Manager Buck Showalter made the news official, picking the 31-year-old Saunders over 25-year-old right-handed rookie Steve Johnson, who threw a light bullpen session on Wednesday to test his sore left knee and was deemed good to go after that. Showalter said the team wasn't 100 percent confident in the status of Johnson's knee, and given that Saunders is rested, has postseason experience and is a lefty -- the ball is believed to carry out better to right field than left in Arlington -- the decision was made a bit easier.
"I've said many times this year, the No. 1 starter is the guy pitching that day," Showalter said. "Our whole rotation has been the sum of the parts, and Joe has pitched well for us since he's been here. He's got tough task ahead of him."
Does he ever. Saunders has a 6.48 ERA in 11 career starts against Texas, including a 9.38 ERA in six games at Rangers Ballpark, although he last faced Texas in 2010. Asked if he was aware of those numbers, Saunders said: "I can imagine. I don't care. Tomorrow is another day."
"You can make numbers look any way you want to," Showalter said. "If you are looking for pitchers with good numbers against the Texas Rangers, they are hard to find. Regardless of who pitches tomorrow, we are going to have to pitch well and do some things out of the bullpen and swing the bats well. ... It's an opportunity for Joe. He's pitched some good games, too."
Saunders threw seven innings of one-run ball in his last start at Arlington, in 2010, and he has a 6.00 ERA in four career postseason starts. In seven starts since joining the O's, he's gone 3-3 with a 3.63 ERA.
"It's a huge opportunity," said Saunders, who grew up an Orioles fan. "It's been an amazing experience, coming over to a great organization and a great team that they have in place. I'm going to embrace it, not change anything and hopefully get a 'W.'"
Johnson went 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (four starts) this year, facing the Rangers in one relief appearance, and he's expected to be available out of the bullpen. With the O's able to select a 25-man roster just for Friday's game, Showalter can make sure there's ample relief help if necessary.
As for Showalter's decision to start Saunders, his teammates were on board.
"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. He's got control; he's going to paint the corners and go after the hitters' weaknesses.
"Sometimes when you throw a young guy out there in a pressure situation like Stevie -- nothing against him; he's done a great job for us, but those guys may be a little intimidated by the situation and the atmosphere and the attention. I think Joe's going to be just fine out there. He's going to definitely give us a chance to win the game."
Added center fielder Adam Jones: "All year, we've just given faith to whoever has been on the mound. Since he's gotten over here, he's thrown some really good games for us. All we need him to do is go out there and compete and give us a chance to win."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.