Did that really just happen?
Is the Orioles' season still alive? How did this...what is this...I don't even...
These are your 2012 Baltimore Orioles, folks. Just when you've counted them out, just when you think they've gotten themselves into a quagmire they can't escape, they simply laugh, reach into their bag of tricks, and pull off a dazzling display of Orioles Magic at the very last moment to remind us why they're the most incredible, enjoyable O's team in recent memory. And I don't even care if I mixed like 10 metaphors in that last sentence. I'm too excited to make any sense!
I'll get the bad news out of the way first. The Orioles' offense was --as it's been for about two weeks now-- absolutely terrible. It was a seemingly unending string of hapless, impatient at-bats from a collectively slumping O's lineup. The Birds amassed only 8 hits in 13 innings. They went 1-for-11 with men in scoring position. They lofted poorly-hit infield popouts and flailed at breaking pitches like they'd never seen a baseball before. After about the sixth or seventh inning of such futility, I'd resigned myself to the fact that the Orioles' dream 2012 season likely wouldn't continue past this night. It just didn't seem possible that the Birds would be able to scratch across a run before the high-priced, slugger-stacked Yankees lineup put the game out of reach. In my mind I was already preparing a somber "Well, it was a great season, we'll go get ‘em next year" recap.
In short: I was a fool.
For as bad as the offense was, the Orioles' pitching staff put together one of the most incredible, heroic postseason efforts you'll ever see. They were the clutchiest bunch of clutches who ever clutched. Starter Joe Saunders continued to cement his place in Orioles October lore with another gutty effort, and he was followed by a whopping seven pitchers-- every active member of the bullpen-- who combined to work 7 ⅓ scoreless innings of relief. At any moment, all it would've taken was one bad pitch, one hanging meatball, and the Yankees would walk off into the ALCS. To keep that lineup entirely off the board after the sixth inning was a truly remarkable feat.
But I get ahead of myself. Let's rewind to the beginning, when the Orioles' offense squandered numerous scoring opportunities. The first two batters of the game reached base, giving the O's a chance to grab an early lead against shaky Yankee starter Phil Hughes. The punchless meat of the order, however, went down in succession on three consecutive flyouts.
It got much worse. In the third, Manny Machado drew a leadoff walk and Nate McLouth ripped a double, putting two in scoring position with nobody out. A golden opportunity to score two runs, or one at the very least. No offense could possibly not score ANY runs in that situation, right? ...Yeah, you can probably guess what happened. The Orioles completely botched the gimme scoring chance. J.J. Hardy tapped a bouncer to the left of the mound, while Machado made the poor decision to break for the plate. Hughes snagged the comebacker and easily threw out Manny at the plate. With runners now on the corners-- still in a sac fly situation-- Chris Davis was offered a hanging 1-2 slider and somehow waved through it. Two down. Then Adam Jones, who hasn't had a good at-bat since the Taft administration, hacked at the first pitch and grounded out to second base. Inning over. O's come up empty. Fans tear out their hair.
Finally, Nate McLouth, the only Oriole hitter pulling his weight this postseason, took matters into his own hands. Already with a double and a walk, McLouth led off the fifth inning by parking a homerun into the bleachers in right field to give the Birds a 1-0 lead. Where would the Orioles be without Nate McLouth this year? What a find he's been. That was, as it turned out, the only run and the last baserunner Hughes would allow. He retired the final eight batters he faced, five on strikeouts, before being pulled from the game in the seventh inning.
With meager run support, it was once again up to Joe Saunders to deliver a clutch postseason start after his legendary outing in Texas last Friday. Once again, the veteran came up huge. In typical Joe Saunders fashion, he didn't blow hitters away and didn't have a single clean inning, but he pitched his way out of nearly every jam. His most impressive escape came in the third. After #9 hitter Jayson Nix led off with a double, Saunders did his best Justin Verlander impression, mowing down the top of the Yankees' lineup-- Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, and Mark Teixeira-- on three swinging strikeouts. Pure filth. Pure, very unexpected filth.
The game almost slipped away from Saunders in the fifth, but McLouth-- a one-man tour de force-- saved his bacon. With Russell Martin on first after a leadoff walk, Nix smacked a deep drive to the left-field wall that looked like a sure run-scoring extra-base hit. That's when Super Nate came flying into the picture, jumping up against the fence with a tremendous highlight-reel catch. If that weren't impressive enough, he then fired the ball back to the infield and doubled off Martin, who had already rounded second base when the catch was made. Wow. It's too bad MLB doesn't give out an ALDS MVP award, because McLouth is making a pretty awesome case.
Buck Showalter tried to squeeze one more inning out of Saunders, but he stumbled in the sixth. Jeter led off with a double and was bunted to third by Ichiro, and Saunders then walked Teixeira after being ahead 0-2 in the count. With runners at the corners, Robinson Cano's soft groundout to second plated Jeter with the game-tying run, and signaled the end of Saunders's night. Just as he did in the wild card game, Saunders pitched 5 ⅔ innings and allowed just one run, giving everything he had to keep the Orioles in the game. I'll admit I was skeptical when the O's traded for Saunders in August, but he has been absolute nails in the postseason. Excellent pickup.
That began the revolving door of relievers for the Orioles, with each one just as impressive as the last. With Teixeira representing the go-ahead run at second, Tommy Hunter blew away Alex Rodriguez on a 97-mph fastball to keep him stranded.
Hunter also got the first out of the seventh and should've had another one, but second baseman Ryan Flaherty inexplicably dropped a popup in shallow center field to allow Martin to reach. In any other season, that error would've come back to haunt the Orioles. Not this time. Troy Patton got the second out before a Nix single put two on for the vaunted playoff legend, Derek Jeter. Before the TBS announcers could finish frothing at the mouth about how Jeter is an October godsend and always gets big hits in every possible opportunity, Luis Ayala froze him on a fastball down the middle for out number three. That was a huge moment in the game, and kudos to Ayala for getting the big out and not letting the inherited runners score.
The bottom of the eighth is when the Yankees appeared primed to win the game. The first two batters both singled off Ayala, bringing up the dangerous Cano in a prime RBI spot. Showalter called on Brian Matusz to face him, even though Cano has torched Brian throughout his career. This time, Matusz retired him on a grounder to second, but both runners moved into scoring position with one out. All the Yanks needed was a fly ball to take the lead, which-- the way the Orioles were hitting-- would essentially ice the series.
Never underestimate the awesomeness of the Orioles' relief crew-- particularly, Darren O'Day. The Birds' bullpen savior pulled a Houdini act again. He needed a strikeout and got exactly that, fanning Alex Rodriguez for the third time in the series. A-Rod, of course, was booed lustily by the Yankee Stadium crowd as he trudged back to the dugout. Also, I have no idea why Joe Girardi didn't send up Oriole-killer Raul Ibanez or even Eric Chavez to pinch-hit for Rodriguez in such an important at-bat. Thanks, Joe! O'Day completed the escape by retiring Nick Swisher on a flyout. He then worked a perfect ninth (this time he did face Ibanez, who grounded out as a pinch-hitter), which sent the game to extra innings for the second straight night.
The Orioles' offense, meanwhile, was having no better luck against the Yankees' bullpen than they did against Hughes. Three New York relievers combined to face the minimum 12 batters from the eighth inning through the 11th. This is ugly.
Clearly the onus would be on the Orioles' bullpen to preserve the tie and keep the O's season alive for at least another day. They simply did a masterful job. The rubber-armed O'Day, despite already pitching in every game of this series, was able to eat up 2 ⅔ innings of scoreless relief. After that, Showalter had little choice but to turn to Pedro Strop, whose September struggles had buried him in Buck's doghouse. Folks, I'm happy to report that Pedro was back in vintage Strop form tonight. He retired six of the seven batters he faced in the 11th and 12th, with excellent movement on his pitches that had Yankee hitters badly flailing. That's a real good sign.
Things were getting extremely tense. The Orioles were fighting to keep their season alive. The Yankees were fighting to clinch a spot in the ALCS. Neither pitching staff was willing to concede an inch, and neither lineup was really forcing the issue. Who would blink first?
Happily, it was the Yankees who finally slipped up, as the Orioles scratched across a run in the 13th to snap their seven-inning drought. With David Phelps on the mound (after Joba Chamberlain was nailed in the back by a Matt Wieters broken bat the previous inning), Machado smacked a leadoff double to the gap in right-center. McLouth managed to contribute even without getting a hit, tapping a groundout to second that advanced the runner to third.
J.J. Hardy-- one of many struggling hitters in the O's lineup-- finally delivered the big hit the Birds had been waiting for. Hardy jumped on a fat 2-2 pitch and drove it to the wall in left, over Ichiro's head for a tiebreaking RBI double. Yeah baby!! Totally worth the wait!! At long last, the Orioles were back in front, 2-1, and their dreams of forcing a Game 5 were very much alive.
All they needed was for Jim Johnson to get the final three outs. Of course, that's all they needed in Game 3, too, and you remember how that turned out. But this time, Johnson didn't let the lead slip away. He rung up Teixeira on a called strike three, then got Cano to fly out. Girardi finally did pinch-hit for Rodriguez with Chavez, who smacked a sharp liner but directly to Machado.
Game over! Orioles win! Four hours and 31 minutes after they'd started, the Birds staved off elimination and set the stage for a decisive Game 5 on Friday. I never thought they would make it this far. But the O's continue to prove me wrong. I'm hanging on for the ride as far as it'll take me.