Orioles head to Big Apple all tied with a gleam in their eye

Did you really doubt them?

Did you watch the New York Yankees run circles around the Orioles on Sunday night in the first game of the Division Series and just assume that the O’s would wilt at the first sign of the legendary Yankee mystique?

If so, you probably need to “Buckle Up,” because they’re headed for the Bronx all even in this best-of-five playoff and their World Series hopes are still very much alive.

The rest of this round will be played at Yankee Stadium, beginning with Game 3 on Wednesday night, but don’t let the address intimidate you because the Orioles probably won’t. They’ve been playing the Yankees tough there all season, winning two out of three games in each of the three regular season series in the Big Apple.

Of course, they played pretty well everywhere, finishing the regular season with the best road record in the American League (46-35) and the third-best in the majors.

“Just because you’ve been there, I don’t think anybody thinks that that’s any preclusion – a given on how you’re going to play,’’ said manager Buck Showalter. “I think our guys are very realistic and they understand the tough task ahead of them regardless of what’s happened in the past. I think all of that gets thrown out the window when you get in this situation.”

If you want another quick history lesson anyway, the Orioles also weren’t overmatched in their only other playoff appearance in the Bronx. They lost the American League Championship Series to the Yankees in 1996, but it wasn’t because of any inability to play on the road. They split the two games at Yankee Stadium, and their Game 1 loss was influenced by the infamous Jeffrey Maier controversy.

The big challenge Monday was bouncing back from the ugly bullpen blowup in Game 1, and the Orioles did it by outlasting the ageless Andy Pettitte, who came into the game with an astounding 27-6 lifetime record against them.

Actually, it shouldn't have been that big of a challenge for a team that has confounded the so-called experts and overcome every obstacle on the way to turning last year's 69-93 record upside down. The last time they hit a rough patch with their playoff prospects on the line during the regular season, they responded by winning six in a row to stay right on the heels of the Yankees in the AL East and clinch a wild-card berth.

They weren't playing the Yankees head-to-head, of course, but they did exhibit the same resilience they showed at midseason when they slipped almost back to .500 before recovering and matching the Yankees almost win-for-win in September.

When they were stifled by the Tampa Bay Rays' tough starting rotation during the final three games of the regular season, there was room to wonder just what the Orioles would do against the defending AL champion Texas Rangers on the road, but we all know how that turned out.

Showalter likes to say that this year’s team is “playing on house money.” No one outside their clubhouse seriously believed they would come anywhere close to this far, but catcher Matt Wieters said before Monday night’s game that the key for the Orioles has always been that they never looked that far ahead.

"It was not 'this is what we think we can do this year,'" Wieters said. "It was that we believed that if we go out there and just keep playing, no matter what your record is ... no matter how many games you've won or lost lately, you've got a chance to win that night."

That requires a very short memory, and the Orioles displayed that after suffering a very discouraging late-inning loss to the Yankees in Game 1 on Sunday night. They played solid postseason baseball for eight innings and then collapsed when closer Jim Johnson came into a tie game in the top of the ninth and surrendered five runs.

Now the series is even and their prospects suddenly seem promising again despite the supposed home-field disadvantage.

They'll send right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (9-4) to the mound for Game 3 and have reason to feel pretty good about that.

Gonzalez has been one of their most effective starting pitchers, and he has been particularly effective against the Yankees in the Bronx. He won his first start against them there July 30, giving up four runs over 62/3 innings, before pitching seven shutout innings in New York on Aug. 31 in one of his finest outings of the year. They were also his two performances of the season with the most strikeouts.

That's why Gonzalez was not the starter Monday night, even though he has been much more effective down the stretch than Wei-Yin Chen. Showalter could have started Gonzalez to try to improve the likelihood of a split of the first two games, but rightly figured that since both pitchers can go only once in this best-of-five series, the geographical implications of their performances mattered more than their order.

He's been right a lot this year, so there's no reason to start doubting him now.

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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