Fifteen years to the day after their last home playoff game victory, the Baltimore Orioles put another win back on the board in front of a sellout crowd that was the largest Camden Yards has seen all season - 48,187. It wasn't easy and it wasn't always pretty, but Baltimore got to watch a winner once again in a 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees, evening up the best-of-five series at one game apiece as it heads to New York.
One night after CC Sabathia stymied the O's hitters with a near-complete game, lefty pitchers Wei-Yin Chen and Andy Pettitte seemed to want to add to their own postseason legends with their performances. Pettitte has thrown over 3,000 innings in his major league career and has been a particular nemesis of the Orioles as the years have gone by. Chen is in his first MLB season, though he had pitched in some high-leverage games including game 1 of last year's NPB championship series.
In the end, it was Chen, a relatively youthful 26 compared to Pettitte's 40 who came out on top tonight.
Much like last night, the O's starter was unable to escape the first inning without giving up any runs. This was a problem for Chen for much of the year. Derek Jeter led off the game with a single on an 0-2 pitch, and after a Mark Reynolds error on an Ichiro Suzuki swinging bunt (as if he hits anything else) there were two men on with none out. That's a tough situation to escape from. They almost did it. Robert Andino made a great diving play on a line drive and doubled off Jeter at second. Another O's nemesis, Robinson Cano, then doubled to left and scored Suzuki from first, giving the Yankees an early 1-0 lead.
The play at the plate was like something out of a baseball movie, with Suzuki leaping wide to avoid a tag from Matt Wieters, no tag being made as Suzuki scrambled for the plate and Wieters scrambled for Suzuki. In the end, Suzuki got his right hand to the plate and as Wieters lunged at him, I don't believe he was ever touched.
As with so many other games this year, the bats seemed lifeless the first time through the order. No one reached base until Andino sparked a rally with a single with two outs in the third. Often, two out rallies are not, because one guy gets on base and the next makes an out. Nate McLouth added a single, and Pettitte walked J.J. Hardy on four pitches. He looked to me like he wanted to go and take his chances against lefty Chris Davis.
The small swings of Mjolnir change the fate of a game as much as the big ones. The bases were loaded, and Davis deposited a single into right field. With two outs, the runners were in motion and Andino and McLouth both scored.
Meanwhile, the pitchers took over for a while. Men were often on base against Chen, including a bases-loaded, one out situation in the top of the 4th, but he did just enough to hang on until the O's got him another run cushion in the 6th inning, making a run out of a Wieters leadoff double followed by a Reynolds single. The two hits showed that the Yankees outfield isn't very fast. What else can you say if Wieters can double off a ball that is cut off before the warning track and a single to right? That made it a 3-1 lead.
They would need the extra run. Eduardo Nunez led off the 7th with a cheap double, one that was just beyond where Andino and Davis could get to it. Davis made a diving try, but the ball bounced off him, allowing the hustling Nunez to get to second. He scored after Jeter got another base hit that just cleared the vertical leap of J.J. Hardy. Chen was relieved after Suzuki hit into a fielder's choice. His final line: 6.1 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K.
For all that some Orioles fans, including myself, were anxious about Chen's performance tonight, he answered those concerns in a big way with his outing. His sheet wasn't clean, but he scattered the hits and he bore down and got the outs. It was time for the bullpen to do its job.
Darren O'Day relieved Chen, striking out Alex Rodriguez as Suzuki stole second base. With Cano, a lefty, due up, that was the only batter that manager Buck Showalter wanted O'Day to face. He was relieved by Brian Matusz, walking back to the dugout as the crowd serenaded him with a chant of, "O'Day, O'Day, O'Day, O'Dayyyyy" (Think Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!)
Why did Buck bring on Matusz just to intentionally walk Cano? Who knows? That led to Nick Swisher getting turned around. It couldn't be easy. The runners advanced on a wild pitch. Second and third, two out. Swisher flew out to left to defuse all the tension. The inning was over.
Could they get insurance runs in the 7th inning? Surely by now, you know what team you're watching. One reason you need to win a lot of one-run games is because you don't score a lot of runs. They had an inning of flailing away against Pettitte, who actually lasted longer than Chen: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. It didn't matter. Off Chen and the relievers, his team could score him no runs. Maybe when he turned 40, he forgot how to win.
Matusz stayed on for the 8th. He allowed the hobbled Mark Teixeira to get a leadoff single - that might have been a double with any other runner. Tex would not move farther than that. Brian coolly struck out last night's killer, Russell Martin, and the always-dangerous Curtis Granderson, then got Nunez to foul out to first.
The 8th inning opened with a Davis single that chased Pettitte. Endy Chavez ran for Davis, but David Robertson had relieved Pettitte. Though he had the meltdown on Cal statue night, Robertson looked like his typical self, getting a pair of easy groundouts and striking out Reynolds with a sick-looking curveball doing most of the damage.
Jim Johnson was the goat of the night last night. He was sent right back onto the horse tonight. Were you worried? It's okay. The top of the lineup - three future Hall of Famers in Jeter, Suzuki and Rodriguez - were due up, with Cano to follow if any reached base, and Johnson was giving up big flies like crazy last night. Tonight, no balls left the infield. Johnson added a postseason save to his 51 saves from the regular season, and the Orioles won a game that they needed to win to keep their hopes alive in the series.
With two outs in the 9th inning, as Johnson pumped strikes on Rodriguez - he'd eventually notch the game-ending K - the TBS broadcast cut to Craig Sager in the camera well, who was holding a decibel meter. Its digital readout showed as high as 121 dB as the camera zoomed on it. This was louder, Sager said, than any NBA arena he had ever been in - with 109 dB being the high in Oklahoma City.
Some in the media wondered through this season if the fans were ever going to come back, even for a winner. Orioles fans came for the playoffs and they came correct.
Tomorrow is an off day in the series, with games to be played on Wednesday and Thursday, and, if needed, Friday. Game 3 is currently scheduled for a 7:37pm Eastern start time, but that could be subject to change if Detroit sweeps Oakland tomorrow. The Game 3 starters will be Hiroki Kuroda for the Yankees and one of the season's unlikely heroes, Miguel Gonzalez, for the Orioles.
The O's are now ten wins away from winning a World Series championship, but they've got to win two of the next three or they'll never get any closer than nine.