With their 2-1 win over the New York Yankees Thursday, the Orioles kept their season alive and set up a decisive Game 5 in the Bronx on Friday afternoon. Just as the Yankees could not shake the Orioles all season, they could not shake them through a marathon elimination game.
"It's been a fight to stay ahead of this team all season, and it seems fitting," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of having to play a fifth game against the Orioles.
The teams had already played 30 innings of tense, closely contested baseball in this American League Division Series, and Thursday's game was no different. The Orioles threatened to score in three of the first four innings but couldn't break through against Yankees starter Phil Hughes.
Then Nate McLouth, one of the most improbable in a band of unlikely Orioles heroes, smacked a home run into the right-field seats. The next half-inning, he robbed the Yankees of a run with a terrific catch against the left-field wall.
The Yankees tied the game in the sixth, and it stayed that way inning after agonizing inning as the pitchers on both sides dominated. Such grueling games have been the Orioles' specialty this year, and after losing in 12 innings the day before, they regained their mastery, with stellar work from seven relievers and Hardy's clutch double that brought in Manny Machado.
It was difficult to view Thursday's game outside the context created by the previous night's drama.
The Yankees dugout was a nervous place heading into the ninth inning of Wednesday's Game 3, facing a one-run deficit against a team that hadn't blown such leads all season. But Raul Ibanez's pinch-hit home runs changed the whole narrative, from one of a favorite in peril to that of a startling hero turn.
The Yankees suddenly smelled blood. Outfielder Nick Swisher said he couldn't wait to get back to the park Thursday to close the Orioles out.
The Baltimore clubhouse, meanwhile, was subdued but hardly morose after the gut-punch loss. Come the next afternoon, the players said they were ready to move on.
"That was a tough one, there's no doubt about it," McLouth said. "But I think kind of one of the trademarks of this team, ever since I've been here, has been to move past difficult games and adverse situations like that."
"I think we stuck with 'Property Brothers' last night," he said.
It wasn't the first time they'd had their backs against the wall. Just six days earlier, in Texas, the Orioles had faced an elimination game, with the same expectations working against them and the same starter, Joe Saunders, on the mound.
"We've got to win a game," said manager Buck Showalter, refusing to acknowledge the tension of the moment. "New York doesn't have a corner on pressure. There's a tough, tough environment in Texas, tough environment for the Yankees in Baltimore. That's why these guys do what they do."
McLouth said the experience of the Texas game would help the team. "That was kind of weird, to have the first game of the playoffs be a do-or-die game, but that's exactly what it was," he said. "I didn't sense any nerves or apprehension by anybody."
He was certainly correct in predicting that the Orioles wouldn't just roll over. Their refusal to do so will stand as the story of the 2012 season.
Fans from the Baltimore area arrived in New York Thursday hoping to see another Orioles comeback but fully aware that they might witness the final stop of a thrilling ride.
"It's easily the best baseball season I've ever seen," said 25-year-old Jonathan Robbins of Perry Hall.
"They haven't been in the playoffs since I was 9," said his friend and traveling companion from Perry Hall, Jason Flood. "I hope this isn't the last night, but if it is, you can't complain."
Ryan Airey of Canton was at the famous Orioles-Yankees game in 1996 where 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier interfered with a Derek Jeter fly ball that was ruled a home run.
"It's time for payback," he said Thursday as he surveyed Orioles players warming up at the new Yankee Stadium.
Asked what they expected, he and his buddy, Kevin Kyle of Dundalk, said simultaneously, "I think we'll win."
Their confidence was a testament to the faith the 2012 Orioles have come to inspire. The 14 straight losing seasons, all the defeats in New York, are forgotten. Fans believe no situation is too nerve-racking, no defeat too daunting.
Asked his favorite thing about this team, Flood said simply: "They battle."