Since the start, these Orioles have been wildly unpredictable -- and I mean that in a good way -- which is why they will go down as one of the most lovable teams in Baltimore sports lore. But there have been a few constants for a team that probably had to play name games once a week to stay familiar with an endless parade of new faces.
There was Buck Showalter, the manager who has mostly made all the right moves. There was Adam Jones, who brings toughness and swagger every night. There was Matt Wieters, who has been a rock behind the plate (and who should be next in line to get a Jones-like contract extension). And then there was the bullpen.
The bullpen, built through shrewd trades and bargain-bin signings, quickly emerged as one of the best in baseball, and held up throughout the season despite a revolving door in the Orioles rotation. The relievers were the primary reason that the Orioles had the best record ever (29-9) in one-run games and hadn't lost an extra-inning game since dropping consecutive ones to the New York Yankees in the first week of the season.
The bullpen was among the things you could count on every night.
But this morning, after the Yankees beat the Orioles in 12 innings last night, hoards of sleepy O's fans stumbled to work, still stunned the bullpen did not come through in the clutch, as was expected.
"It breaks your heart," said rookie starter Miguel Gonzalez, who allowed one run in seven innings in his postseason debut. "But we've been doing great. Can't complain, the guys have been battling all year. But things happen. It's part of baseball."
The Orioles trail the hated Yankees, 2-1, in the American League Divisional Series after Raul Ibanez, who replaced Alex Rodriguez as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, slugged his way into Yankees and Orioles lore with solo shots against closer Jim Johnson in the ninth and fellow reliever Brian Matusz three innings later.
Johnson's blown save came three days after the Yankees broke open a 2-2 tie with five runs on him in the ninth inning.
In 10 innings this postseason, the Orioles bullpen has allowed seven runs, with six of them coming off Johnson. The closer has been rocked for a pair of critical home runs after giving up just three all season. Johnson, who won't back down from a challenge or adversity, says that his command has been the issue.
"I feel like it is just location. I feel the same I've felt the 162 games before that. It's just one of those things that just happens," he said. "And like everything that happens, it gets magnified in the playoffs."
The Orioles aren't out of it yet, but they have given themselves quite the degree of difficulty. To advance, they must win a pair of games at Yankee Stadium and Yankees ace CC Sabathia is looming, if necessary, for a decisive Game 5 in the Bronx.
And they are going to have to do it with an Orioles bullpen that will be running on fumes and adrenaline. Johnson has pitched in every game this postseason and has thrown 68 pitches over 4 1/3 innings since last Friday. Matusz, the former starter turned lefty specialist, and Darren O'Day, the nearly-unhittable sinkerball pitcher, have also pitched in each of the past four games. We will probably see all three again tonight. In the postseason, especially in a win-or-go-home situation, there are no rules when it comes to overworking your best relievers. Everyone is available tonight, though that doesn't mean they will be at peak performance.
"Jimmy is a big-hearted talented guy that, believe me, we'd be at home watching without people like Johnson," Showalter said. "He's a special guy. We're real proud of him and you'll see him again tomorrow night, I hope."
What, did you think that Showalter was going to stray away from his one of his best pitchers now? Now that would be unpredictable.
Blogger's note: Thanks to Orioles reporter Dan Connolly, one of our guys who made the trip to New York, for providing these quotes.