Tommy Hunter was warming in the third inning, and it wasn't because of the rain. The beautiful and tragic thing about baseball is how a long season condenses down into such a short number of games. Your track record over 162 games doesn't matter. One game, one inning, one play, that's what matters. All rests on the edge of a knife. The Royals had that one inning against the Orioles on Friday night and the Orioles did not care, because they are a good team and they, too, will get the ball breaking their way.
When the dust settled, though, it was one blow too many by the Royals, who got a 10th-inning leadoff home run by Alex Gordon to break the hearts of Baltimore fans in ALCS Game 1. Brian Matusz went on after that to be terrible, because obviously, and the Orioles fell, 8-6, in the game and now trail 1-0 in the series.
The Royals got their one inning first, in the top of the third. There was no sign of the Chris Tillman who bossed his way through the Tigers lineup in the first inning of the ALDS. Instead, there was the Tillman who makes you nervous as he suddenly can't find the strike zone. He ran up a 2-0 count on Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, then threw a batting practice fastball right over the plate. Escobar is not a power hitter; he has 21 career home runs in 3,198 plate appearances. Even a career .648 OPS hitter will hit a homer on that pitch, and just like that, the Orioles were down a run.
If Tillman had settled down after the home run, as he has often done after solo home runs, things would have been fine. He did not settle down. Nori Aoki reached on a single that fell in front of Alejandro De Aza, then Tillman walked Lorenzo Cain on four pitches - a player who walked a mere 24 times in 502 regular season plate appearances. Most of the Royals are hard to walk.
After getting a 3-0 count on the next batter, Eric Hosmer, Tillman battled back to strike him out, bringing up Billy Butler with two outs. The slow-footed Butler grounded a ball deep in the hole to short, but newly-extended J.J. Hardy ranged to his right to make a great diving play. He stood, planted his foot and fired to first. The throw bounced and handcuffed Steve Pearce at first, who bobbled the ball, loading the bases. A more experienced first baseman would have caught the ball. Hardy probably had more time to make a good throw.
These are the plays on which a game starts to turn, a doom set in motion long ago when Chris Davis took some Adderall that he shouldn't have. The bases were loaded for the dangerous Alex Gordon, a player who is inexplicably batting sixth. Tillman ran the count full on Gordon, and as he did so, he ran our nerves full and beyond.
In the end, Tillman sawed off Gordon, a weak fly ball, exactly what you want off a broken bat. Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis fielded the ball as if the Orioles did not have a right fielder. The ball dunked in down the line. Markakis was nowhere nearby, hindered as he occasionally is by the patch of quicksand in the Camden Yards outfield. Every Royal came around home, even Butler. The Orioles were down 4-0 just like that.
Tillman reached the end of the line in the game's fifth inning. Cain doubled on an 0-2 count, a ball heading towards the right-center gap that Adam Jones slid to cut off before it could roll past. The speedy Cain came out of the box looking for a double and Jones could not pop up in time for his throw to beat Cain to second. Cain advanced to third on a groundout. That was enough for O's manager Buck Showalter to send Tillman packing in favor of Hunter, who gave up a sacrifice fly to Butler right away.
The final line on Tillman: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR
Not going to win many games, postseason or otherwise, when your starter hangs a Five Runs All Earned performance. That's a tough task to give the offense to get out of that hole. They are up to that challenge, because they are good. That's how they got here.
On the other side of the ball, the O's had their chances to get a big inning of their own. The first came the second inning, where they alternated hits and outs in a way that ended up loading the bases with two men out and Jonathan Schoop coming to the plate. Royals starter James Shields threw the exact pitch you should throw to Schoop in that situation, a down and away pitch nowhere near the strike zone. Schoop flailed helplessly at the pitch, then took a strike on the inside black of the plate. He ultimately popped out weakly into right field and the Orioles got nothing.
The O's also scratched a run back in the fourth inning when Markakis led off with a double and was singled home by Jones.
Another, better chance for the O's came in the fifth inning. Markakis and De Aza led off with a pair of singles to get a legitimate threat rolling with no one out. Jones hit a slow roller to third, erasing Markakis but keeping two men on base on the fielder's choice. Cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz drove a ball off the fence in deep left field to score Markakis. A Pearce walk loaded the bases. Hardy struck out, putting things in the hands of Ryan Flaherty with two outs. Flaherty drove the ball into right field, bringing home two runs to pull the score back to 5-4.
With ten hits allowed in five innings, that would be all for "Big Game" James, who allowed four runs and now has a career 5.36 ERA in the postseason. Real big!
The short outing from Shields fried Royals manager Ned Yost's circuits. He only can do the bullpen when it fits into his 7-8-9 box. Needing someone for the sixth inning, he called on Brandon Finnegan, a rookie who was only this year pitching for TCU in the College World Series. I'm not saying that Finnegan was too amped up for the moment, but he walked Jonathan Schoop to get the inning started. That's hard to do.
Markakis followed with a single to once again put two men on with none out. De Aza started to show bunt. On a pitch where he pulled the bat back, Schoop got caught leaning off second base. Rather than slide into the out at second, Schoop went for glory, sprinting towards third. The relay throw from second to third ricocheted off Schoop's back and into foul territory. Markakis also advanced on the play. Yes, the Orioles were the first to get a stolen base in the game, while the Royals homered first. Baseball is funny like that.
The very next pitch, De Aza swung and flared a ball just over the pitcher's mound. Schoop, still feeling like a hero, broke for home even though it was no sure thing the ball would fall in. Escobar dove for the ball and came up just short, so Schoop was a hero indeed, tying the score at 5-5 on the infield single.
Unfortunately for the O's, Finnegan was bounced from the game, with Yost bringing in his 7th inning man, Kelvin Herrera. The rally was promptly snuffed by a fielder's choice and a GIDP. For good measure, Herrera pitched through the seventh inning as well and got the Royals back on their bullpen track.
Schoop's adventures on the basepaths leading to the game-tying run weren't the only good thing he did. In the top of the seventh, with speedster Jarrod Dyson running for Aoki, Dyson took off running to get himself into scoring position, a good idea against Nick Hundley. As Dyson reached second base he ran into two problems. The first of which is that he is so fast that his momentum carried him off the base. The second problem is that Schoop, putting on the tag, is a strong man. The force of the tag helped gently nudge Dyson off the base - out on the overslide. Too bad for him.
At this point, it was a battle of the bullpens. You might have heard both teams have good ones. Herrera's two swift innings put the Royals in good shape, but the Orioles were also in good shape with Kevin Gausman and Andrew Miller getting three innings between them. Kansas City's Wade Davis, who had a regular season ERA of 1.00 (really), plowed through the O's in the eighth on only seven pitches.
In a battle of the bullpens, someone must eventually falter. That is how it must go in a baseball game. The scene was almost a familiar one for Orioles fans: A tie game going into the ninth inning in the first game of a playoff series at Camden Yards. The lights-out closer coming on in relief. Then, disaster. Zach Britton could not find the strike zone. He walked the bases loaded, at one point throwing 12 straight balls across four batters. Britton took Eric Hosmer to a 3-2 count, getting a sharp grounder to Pearce, who threw home for a near-miracle force-out.
Buck had seen enough of Britton. He only walked 23 batters in 76.1 innings in the regular season, never walked multiple batters in any one game. All of that went out the window in the ALCS.
Darren O'Day was summoned into the bases loaded mess. Unlike Britton, O'Day was on his game, and he got Butler to bounce into an inning-ending double play. It was a Houdini act. It worked.
After all of that excitement, Davis mowed down the Orioles in the bottom half of the inning. Yost, derided for his lack of bullpen flexibility all year, appears to have finally discovered when to send a guy multiple inning. That's dangerous for the O's as they try to dig out of this series hole.
In the tenth, there were no more magic tricks. O'Day gave up the bomb to Gordon with a quickness, the Orioles were down, Greg Holland was waiting in the wings, and that was that. Just for fun, Matusz, who relieved O'Day after the Gordon homer, allowed a home run to a lefty in extra innings, serving up a two-run bomb to Mike Moustakas. He had one job. He failed. If he never pitches for the Orioles again, I won't be sad about it.
The Orioles went from when Finnegan left the game until there were two outs in the tenth without getting a baserunner - finally broken by a Flaherty single. Pinch-hitter Jimmy Paredes added a walk to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of pinch-hitter Delmon Young. It was a glimmer of hope, made even stronger when Young bounced a single up the middle to score Flaherty, bringing the score to 8-6, which really only served to make the complete and total failure of Matusz even more frustrating.
Markakis, now representing the winning run, came up to face Holland. Orioles Magic can only go so far. Three runs against Holland was just too much. Markakis swept a weak grounder to second and the game was over, a 4:37 marathon that the Orioles will have to come back from somehow.
The Royals are hitting boatloads of home runs, the Orioles are stealing bases. Yost is making smart bullpen moves and did not have a player lay down a sacrifice bunt in the entire game. Nobody knows anything about baseball, and anybody who tells you otherwise is a dirty liar who should never again be trusted.
The Orioles are three losses away from going home, but they're also four wins away from moving on. They'll try to turn the ship around on Saturday starting at 4:07. It could get worse than this. Hopefully it won't.