When the Orioles traded reliever Matt Lindstrom to the Arizona Diamondbacks in late August for veteran lefty Joe Saunders, the Orioles were dealing a surplus bullpen arm for needed playoff experience.
The transaction registered a blip on the national radar.
That's because no one knew the Orioles would be getting the pitching version of Mr. October.
And that's only a slight exaggeration considering the opposition Saunders has had to face and the intense situations in which he has had to thrive in his last two outings.
On Thursday, the 31-year-old southpaw was handed the ball with the Orioles' season on the ropes for the second time in a week.
Saunders was even better in Yankee Stadium in Thursday's Game 4 of the American League Division than he was at Rangers Ballpark last Friday in the American League wild-card game.
Against the Yankees, Saunders lasted 5 2/3 innings, yielding just one run — on a groundout by Robinson Cano — while giving up three hits and four walks and striking out five as the Orioles forced game 5 with a 2-1 win in 13 innings.
"I didn’t want to go home on my watch," Saunders said. "I know these guys didn’t want to go home and I didn’t want to have that on my shoulders and on my conscience. I just tried to give it everything I had out there tonight."Saunders allowed baserunners in each inning, but it never felt like he was in trouble. In the third inning, he yielded a leadoff double then struck out the side.
Twice he ended innings with double plays, though the one in the fifth was set up by a great running, leaping catch by left fielder Nate McLouth, who threw back into the infield to get the final out. Saunders left in the sixth with the score tied 1-1 — meaning he didn't figure in the decision. But he definitely gave the Orioles a chance to win.
His line was reminiscent of last Friday, when he again went 5 2/3 innings and gave up one run in the Orioles' 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers.
Saunders has now faced baseball's two highest scoring teams with his club's fate on the line and responded by allowing just two runs in 11 1/3 innings, a 1.59 ERA.
"It’s pressure, anxiety," Saunders said of pitching in the postseason. "But you’ve got to battle through it. Like I’ve been telling myself all along, you’ve just go to stay yourself, can’t try to do too much. And go out there and battle your tail off. I did that tonight."
The postseason dominance has come as a surprise. In his eight-season career before this year, Saunders had pitched in four postseason games for the Los Angeles Angels and Diamondbacks. He was 0-1 with a 6.00 ERA in 18 innings.
But not this year, not when his new teammates needed the Northern Virginia native the most.
"He's just got a lot of moxie on the mound," McLouth said before Thursday's game. "He's real composed on the mound. I think in big games and big situations, that's as important as anything."
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