said, according to ESPNDallas.com. "Has Josh played his best? No. Did he have an unusual [eye] injury? Yeah. I think the focal point of media, fans and some of us was the popup yesterday in center field.

"That contributed to the loss, but that's not why we lost the game. Josh struggling is not why we've slumped the last two weeks, but it certainly contributed. The reality is there's no one reason why we've had a rough two weeks. We've got a clean slate right now, go out and play tomorrow and win."

Hamilton was batting .368 with 22 homers on May 30, but finished batting .285 with 43 homers and 128 RBIs. He was just 8-for-35 (.229) over his last eight games, and has gone nine games in a row without a homer.

Rangers manager Ron Washington said he doesn't need to say anything else to Hamilton regarding his error.

"I have no issues with Hamilton, and that's the end of that," Washington said Thursday.

In the dugout, following the error, television cameras showed Washington having an animated discussion with Hamilton.

"There was no issue with Josh and I, I don't care what you've seen on the camera," Washington said. "I'm the manager. I'm allowed to ask questions."

Friday could be Hamilton's last game as a member of the Rangers, because he becomes a free agent after the season, and there figures to be a bidding war for his services.
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