It all comes down to Game 5 for Orioles, Yankees

With 13-inning win in Game 4, Orioles force winner-take-all game in American League Division Series

NEW YORK — The Orioles have done the improbable so many times this year that it's starting to seem commonplace, so why wouldn't they suddenly be standing on the threshold of the American League Championship Series?

They managed to sneak out of the Bronx on Thursday night with another in their amazing collection of extra-inning victories and have set up the delectable possibility of another wild and crazy champagne celebration Friday in the bowels of Yankee Stadium.

It's hard to imagine anything matching the full-contact free-for-all that took place at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington last Friday night, but it's also impossible to predict how an Orioles team will react if they vanquish their most storied rival in the stadium that is considered by many to be the center of the baseball universe.

Of course, all they have to do to win the Division Series is follow up their taut, 13-inning victory in Game 4 with a similar performance against Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who was the winning pitcher in Game 1 and has won five of his last six decisions in postseason play. The Orioles will counter with right-hander Jason Hammel, who also pitched very well in the series opener even though he had gone almost a month between starts because of lingering knee soreness.

Maybe this best-of-five playoff series was always destined to come down to a climactic fifth game, but you never would have known that just 22 hours earlier, when the Orioles were reeling from a heart-breaking extra-inning loss that included two ultra-dramatic home runs by late-inning substitution Raul Ibanez.

If ever a young team had reason to fold up its sanitary socks and sleepwalk through Game 4, it was the Orioles, who were just two outs away from taking a 2-1 advantage in the series when Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the tough decision to pinch hit Ibanez for slumping $29 million superstar Alex Rodriguez.

Everyone knows what happened next, but no one could predict how the Orioles would respond when they returned to the ballpark Thursday to fight for their postseason survival against a well-heeled opponent that had to be walking on air.

Manager Buck Showalter tried to minimize the psychological impact of that defeat during the pregame news conference Thursday, but there would be no way to really measure the effect of that deflating loss until the Orioles took the field for Game 4.

"We've been in this position before, and you know, we'll see how it turns out,'' Showalter said. "Our guys are the same — in a good frame of mind. I always take a little pulse check. Not a lot going on different. But no, I feel good about where they are mentally. It's not the first time that they've had a challenge this year."

He was hoping it would not be the last and his wish was granted because veteran pitcher Joe Saunders came up big for the second time in a "sudden-life" game, following up his victory over the Texas Rangers in the one-and-done wild-card round with another gutty 5 2/3 innings in a ballpark that is the sport's biggest pressure-cooker.

Throw in a fifth-inning home run by leadoff man Nate McLouth, another tour de force performance by the bullpen and some more of the Orioles' patented extra-inning mojo and they suddenly were alive again and looking forward to another chance to upend Sabathia, who threw a strong game Sunday night but did not pitch very well against the Orioles in his three regular season starts (though all of them were at Camden Yards).

Now, all they need is a little more of what they have been serving up throughout this surprising and uplifting season.

Call it Oriole Magic.

Call it Buck-ling Up.

Call it anything you want.

The Orioles proved their intestinal fortitude for the umpteenth time Thursday night and kept their title hopes alive for at least one more day.

What happens next is anybody's guess, but – as Showalter is so fond of saying – in a few hours your curiosity will be satisfied.

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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