God, I love the Orioles.
This is...amazing. Incredible. I don't know how the heck they're doing what they're doing, but I never want it to stop.
Tonight the O's squared off in a do-or-die wild-card matchup against a loaded Texas Rangers team that beat the Birds five out of seven games during the regular season and outscored them 56 to 24. The Rangers sent $60 million ace Yu Darvish to the mound. The Orioles sent Joe Saunders, with his career 0-6 record and 9.38 ERA in Texas.
And the Orioles won. Does it make any sense? Of course not. But that hasn't stopped the Orioles any other time this year. Why start now?
This wasn't supposed to be possible. Nothing that the Orioles have done this year was supposed to be possible. I'm still not 100% sure this is real, actually. At any given moment I fear I could wake up and discover that this entire, wonderful season was a strangely elaborate dream.
But here we are, basking in the awesomeness that is the Baltimore Orioles. A team that spent 14 straight years as a cellar-dwelling punching bag, a team that in most 2012 preseason predictions was pegged to be a division doormat-- this is the club that steamrolled to 93 wins and just toppled the two-time defending AL champions in a win-or-go-home showdown.
God, I love the Orioles. Have I mentioned that?
Let's take a look at how this spectacular evening of Orioles baseball played out. After the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies at the Ballpark in Arlington, the O's quickly quieted the Texas crowd of 46,931 by grabbing a first-inning lead. On Darvish's first pitch of the game, Nate McLouth hit a sharp bouncer to first that ate up Michael Young for a leadoff error. McLouth then swiped second and scored on J.J. Hardy's line-shot single past a diving Ian Kinsler into center. Sweet! Putting the pressure on early. I like it.
Of course a single run wasn't going to be enough to defeat the Rangers, which they proved by promptly tying the score in the home half of the first. The much-maligned Saunders didn't do himself any favors by walking the leadoff man and then surrendering an Elvis Andrus single that put runners at the corners. Surely, fans throughout Orioles Nation were calling for Buck Showalter to get the bullpen up-- and, indeed, Steve Johnson began warming later in the inning.
But Saunders did a great job to limit the damage, which would become an ongoing theme throughout the night. He induced a rally-killing double play from Josh Hamilton, which plated the tying run but cleared the bases. Adrian Beltre then lined out to center.
Darvish, after allowing that unearned run in the first, settled into a groove afterward. The O's put only two men on base from the second inning through the fifth, and one of them was particularly painful-- Darvish nailed Mark Reynolds in the left hand with a fastball in the second. Showalter and the trainers checked on Reynolds for a long time, and O's fans everywhere had flashbacks to CC Sabathia breaking Nick Markakis's hand on a similar pitch (especially since TBS immediately replayed that incident). Happily, Mark seemed to be okay and stayed in the game.
With Darvish cruising, the onus was on Saunders to keep pace. He passed the test with flying colors, keeping the Rangers off the board even though he didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning. Joe had a real knack for wriggling out of trouble. He erased a leadoff baserunner in the third on a Kinsler double play, then struck out Hamilton on three pitches after Andrus singled.
Saunders faced his biggest challenge in the fourth. With one out, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young lashed consecutive singles that put runners on first and third with one out. And I'll be perfectly honest: I wanted Showalter to take Saunders out of the game right then. Two men on and the dangerous right-hander Mike Napoli coming up? The game is hanging in the balance-- get a righty reliever in! This will turn out badly!
Well, there's a reason that Buck Showalter is a successful big-league manager and I'm just a dude on the Internet. Showalter's decision to stick with Saunders paid huge dividends, as Joe fanned Napoli on three pitches and then retired Geovany Soto on a grounder. Superbly done.
Saunders ended the next inning with yet another double-play grounder-- the third in five innings-- and finally the Orioles solved Darvish in the sixth. Hardy led off with a bloop single, and ex-Ranger Chris Davis followed with a more sharply hit knock down the first-base line, moving J.J. to third. Adam Jones delivered exactly what was needed-- a deep fly ball-- with a sac fly to right, bringing home Hardy with the go-ahead run. Darvish, after that at-bat, was visited by his manager and the Texas trainers, apparently suffering from a kink in his neck, but he decided he was fine to stay in the game. So, uh...crisis averted, I guess? Glad that neck thing worked out.
Suddenly the possibility of an Orioles win didn't seem so out of reach, with a fully stocked O's bullpen ready to take over the game. But first, Saunders put the finishing touches on his gutty outing by sitting down Hamilton and Beltre in succession to start the sixth. That's when Showalter came out to get him.
Folks, Joe Saunders will forever live in Orioles lore for the performance he delivered tonight. With terrible career numbers in Texas, with many O's fans doubtful that he could get the job done, Saunders held down the powerful Rangers to just one run in 5 2/3 innings in the most important start by an Oriole in 15 years. I'm giving him a standing ovation in my living room. I hear he'll be the next statue added to the Orioles Legends display at Camden Yards.
Darren O'Day, another ex-Ranger, was the biggest bullpen hero tonight. He got the last out of the sixth, then retired the side in order in the seventh. Meanwhile, the Birds added to their lead. Ryan Flaherty slapped a one-out single off Darvish in the seventh (and by the way, who would've thought when the season began that Ryan Flaherty would be starting a playoff game for the Orioles?). With two outs and pinch-runner Robert Andino on second, Rangers skipper Ron Washington pulled Darvish and brought in lefty Derek Holland (normally a starting pitcher) to face McLouth. The matchup didn't work-- Nate looped an RBI single to left to make it a 3-1 game.
Our old friend Koji Uehara was dominant in the eighth for the Rangers, striking out the side, but by now the O's were close enough to taste victory. O'Day got a pair of outs in the eighth with a Kinsler infield single sandwiched in between, capping his two scoreless innings of relief. Buck brought in Brian Matusz to face Hamilton, who represented the tying run. Brian totally destroyed him, striking out Hamilton on three pitches in what may have been the slugger's final at-bat as a Ranger. (Considering how loudly he was being booed by Rangers fans, I'd say it's likely.)
For good measure, the Orioles added two insurance runs in the ninth against closer Joe Nathan. Jim Thome started the rally with a walk, and Andino ripped a one-out double in his first at-bat of the game. Then, in a great piece of hitting, Manny Machado flicked his bat at a low 2-2 slider and lined an RBI single to left. Seriously, can you believe this guy is a 20-year-old rookie? Veteran at-bat right there. McLouth's sac fly plated Andino to make it a 5-1 game. We're almost there!
Three outs away from a playoff victory. Time for Jim Johnson to shut the door. He didn't quite make it smooth, though. Johnson retired two of the first three hitters (with a Cruz single in between) and ran the count to 1-2 on Napoli, leaving the Birds a strike away from victory. But he couldn't finish the at-bat, ultimately issuing a walk to keep the Rangers alive. Then Jurickson Profar lined a pinch-hit single on the first pitch to load the bases. To O's fans' shock and dismay, the Rangers suddenly had the possible tying run at the plate, looking for a last at-bat miracle. I will admit to being a nervous wreck at that point, barely able to keep my eyes on the TV screen.
Don't worry. We've got this. David Murphy lofted a harmless fly ball to left field, a routine play for McLouth. He camps under it...and...he's got it! THE ORIOLES WIN!! THE ORIOLES WIN!! The center of the infield diamond became a mob scene as the Orioles poured out of the dugout and congratulated each other with high fives and hugs, then raced back to the clubhouse for a much longer, champagne-soaked festival of pure, unadulterated joy. That's a celebration that's 15 years in the making. The Birds never really got to cut loose when they clinched a playoff spot since they were on a plane at the time, but they made up for lost time tonight.
What a game. What a night. The Orioles still have plenty of work to do-- next stop, the New York Yankees in the ALDS-- but tonight was well and truly Birdland.