Going into this season, I was as pessimistic about the Orioles as I have ever been. Nearly every year, I have felt hope and at least a bit of optimism when spring training began, but in 2012 I didn't feel that at all. I wasn't alone, as you well know, and that's what made this season as crazy and special as it ended up being.
Time and time again this season the Orioles defied logic and expectation, and before we knew it we had a legitimately good baseball team on our hands. Did they play over their heads? Maybe. But that doesn't mean they weren't good, because they were. They were good and exciting and special. And going into tonight, they faced elimination for the third time this postseason.
Standing in their way was Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who pitched 8 2/3 innings in the Yankees' game one victory last Sunday. Also holding the back was the massive team-wide offensive slump from which only Nate McLouth seemed immune.
The offense wasn't any better today, and they didn't waste any time being ineffective. Sabathia needed just 10 pitches to get out of the first inning, Working in the Orioles favor was the fact that their starter, Jason Hammel, matched Sabathia pitch-for-pitch through the first several innings. Neither team had a baseruner through three innings, and the Orioles actually got the first base runner in the top of the fourth.
I'll give you one guess who it was. If you didn't guess Nate McLouth, you fail at Orioles baseball. McLouth singled to lead off the inning, then with two outs he stole second base, trying to get something going. But Chris Davis just struck out to end the inning.
The Orioles got the leadoff batter on again in the fifth, via a Matt Wieters walk. But Sabathia still faced just three batters, inducing a double-play ball from Mark Reynolds after Manny Machado popped out.
Hammel went into the fifth inning without having allowed a hit, but that ended with a single by Mark Teixeira. Teixeira then easily stole second base, getting a huge jump on Hammel. Raul Ibanez then singled up the middle, bringing Teixeira home. Thankfully, the next batter, Nick Swisher, grounded into a double play, because Curtis Granderson also singled and stole second base, but was stranded.
Down 1-0, McLouth came to the plate with two outs. He hit a long fly ball down the right field line that looked like it might have nicked the foul pole. On some angles, it seemed apparent. On others, it seemed to be obviously foul. The umpires reviewed, called it foul, and McLouth struck out. Sigh.
The Yankees added another run in the sixth inning, which would be Hammel's last. With one out, Derek Jeter walked and then came around to score on a double by Ichiro Suzuki. With the way Sabathia was pitching (and the O's batters were flailing), a two-run lead felt insurmountable. Turned out it was. Hammel struck out Robinson Cano and intentionally walked Teixeira before being replaced by Troy Patton, who struck out Ibanez for the third out.
Patton came back for the seventh inning and put another nail into the O's coffin by surrendering a home run to Granderson to make the score 3-0.
In the meantime, CC kept rolling, and time was running out. He pitched 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings, and finally in eighth he faltered. Could the O's take advantage (you know they couldn't)? Matt Wieters singled and Manny Machado walked to put runners on first and second with no outs. After Reynolds struck out, sweet swingin' Lew Ford, just another great story from this 2012 Orioles team, stepped to the plate. Hey, this reminds me of a joke. What do you call a ground ball hit to Derek Jeter's right? A hit! That's exactly what Ford did, and Wieters scored from second to take away the shutout.
The Orioles were given a break when Robert Andino hit a grounder back to Sabathia, who looked to third before firing to second, too late to get Ford, and the bases were loaded with just one out for the offensive hero of the series, McLouth. Sadly, destiny was not on McLouth's side for this at-bat, and he struck out swinging. A ground ball out by Hardy and the Orioles hopes were 99% shot.
After Pedro Strop and Brian Matusz combined for a scoreless eighth inning, Sabathia returned to face Jones, Davis, and Wieters. I hoped they might have some fight in them, that something magic might happen, but no. They went quietly into the night, and took with them the Orioles season.
So there you go. A bad way to end it, certainly, but given that this is the first time the Orioles have brought me sustained joy since I was a teenager, I can't be too upset. Just a little sad.