For O's, fans, suspense comes down to the last day

The Yankees hold a one-game lead over the Orioles in the AL East

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Maybe after what happened at this time last year, we all should have known that the American League East race — and the Orioles' position in the postseason —would come down to the last scheduled day of the regular season.

Note the qualifier. Wednesday might not be the final day of the regular season if the stars, the Orioles and the New York Yankees line up in such a way as to force a climactic divisional showdown at Oriole Park on Thursday. It is certainly not out of the question after what happened Tuesday in St. Petersburg, but it may not be in the cards after another last-gasp Yankees comeback in The Bronx.

The Orioles somehow staved off a 15-strikeout performance by Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields to survive with a 1-0 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field. The Yankees, meanwhile, were battling to the very end against a stubborn group of Boston Red Sox who had looked so overmatched just the night before.

The Red Sox took a two-run lead into the ninth, but Raul Ibanez hit a dramatic home run to tie the game and then won it with a single in the 12th to guarantee that the Yankees will at least be tied for first place after Game No. 162 Wednesday night. Once again, the Orioles stood around the TVs in the clubhouse and had to watch another ninth-inning comeback – just as they did on the field Sunday when the Angels came back against the Rangers to prevent a champagne celebration at Camden Yards.

Someone asked closer Jim Johnson soon after he recorded his 51st save how the Orioles were able to hang together and hold on by their fingernails for so long.

“When you have an airplane scare," he laughed, “you bond really close."

Maybe after that emergency landing Sunday night it's hard to get too stressed out about a baseball game — even one that had so much possible postseason significance.

For pure suspense, both games were hard to beat. It also had to be hard to watch for the long-suffering Orioles fans who were wearing out their remote controls switching back and forth between Tropicana Field and Yankee Stadium.

Especially when Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine took out pitching ace Jon Lester after just 83 pitches and brought on former wild-armed Oriole Rich Hill to protect a one-run lead in the sixth inning.

Meanwhile at The Trop, Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez was just walking off the mound after delivering a terrific 61/3-inning performance during which he held the Rays to no runs and just two hits.

Trouble was, nothing was close to being decided either in Tampa Bay or New York, and so much was at stake for the Orioles as they tried to hold onto such a slim lead against a very representative Rays lineup. None of the veteran Rays asked out of what had become a meaningless game when the Oakland A’s clinched at least a wild-card berth with a late-night victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday night.

Of course, that was in contrast to the lineups the Red Sox have been sending out to play in these playoff-sensitive late-season games, but they don't really have a lot of choice. Banged-up former AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and everyday center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury returned to the batting order after sitting out the series opener against the Yankees and each scored a run in the early innings to give the Red Sox that lead.

To be fair, Hill – who has has pitched well in limited duty this year for the Red Sox – held the Yankees scoreless in the sixth inning to maintain the suspense. And the the Red Sox bullpen made like the Orioles and would take a two-run lead into the ninth inning. That’s where the similarity ended.

The Orioles were all but overmatched by Shields, but he made one mistake and Chris Davis would have hit it all the way to Jacksonville if The Trop wasn't a domed stadium. He had to settle for driving it almost into the roof and landing it on top of the restaurant behind center field — 440 feet from home plate.

Then, as has happened time after time this season, Gonzalez teamed up with three Orioles relievers to produce total silence the rest of the way, with Johnson finally nailing down his club's 93rd victory with a scoreless ninth.

Now the Orioles have to do it all again tonight and hope that the Red Sox have one more trick up their sleeve against their most hated rival. The Orioles are going to the playoffs one way or another, but they still are holding out hope for the division title.

“I think we're just focused on just winning today,” Johnson said. “I know there are a bunch of different scenarios. We have to come out tomorrow and play with the same aggression we had today and grind it out and see what happens tomorrow.”


peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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