Baltimore continued its record-setting pace in one-run games with a 5-4 victory over the New York Yankees before a sellout crowd at Camden Yards in a game that ended on an apparently blown call at first base. But the night ended on the grim news that right fielder Nick Markakis had broken his left thumb when he was struck on the hand by a pitch and is likely lost for the season.
"We've been a sum-of-the-parts team all year," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said, "but we certainly lost a big part tonight."
Baseball games can be won any number of ways, but good seasons are found on the margin.
It's a sport where the best teams still lose a third of their games and the worst teams still win a third of their games, making the middle third where the proverbial wheat is threshed from the chaff.
Earlier this season, Showalter expressed his belief that often it's the fourth and fifth starters and the 7-8-9 hitters in a lineup that separate the good teams from the best teams, and no contender has had more turnover than the Orioles, whose 162 roster moves are already enough to have one per game this season.
"If you make the most out of your roster each night," said Dan Duquette, the executive vice president of baseball operations, "it's an opportunity to win close games."
Consider some of the key characters that aided Baltimore's 25th win in 32 one-run games, a .781 winning percentage that would be the highest in baseball history.
The starter and winning pitcher Joe Saunders was an outcast from out-of-contention Arizona, displaced two weeks ago in a waiver trade so the Diamondbacks could further the youth movement germinating in their rotation. He allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings, merely defeating the AL's third-most potent offense barely two weeks after getting clobbered by the NL's third-worst offense, the Marlins.
Outfielder Lew Ford, 36 and out of the majors for five years, was plucked from the roster of the independent Long Island Ducks, with stops in Japan and Mexico since he last put on a big league uniform. All he did was homer and slap an RBI single off Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
Then there was first baseman Mark Reynolds, who was moved across the diamond after exhibiting shaky defense at third base and who was hitting sub-.200 into June, a rate better tolerated when one hits more than seven homers in the whole first half of the season. But Reynolds homered off Sabathia to start Baltimore's scoring, his seventh homer against just the Yankees -- and ninth overall, with a .364 average -- in just the last nine days.
And when the Yankees had narrowed the deficit to 5-3 in the eighth, with the tying runs on first and third with two outs, Showalter summoned his unexpected new lefty specialist, Brian Matusz, a rotation washout in whom the Orioles nevertheless found value this season. Though he's been hittable by righties (.973 OPS), he's filthy to lefties (.543), so he was called upon to get Curtis Granderson, he of the 34 home runs this season, in that tight spot. Granderson fouled out to the catcher. It was only Matusz's eighth career relief appearance but he has now stranded all nine runners he's inherited.
"When you get into a close game, the matchups are very important because one or two plays can swing it in either direction," Duquette said. "Then, if you have a strong bullpen, you can make stand up the games when you have a lead."
That's been about the only constant for the Orioles this season. Collectively sporting a 3.06 ERA this season, fourth-best in the AL, Baltimore's relievers covered 3 2/3 innings on Saturday, though they did yield two runs on a solo homer by Alex Rodriguez in the eighth and a run-scoring groundout in the ninth.
The damage was almost worse, given that Darren O'Day put out a fire with two on and only one out in the sixth and that in the ninth inning Mark Teixeira appeared to beat the throw at first base on what was ruled to be a game-ending double play, helping Baltimore improve to 62-0 when holding a lead after seven innings.
"I think what makes great teams great teams is your bullpen," Saunders said. "If you've got a great bullpen and your starter can keep you in the game, you're going to be close a lot."
The loss of Markakis, however, badly hurts the Orioles. Already lost for six weeks after breaking a hamate bone in his hand, this new injury cost the club a leadoff hitter who had batted .333 with a .387 on-base percentage since moving atop the lineup in mid-July.
"It [stinks]," center fielder Adam Jones said. "It's September and one of our best players is down for the rest of the year. What can we do about that?"
Said Reynolds, "I have no doubt someone else is going to step up."
This probably means Nate McLouth will see steadier playing time. He began the year with the Pirates, where he batted .140 in 34 games and was released. For the Orioles, McLouth is batting .273 in 32 games, including a double on Saturday and a sliding catch on a sinking liner.
These Orioles of 2012 are not whom we expected them to be, in the literal sense that their roster and key players keep changing, and they're not where we expected them to be: tied atop the AL East.