Orioles' magical season continues
Perhaps the best things that can be said about the Baltimore Orioles' 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers on Friday night is that at no point was the phrase "ordinary effort" uttered and not once did anyone have to go scrambling for a rule book.
People may want to look for a thesaurus, however, as we are running out of ways to describe the season being enjoyed by the residents of the Charm City. Fresh off a regular season in which they set a major league record for best mark in one-run games and came within one win of matching the longest winning streak in extra-inning games, the Orioles won their first postseason game in 15 years. To do so, they had to venture into the home of the two-time defending American League champion Rangers, give the ball to a man who had previously been knocked around in that ballpark to the tune of a 9.38 ERA, and pray.
Displaying a confidence that belies that bloated ERA, Joe Saunders held the majors' highest-scoring offense to just six hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings. It was one out shy of officially qualifying as a quality start, but that's exactly what Saunders delivered. Unlike the other managers in this unique format, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter had not been able to line up an ace or de facto ace to start, so his decision to load his roster with relief pitchers was not just sound strategy but something that almost seemed to be his team's best, if not only, path to victory. With 10 relievers -- including seven righties who could help snuff out any potential Texas rallies by facing the likes of Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli -- available, Saunders was likely on a very short leash, but it was one that grew longer with each passing strike out and harmless ground ball.
By the time Showalter did go to his bullpen -- to summon ex-Ranger Darren O'Day to face Cruz in the sixth -- the Orioles were 10 outs from victory. The Baltimore bullpen surrendered only two hits the rest of the way, and when Jim Johnson closed out the game by getting David Murphy to fly out with the bases loaded, the Orioles had punched their ticket to the Division Series and a matchup with their AL East rivals, the Yankees.
Unlike its National League counterpart, this American League wild-card playoff game unfolded free of controversy, drama and of the outfield suddenly being turned into the world's largest recycling center.
The outcome, however, may have been every bit as surprising as what took place in Atlanta earlier in the evening. While the Cardinals' 6-3 victory over the Braves was marred by a debatable decision on an infield fly rule by the left-field umpire, Baltimore's win was owed to the men in black who should matter most: those wearing the uniforms of the surprising, resilient and still-alive Orioles. In ensuring that the night's results were truly for the birds, the Orioles joined the Cardinals in winning baseballs' first-ever wild-card playoff games and kept their improbable season alive for one more round.
If the Orioles were at all nervous to be facing a team that had outscored them 56-24 this season, they didn't show it, not even when the Rangers put their first two batters of the game on base. Saunders calmly induced a run-scoring double play from Josh Hamilton -- an impending free-agent who may have been playing his last game with the Rangers -- and was out of the inning one batter later.
Texas wouldn't get another runner to third base until its season was down to its final out. In the meantime, the Orioles built their lead slowly and unremarkably. The team that hit the second-most home runs in the majors this season played small ball all night. They cobbled together a run in the first inning on an error, a stolen base and a single; one in the sixth on two singles and a sacrifice fly; another in the seventh on a single, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and a single; and two more in the ninth on a walk, a single, a double and another sac fly.
By then, the Orioles had the game well in hand and their return to the Division Series for the first time since 1997 was all but assured. For a team that had not had so much as a winning season in the interim, there can only be one word to describe Baltimore's effort all year long: extraordinary.