The eyes of the baseball world turned to the long-suffering Orioles and their unlikely path to the postseason, as they played a do-or-die game in front of 46,931 rally-towel waving fans at the home of the Texas Rangers.
And much as they've done all season — with different players across the roster sharing the role of hero — the underdog Orioles showed how much fight they truly have.
Nearly six years to the day that Orioles manager Buck Showalter was fired as skipper of the Rangers, his team ended their reign as two-time defending American League champions. Now, the Orioles get a date with the Yankees, the team Showalter helped groom as a young manager before his unceremonious departure after the 1995 season predated the Yankees’ rise to four titles in five years.
“I’m all for irony,” Showalter said.
The night ended with the Orioles charging the field in celebration to the chant of “Let Go, O's” from the stands. A champagne celebration then broke out in the clubhouse – with the primary target being manager Showalter – a reward the Orioles didn't get to enjoy when they clinched a playoff berth while aboard a plane to Tampa Bay for their final series of the regular season.
“We knew with the win tonight we were going to have fun, but back to business over the weekend with the Yankees,” first baseman Mark Reynolds said. “We know them, they know us. We split with them during the year. We’ve got a big game on Sunday night at Camden Yards. I’m sure the place is going to be rocking and our fans will finally get to see a postseason game at Camden Yards.”
Friday's victory was the Orioles' first in the postseason since Game 5 of the 1997 American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians.
“This is a terrific moment,” first-year executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. This is a terrific moment for Baltimore. This is a terrific moment for the owners, the fans, the players. Hats off to everybody. This is a young team, a hungry team. And I know they have more work to do.”
Showalter put the Orioles' postseason hopes — and a lot of faith — in left-hander Joe Saunders, who entered the game with an 0-6 record in six career starts in Arlington and a 9.36 ERA, second-highest of any pitcher with at least 30 innings at Rangers Ballpark. Saunders, acquired Aug. 26 in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, tightroped his way out of trouble throughout the night.
He allowed eight base runners — six hits, a walk and an error — but just one run over 5 2/3 innings, before Showalter turned to his bullpen.
A Virginia native who grew up rooting for the Orioles, Saunders had lost nine of his past 12 starts and was getting pinched out of Arizona's rotation at the time of his trade. Yet he outpitched Japanese rookie right-hander Yu Darvish, in whom the Rangers invested $111.7 million in this offseason.
The Orioles turned three critical double plays to help Saunders, tying their postseason club record for a single game set on Oct. 6, 1979, in Game 4 of the ALCS against the California Angels.
As Saunders left the game, he strolled into the Orioles dugout to a greeting full of high-fives and a hug from pitching coach Rick Adair.
“He gave us a chance to win the game,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Ultimately that’s all we asked from him. Who gives a crap about what the numbers says? … We’ve seen it all. He was 0-6 with a 9.00 [ERA]. It doesn’t mean anything when it’s sudden death. We went out there as a team. We went out there and played our style of game. That’s how we won.”
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead just two batters into the game. Rangers first baseman Michael Young booted a grounder off the bat of leadoff man Nate McLouth on the first pitch of the game. McLouth quickly stole second and then scored on J.J. Hardy's seeing-eye single up the middle.
Saunders walked the first hitter he faced, second baseman Ian Kinsler, after he was ahead 1-2 in the count. Elvis Andrus followed with a single that put runners at first and third with no outs, but slumping slugger Josh Hamilton grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, which scored Kinsler to tie the score.
Saunders also received key double-play balls in the third — which erased a leadoff fielding error by Reynolds — and an inning-ending double-play ball in the fifth.
Hardy and Chris Davis led off the sixth inning with back-to-back singles to put runners at the corners, and Jones' sacrifice fly gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead.
The Orioles tacked on another run in the seventh. Rookie second baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a one-out single and was removed for pinch runner Robert Andino, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a wild pitch by reliever Derek Holland.
McLouth, one of the many reclamation projects who turned into a key member of the Orioles' run to the postseason, then singled to give the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
In the top of the ninth, the O's added two more runs to their cushion. Jim Thome walked and Andino doubled to put runners on second and third. Manny Machado, the Orioles' 20-year-old rookie third baseman, delivered an RBI single to left, then McLouth hit a sacrifice fly.
“We’ve really stuck together,” McLouth said. “Ever since I’ve been here, there’ve been a lot of different contributions from a lot of different people. It takes a lot of pressure off people. We don’t count on on or two guys to come through every night. It’s been a great group effort.”
Because baseball rules allow teams to reset their postseason rosters after every series, Showalter had 10 relievers at his disposal.
But Darren O'Day, who was claimed off waivers in early November and has emerged as one of the most dependable middle relievers in the game, ate up most of those innings. O'Day tossed a season-high two scoreless innings, retiring six of the seven batters he faced, before Showalter turned to left-hander Brian Matusz to face Hamilton.
Matusz struck out Hamilton — who was 0-for-10 with six strikeouts against Matusz, on three pitches — putting him away with a 93 mph fastball.
The Rangers loaded the bases against closer Jim Johnson, who led the majors with 51 saves in the regular season, bringing the tying run to the plate in David Murphy. But Murphy flied out to McLouth in left to end the game and send playoff baseball back to Baltimore for the first time in 15 years.