You’d think we would have learned our lesson after 162 games, but the Orioles opened our eyes once again on Friday night.
With few giving them a chance after a deflating series at Tampa Bay that forced them to go to Arlington for the first ever wild card play-in game, the Orioles knocked off the Texas Rangers to advance to the American League Division Series.
We assumed the task was too much for the Orioles to top the two-time defending American League champions after they went 2-5 against the Rangers and were outscored 56-24 in the season series. It didn’t matter that Texas had lost nine of its last 13 games or that Baltimore held the best road record in the American League. The epitaphs had already been written and recited by many over the last two days leading up to Friday’s first pitch.
Manager Buck Showalter’s decision to give the ball to left-hander Joe Saunders was met with more than a few raised eyebrows considering the soft-tossing veteran was 0-6 with a 9.38 earned run average in six career starts at Rangers Ballpark before Friday night. Even those defending the decision assumed a brief outing for Saunders before a 10-man bullpen would match up the rest of the way.
The middle-of-the-road starter couldn’t possibly contain the powerful Rangers bats, could he?
Saunders did just that, using effective off-speed stuff to pitch 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball before turning it over to the bullpen, the group most responsible for landing the Orioles in the postseason for the first time since 1997.
Arguably the player of the game, reliever Darren O’Day was brilliant over two innings of work to bridge the gap to the late innings. New lefty specialist Brian Matusz blew away Josh Hamilton on three pitches to end the eighth with the slugger representing the tying run. And, finally, Jim Johnson closed the door on the Rangers’ season and sent the Orioles back to Baltimore for the ALDS.
The Baltimore bats were far from fertile but did just enough against Texas starter Yu Darvish to give Saunders and the bullpen a slim lead.
Left fielder Nate McLouth drove in two runs and scored another to lead the offensive attack, J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones each knocked in one, and rookie Manny Machado tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth with a run-scoring single.
And as McLouth squeezed the final out in left to seal a 5-1 win, there was Showalter watching from the dugout as his players celebrated their unlikeliest feat to date in a season full of head-shaking wonder. At this point, you wonder just how unlikely the Orioles viewed it as they didn’t blink in a place that’s been a house of horror for them in recent years.
Why do we still doubt them?
The response was lukewarm in late August when executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette brought Saunders to Baltimore in exchange for reliever Matt Lindstrom. It wasn’t the impact move for a starting pitcher the Orioles desperately needed to push the Orioles over the hump in their playoff push.
Considered washed up and simply hoping for another chance in the big leagues while playing for Triple-A Norfolk only two months ago, McLouth was summoned to Baltimore as many laughed and rolled their eyes. Those same people then cringed when the thumb injury to Nick Markakis forced him to assume the leadoff spot duties.
Critics said 20-year-old Manny Machado wasn’t ready for the big leagues and certainly couldn’t handle playing third base after playing only two games at the position in his brief minor league career.
O’Day was a castoff from the Rangers who many thought didn’t even deserve a roster spot at the start of the season after being injured for much of spring training. Matusz endured one of the worst seasons in major league history a year ago and was demoted again earlier this season before ultimately being sent to the bullpen.
Yet, the moves worked and those individuals figured heavily into the Orioles’ first postseason win since 1997.
While I wondered if the Rangers could get off the mat after collapsing in the final two weeks of the regular season and losing their grasp on the AL West title, the Orioles emphatically delivered the knockout blow to their 2012 season. Perhaps the Rangers were the better team and would have prevailed in a longer season, but the Orioles were the better team on Friday and that’s all that matters.
Yes, this perfect group of imperfect players comprised of holdovers used to losing, career minor leaguers, has-beens, never-will-bes, and baby-faced rookies may look like a jumbled mess of individual parts, but the unconventional concoction made by Showalter and Duquette is now 11 wins away from a World Series title.
Suggesting that possibility still sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? I thought so.
They’ll undoubtedly be tabbed as the underdogs against the AL East champion Yankees, a team they tied 9-9 in the season series.
But that underdog label doesn’t bother the Orioles. They’ve heard it all year and they’ll just keep playing with their house money, proving more and more people wrong in the process.
We’ll keep waiting for that bankroll to expire while Showalter’s club continues one of the most remarkable baseball stories we’ve seen in a long time for at least another postseason series.
We don’t know when it will come to an end, but few teams have ever embraced the underdog role with such vigor.
And they’ll keep reminding you why you shouldn’t doubt them.