The question would have been a terrible joke in mid-August.
Who should pitch for the Orioles in the American League wild-card game: No. 1 starter Chris Tillman or the enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez?
Manager Buck Showalter has chosen experience over the hot hand with Tillman slated to take the ball against Toronto’s Marcus Stroman at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to make an argument in favor of the 28-year-old who’s served as the club’s de facto ace over the last four seasons and started the opener of both playoffs series in 2014, but Jimenez was arguably the biggest reason the Orioles stayed afloat in September to qualify for the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.
Less than two months ago, Tillman was in the midst of a career year and had improved to a sparkling 15-4 with a 3.46 ERA after a win over Oakland on Aug. 11. Meanwhile, Jimenez sported an ERA just south of 7.00 and was lucky to be pitching out of the bullpen in mop-up duty once per week as questions persisted about his future with Baltimore.
Circumstances changed, however, with Tillman missing the better part of a month with a right shoulder issue that surfaced the morning after that outing against the Athletics. In his four starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sept. 11, he’s posted a 3.79 ERA with 14 strikeouts and eight walks in 19 innings.
Solid, but not great.
Meanwhile, Jimenez has experienced an improbable renaissance with his two-seam fastball and improved command of his other pitches over his last seven starts, producing a 2.45 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 2/3 innings. Over that stretch, he tossed the only complete game of the season for the Orioles and allowed three or fewer runs in all but one start.
Both performed well against the Blue Jays in Toronto last week, but Jimenez was better with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in which he allowed only one hit. Tillman gave up one earned run over 5 1/3 innings last Wednesday.
Tillman infamously pitched to an 11.72 ERA in six starts against Toronto last season, but his 3.63 mark in four starts against the Blue Jays this season has been more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the right-hander over the years. In 2016, Jimenez has a 6.43 ERA against the Blue Jays in six games — five of them starts — this season and retired only one batter against them in his worst start of the year on June 12.
And that’s where the decision likely comes down to trust for Showalter and the Orioles.
Jimenez deserves plenty of credit for turning his season around, but who do you trust more pitching in a game of this magnitude? Jimenez probably provides the greater upside right now, but Tillman still feels like the one who has the best chance to figure out a way to keep the Orioles in an elimination game if he doesn’t have his best stuff. The last thing you want is the “bad” Jimenez showing up in the biggest game of the season and not being able to even throw a strike in the bottom of the first inning.
If we’re being realistic with both teams having a specialized roster for a single game, this one is more likely to come down to the bullpens with neither Tillman nor Stroman being a great bet to hang around much longer than two times through the order. Under such a scenario, the Orioles have the edge with the better bullpen and the best closer in baseball looming at the end of the game.
Showalter told reporters that both Jimenez and rookie Dylan Bundy will be available out of the bullpen, giving the Orioles plenty of long-relief options should Tillman struggle early.
Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the first three games of the best-of-five AL Division Series (see below) as the winner of Tuesday’s game will face the top-seeded Texas Rangers with games being televised on TBS. Should the Orioles advance to the ALDS, they would host Texas for Game 3 at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday, the same day the Ravens host Washington at M&T Bank Stadium at 1 p.m., which would likely create plenty of traffic headaches in the afternoon.
2016 ALDS vs. Texas
Game 1 (at Texas): Thursday, 4:38 p.m.
Game 2 (at Texas): Friday, 1:08 p.m.
Game 3 (at Baltimore or Toronto): Sunday, 7:38 p.m.