BALTIMORE — It felt as though the momentum was finally shifting in the Orioles’ direction.
Tied 4-4 with the Kansas City Royals in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles had just gunned down pinch runner Jarrod Dyson trying to steal on a perfect throw from catcher Caleb Joseph and retired the side a moment later when Eric Hosmer flied out to center. A sold-out crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that balanced enthusiasm with concern for much of the evening could sense the Orioles were on the verge of finally breaking through for their first in-game lead of the series.
Those cheers only grew louder as Nick Markakis reached on an error by reliever Kelvin Herrera and Alejandro De Aza walked to start the inning, bringing the heart of the order to the plate. Even after Adam Jones swung through three straight pitches, spirits were once again elevated when Nelson Cruz singled to left to load the bases with one out for Steve Pearce and J.J. Hardy.
But instead of the Orioles pushing runs across the plate, Kansas City delivered a body blow as Pearce popped to shallow left and Hardy flied out to right. The threat was over with no damage done.
Two innings later, an infield dribbler, a sacrifice bunt, and Escobar’s sharp grounder inside the first-base bag gave Kansas City the lead and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series as they went on to win 6-4 on Saturday.
The saying goes that you’d rather be lucky than good, but the Royals have been lucky and good in putting the Orioles on the ropes as the teams now travel to Kansas City for the next three games of the series. Sure, the upstart Royals have benefited from a number of broken-bat hits, bloopers, and dribblers in the first two games of the series, but they’ve also homered four times, pitched tremendously in relief, and put at least one runner on base in 18 of their 19 innings at the plate in the ALCS.
“The hot team makes things go their way,” said closer Zach Britton, who surrendered Escobar’s game-winning double in the top of the ninth. “They are hot, they beat [the Los Angeles Angels], and they are continuing that right now. We scored some runs, and we’re not able to shut them down. The big key — if we want to win this series — is when we get that momentum, keeping it on our side.”
No, the Orioles haven’t been firing on all cylinders as their starting pitching has been poor and normally-reliable relievers Darren O’Day and Britton have struggled, but they’ve lost two games by a combined four runs with Kansas City scoring the winning runs in the final inning each time. It isn’t a case of the Royals being dramatically better, but Ned Yost’s club has endured every shot from the Orioles and returned one just a little bit stronger.
Baltimore now faces a steep climb to get back in the series as no team has ever won an LCS after dropping Games 1 and 2 at home. But there have been teams to bounce back from that same scenario in the World Series as the 1996 New York Yankees were embarrassed by the Atlanta Braves in the first two games in the Bronx before they won four straight for their first championship in 18 years. The 1985 Royals and 1986 Mets also won titles after dropping World Series Games 1 and 2 at home, so the chore isn’t impossible, even if unlikely.
The Orioles can either roll over for the red-hot Royals, who’ve won all six postseason games they’ve played, or they can focus on a simple task. Facing former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie in Game 3, the Orioles need an early lead to lift their in-game spirits and a win on Monday. That’s all they can try to control at this point.
“You’ve got to earn everything, every inning, every at‑bat,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Like I said last night, you can’t bottle the concentration level and everything that goes into these games. Humanly, you couldn’t do it for the 200 games we play a year. You see at this time of year guys are firing, and you’re getting the best from everybody.”
While many are now counting out the Orioles more because of Kansas City’s current play and karma than anything else, one of Baltimore’s biggest strengths under Showalter has been an ability to compartmentalize every game and every series over the course of a 162-game schedule. Rarely have we witnessed the Orioles too high after an important win or too low after a significant loss.
The atmosphere in the clubhouse following Saturday’s defeat was predictably quiet, but center fielder Adam Jones wasn’t about to concede anything to the Royals after they handed the Orioles consecutive defeats at Camden Yards for the first time since June 28-29.
“The series ain’t over. If you guys are thinking it’s over, why are we going to show up on Monday?” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of baseball to play in this series. Let’s get back after it. We’re going to go to [Kansas City]. We’ve been a very good team on the road, so let’s go there and have some fun. Eat some barbecue.”
For a club that’s endured season-ending injuries and suspensions to All-Star players while still winning 99 games counting the playoffs, a 2-0 deficit in the ALCS is the latest trial to overcome. It won’t be easy as Kansas City holds a whirlwind of momentum that started with an improbable win over Oakland in the AL Wild Card Game.
Ultimately, it could just be the Royals’ year when we look back at the 2014 postseason.
But the first challenge for the Orioles moving forward is to win on Monday to make it a 2-1 deficit and put a little pressure on the Royals as they play in front of their home crowd. Kansas City has embraced the role of being the underdog this month, so it will be interesting to see how Yost’s players respond to being the favorite for at least the next couple games.
If the Orioles needed it, the speedy outfielder Dyson even offered some bulletin board material when asked by the Kansas City Star whether he expected the series to return to Baltimore.
“I don’t. And I don’t think they think that, either.”
Baltimore went 46-35 on the road, so maybe a day off and the opportunity to play away from the home crowd will allow the Orioles to reset mentally. The prospects of winning two of three in Kansas City — where the Royals were only 42-39 this year — aren’t impossible if the Orioles stay true to themselves in their style of play, which is pretty darn good despite the results of Games 1 and 2 that can’t be changed.
A 2-0 deficit can’t be erased entirely in one contest, but a win in Game 3 would sure make things far more interesting.
“We had chances and we just didn’t get it done,” Jones said. “Plain and simple. Ain’t no excuses in here. Take it to K.C. and get back after it.”
That’s been the mindset under Showalter for the last three winning seasons, and it’s the reason not to throw in the towel on the 2014 season just yet.
Perhaps the Orioles have a few body blows of their own to stun the Royals with before this series is over.