NEW YORK --- Of course it had to be like this. Of course it had to go 13 innings, and stretch over four-and-a-half hours. Of course it was always going to come down to this: the Orioles and the Yankees, after splitting 22 games this year, in a winner-take-all Game 5.
The record will show Game 4 of this American League Division Series was the longest postseason game in Orioles' history, but let's be clear: this was not a classic. This wasn't Game 3, a 12-inning epic for the ages. This was exhausting and painful, for the Yankees players, who squandered countless opportunities to put the game away (New York hitters were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position); for the Orioles, who had their own chances (they were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position); and for the faithful who stayed until the merciful end.
The hero? There was Joe Saunders, who allowed just one run in his second postseason. There was J.J. Hardy, who was 2-for-17 before hitting his RBI double in the 13th that proved the difference. There was Nate McLouth, who homered in the fifth and has a hit in every game of the series. There was Darren O'Day, who tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings in relief.
After the game, past midnight in the Bronx, someone asked the Orioles' Buck Showalter what it was to manage a game like this. "Fortunately, or unfortunately, we have some experience at this," he said.
Buck's team won, 2-1. In one-run games, his O's are now 31-10, including 2-1 in this series, and 8-0 this year in games of 13 or more innings.
That strange, unexplainable O's magic? It's still alive.
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It's easy to forget: Phil Hughes is still just 26. He has been a hot-shot prospect and he's been a bust, he's been a starter, and a reliever. He said, leading up to this big playoff start, that he'd been waiting two years for this shot. Back in 2010, he pitched against the Rangers in the ALCS and was hammered in two starts, allowing 11 runs and 14 hits in 8 2/3 innings. No, it wasn't always pretty on Thursday: Hughes escaped a jittery first inning, then escaped another jam in the fourth after striking out Manny Machado on a killer slider. And then in the fifth, with no outs, he had Nate McLouth down 0-2, but couldn't put the left fielder away: on a 1-2 count, McLouth ripped a 91 mph fastball into the right-field seats, and the Orioles were ahead 1-0.
That would be the only run he'd allow; Hughes did his job. When he was done for the night in the seventh --- in 6 2/3 innings, he allowed four hits and struck out eight --- the fans stood and cheered. It was a good night for the embattled one, who pitched as well as the Yankees could possibly have hoped.
But Joe Saunders was just as good. Less than a week earlier, the 31-year-old lefthander shut down the mighty Rangers lineup in the winner-take-all AL wild card game in Texas, and now here he was on Thursday, in the Bronx, with his team on the brink, and he was keeping the Yankees hitters off-balanced and frustrated all night --- in 5 2/3 innings, he gave up just one run, and the brilliant Orioles bullpen did the rest.
As Saunders and the O's relievers kept hanging zeroes on the scoreboard, as the Yankees hitters kept squandering their opportunities, the boos got louder and louder. There were boos for Curtis Granderson when he failed to bunt Russell Martin over in the fifth, and even louder boos when he struck out, for the eighth time in the series, later in the at bat (he's now 1-for-16 in the series). And of course there were boos for A-Rod who, just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse, was completely overmatched in a big moment in the eighth --- with two men on, A-Rod whiffed on two Darren O'Day 85 mph fastballs, right over the heart of the plate, and struck out for the second time. Girardi spared him further humiliation, pinch-hitting for him in the bottom of the 13th --- Eric Chavez lined out to Machado at third, and the game was over.
All the pressure Friday night at Yankee Stadium will be on the home team, of course. It has been a tough, exhausting week for the Yankees, for the players, but especially for the manager. News of the death of Jerry Girardi was made public early Thursday, a few hours before the Yankees took the field for their pregame workout. Before the game, Joe Girardi spoke to reporters about how just the day before his father's death last Saturday, he was talking to a friend about how the one thing his father always said to him "was always to finish the job at hand. My dad would want me to do everything we could do to go win a World Series."
Several hours later, the manager was back in the same seat, in front of the same cameras, talking about the tough, exhausting game his team had just lost. He talked about Joba Chamberlain's scary injury ("He's OK, it's just a bruise"). He talked about the futility of his hitters ("I think there's really good pitching. There's guys on the other side that are struggling, too.") And he talked about how it was fitting that it would all come down to one game, Friday night. "Well, it's kind of what we've been used to the whole year," he said. "It's been a fight to stay ahead of this club the whole year, and it's pretty fitting."
And then the manager left the room, and it was on to Game 5.