By Joe Lemire
October 08, 2012

BALTIMORE -- The locals waited 15 years for this, and a season-high crowd flocked to Oriole Park in droves on Sunday night, clicking the turnstile like a carnival carousel for the return of playoff baseball to the Charm City.

The roar returned, too, as the orange-clad faithful who waited out nearly two and a half hours of a rain delay reasserted its ownership of Camden Yards away from a New York fan base used to invading it.

After the mere 5,479 days the postseason had been absent in Baltimore, the 47,841 in attendance made their presence heard throughout the undulations of the game -- a 1-0 deficit after two batters, a 2-1 lead after three innings and a 2-2 tie a half-inning later -- but the tide receded as the night grew late, and their hearts sank when Jim Johnson's fastball didn't.

The major league leader in saves entered in the ninth inning, but he left a 2-0 pitch up in the zone to Yankees catcher Russell Martin, who lifted a home run to leftfield to start a five-run outburst. Robinson Cano's two-run double landed at just about the stroke of midnight, and all that Oriole orange began looking more and more like the color of Cinderella's ride home.

New York crashed Baltimore's playoff homecoming with a 7-2 win in Sunday night's ALDS Game 1 on the back of CC Sabathia, their ace lefthander who came within one out of a complete-game victory while striking out seven, walking only one and allowing just the two runs on eight hits.

"He's badass, bro," Yankees rightfielder Nick Swisher, who had a single and two walks, said. "Write that down." As the surrounding ballwriters dutifully complied, Swisher continued, expressing his wish for Sabathia to have finished the game: "I wanted him to get that just for the intestinal fortitude he showed today."

Sabathia established himself early, throwing all seven of his first-inning pitches for strikes, and even in the third inning -- when he gave up a two-run single to Nate McLouth -- he did so while throwing eight of his nine pitches for strikes spread across five batters. He cleared six innings in 76 pitches and eight innings in 110, whereas Baltimore starter Jason Hammel needed 112 pitches for his 5 2/3 innings and the Orioles' first four pitchers combined for 162 pitches through those same eight innings.

"He's got a track record of pitching in those games for a long time and doing well, but I was more proud of us matching him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Our guys were doing well. Just took four guys to match him."

While the Yankees boast one of the game's few veritable aces in Sabathia, the Orioles kept handing the ball down the line. Sometimes playing matchups and pitching in short spurts can be more effective but sometimes, like this night, it increases the opportunity for someone to have a bad night. The Orioles have a great bullpen, but the more it's used, the better chance it has of a lapse.

"Johnson's been great all year," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said, "but eventually we've got to get to him, right?"

That's the most glaring difference between these two teams, and it was never more glaring than Sunday night. New York started its workhorse with the nine-figure salary, while Baltimore started a pitcher, Hammel, who had a terrific season (3.43 ERA in 20 starts) but hadn't appeared in a big league game in four weeks because of a knee injury. This came two days after it started Joe Saunders in the one-game wild-card playoff game when he's not even a lock to start a game in this ALDS.

Just as Hammel was very good for 5 2/3 innings on Sunday and Saunders was even better for 5 2/3 last Friday, the Orioles have a fine rotation with lots of depth but no proven stars. That can help a team win a lot of regular season games but isn't as productive in the postseason, when matched up against a truly elite starter.

When Sabathia last pitched in this ballpark a month ago, the Orioles roughed him up for five runs in 6 1/3 innings, in the middle of an uncharacteristic pitching slump, but he reasserted himself in his final three starts (24 innings, four runs allowed) and again in the series opener.

"I wish I could tell you I change my game plan but I don't," he said. "I pitch to my strength, attacking in, and just going off my fastball command, and it was working today. The changeup was working really well. These guys know what I am trying to do. I've faced them a lot. I was able just to execute tonight."

For much of the early evening there was real question whether he'd get that chance. Steady rain delayed the start by two hours and 26 minutes. The laid back Sabathia passed the time by watching football, mostly keeping an eye on Patriots-Broncos but also tracking his fantasy team which, incidentally, improved to 5-0 despite Sabathia starting Baltimore's local quarterback, Joe Flacco, who had a subpar afternoon.

There was much more at stake, of course, on Sunday than just Sabathia's fantasy football record -- "I'm looking pretty good," noted the eager novice who said this is his first year of really paying attention -- as a rainout might have cost the Yankees a second Sabathia start in this series.

In this year's playoff format, with only one off-day amidst a five-game series, a postponement on Sunday would have pushed the two-game set in Baltimore back to Monday and Tuesday, meaning he'd have had to start on short rest in a possible Game 5. He's done that plenty of times before and done it successfully, but after two stints on the disabled list this year because of elbow issues, it'd be more of an unknown proposition this fall.

That Yankee dilemma was rendered moot by the game being played and especially by its outcome. In this 2-3 format, the club with homefield advantage is in great shape just by splitting the first two games, which New York has already done before sending Andy Pettitte to the mound against the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2.

So while the Orioles waited a decade and a half to reach this juncture, they can ill-afford to wait any longer before striking back.

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