Today, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs said, "2012 will probably forever be known as the year of the WTF Orioles." The WTF Orioles won another close game tonight, in extra innings no less, which probably inspire such sentiments. The bewilderment expressed by the WTFers can be answered simply - the Orioles executed and the Mariners did not. This does not mean there weren't head scratcher moments. For example, two in-game situations come to mind when identifying vulnerable moments for the Orioles. Ultimately though, the team executed the right plays while the Mariners did not.
1) Tonight's match up between Felix Hernandez and Joe Saunders didn't look favorable to the Orioles. While Hernandez had struggled the last few starts, I think it's fair to say he's the better pitcher than Saunders, and if given the choice, I would take Hernandez over Saunders. But tonight, Saunders got the job done. Hernandez probably pitched the better game as he struck out 4 times as many batters (eight to Saunders' two), but both pitchers only gave up one run over eight innings. In the end, Saunders put more balls in-play but many of the balls ended up at players and the fielders executed the plays. Obviously there is a certain degree of luck on balls in play, but the O's defense executed the plays that were within their control and deserve credit for that. I think Saunders did keep the M's a bit off balance by successfully locating his beastly 88 mph fastball to the corners of the plate. As a result, he managed to keep the ball inside the park and possibly helped induce fieldable balls. The exception came in the fourth inning when he grooved a fastball to Franklin Gutierrez, who drilled it over the fence. Safeco and the inepittude of the Mariners' offense certainly helped Saunders but he managed to go toe-to-toe with Hernandez. Springfield represent!2) In the bottom of the 10th inning, Pedro Strop continued to foster more apprehension and distrust with another shaky outing. He started the inning by walking Michael Saunders before retiring Miguel Olivio and walking Trayvon Robinson. Out goes Strop, in comes Brian Matusz. Matusz strikes out Mike Carp and walks Dustin Ackley. With two outs, bases loaded in the bottom of the tenth inning, the situation looked worrisome for the Orioles. To make matters worse, Luis Ayala, who has struggled to strand runners all season, was brought in to face this mess. But Ayala executed by inducing a pop out to Franklin Gutierrez and the game went to the 11th inning.
In contrast, the Mariners' bullpen was not able to execute the right pitches and it costed them the game. In the top of the 11th inning, Josh Kinney gave up a single to Nate McLouth followed by a home run by Adam Jones. Keeping the ball inside the park is completely within the control of the pitcher and Kinney did not get it done. In the bottom of the 11th inning, Jim Johnson came out for the save and immediately ran into trouble by giving up singles to Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero. But the Orioles executed a double play which included a great catch by Jim Johnson who was covering 1B. Jim Johnson then gave up a walk to Michael Saunders who tried to steal second base, but Taylor Teagarden gunned him down. Ball game over and the O's moved to 15-2 in extra inning games.
Broadly speaking, I do agree with the notion that winning extra inning games is not really a discernible team skill. A strong bullpen certainly helps a team's ability to win extra inning games but I don't think that should be conflated as a skill in winning them. When analyzing only a handful of plays which usually constitute an extra innings game, a team's fate can shift on capricious and temperamental events like a ground ball that takes a bad hop to a fielder or a blown call. But tonight's game wasn't really about bad hops or close blown calls. The O's won through clutch hitting (thank you Adam Jones), excellent relief pitching (except for you Pedro. Go sit in the corner), and flawless execution on the defense. And for those who still scratch their head over how the O's are kicking ass, at least for tonight, your answer is right there.