— Left-hander Joe Saunders was not the popular choice to get the Orioles' first postseason start in 15 years and to try and guide the club back to Baltimore for its first home playoff contest since Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series.
Saunders has been with the Orioles for barely a month. The 31-year-old veteran had never won a playoff game in four previous attempts.
And he's been on the ugly side of awful for most of his career against the Texas Rangers, including a dismal 0-6 record and a 9.38 ERA in his starts at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
But in this crazy, unexpected run, which has included a 24-win turnaround from last season, maybe Saunders was the perfect guy for Friday's start in the one-game, loser-goes-home American League wild-card playoff.
"I just wanted to prove people wrong tonight and just go out there and win for this club," Saunders said. "These guys were hungry to get a real celebration and I know the fans were hungry for some real playoff baseball. And we are having a blast."
Saunders was so unheralded that he cleared trade waivers in August and was dealt by the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Orioles for reliever Matt Lindstrom in a move that didn't make a blip nationally.
And, although he only pitched in seven previous games with the Orioles, he understands the franchise's history after growing up in Northern Virginia as an Orioles fan.
Now he is part of that history.
"This means everything growing up watching the Orioles, coming to games as a kid and now to give them playoff baseball, it's a special feeling I can't explain it," Saunders said.
Saunders bent but never broke Friday, allowing six hits and a walk in the Orioles' 5-1 victory that ended the season for the two-time defending American League champion Rangers. Saunders lasted 5 2/3 innings and gave up just one run – on a double-play grounder – against the club that scored the most in all of baseball in 2012.
Every time he seemed to be in trouble, Saunders wiggled out of it.
Each inning the Rangers had someone on base, but they were hitless in three at-bats with runners in scoring position against the left-hander. Saunders retired five of the six leadoff hitters, with the only one, Ian Kinsler, scoring the Rangers' lone run.
When Orioles manager Buck Showalter announced his decision Thursday that Saunders would get the ball Friday — choosing him over rookie Steve Johnson, a Baltimore native who has excelled in limited action this season — it seemed risky given Saunders' history with the Rangers.
But Showalter said he liked Saunders' experience and was somewhat concerned about Johnson's tender left knee. And Showalter, a legitimate AL Manager of the Year candidate, has pushed the right buttons all year.
Saunders, for his part, said he wasn't worried about pitching in Rangers Ballpark, pointing to some good starts he has had here, including his last one in July 2010, when he allowed one run in seven innings in a hard-luck loss for the Los Angeles Angels.
About his overall terrible numbers in Texas, Saunders said Thursday, "I don't care. Tomorrow is a new day."
It was a new day on Friday for Saunders, who won his first game here and his first in the postseason.
And now the Orioles will live another day — at least several more days — in this highly unexpected, highly entertaining season.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun