TORONTO — The Orioles' season ended late Tuesday night at Rogers Centre on one swing – the cruelest of fates in the do-or-die elimination format of the American League wild-card game. But the fact that it ended without the Orioles using the best closer in the game made their sudden ending even more difficult to digest.
Edwin Encarnacion's three-run homer in the 11th inning gave the division-rival Toronto Blue Jays a 5-2 walk-off win and sent the Orioles into a cold winter with a lot of questions, the main one being how their season ended with closer Zach Britton -- owner of a minuscule 0.54 ERA in the regular season -- had to watch the ending in the bullpen unused.
Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, whose resurgence over the past six weeks was a major reason the club survived a grueling 162-game schedule to advance to the postseason on the regular season's final day, was the Orioles' seventh pitcher of the night in the 11th inning. And after allowing the first two hitters he faced to reach base, Jimenez threw a first-pitch sinker that didn't drop, and Encarnacion sent it into the second deck of seats in left field.
Manager Buck Showalter is known as one of the best game strategists in baseball, and the chess game of the winner-take-all wild-card format was made for him. But ultimately, he had to answer for why he didn't turn to Britton earlier, a question that might be asked in Baltimore for years to come.
On his way to his postgame news conference, Showalter was forced to walk past the Blue Jays clubhouse, where cameramen and reporters wore rain gear waiting to walk into a celebration.
"I considered a lot of things during the course of the game, but our guys did a good job getting us to that point," Showalter said. "We just couldn't finish it off. There's so many different things that go on. You can use Zach Britton in the seventh and eighth and not have anybody to pitch the last inning. So there's a lot of risk taken every inning, every pitch. You take that on when you get in this format."
Before Jimenez entered the game, five Orioles relievers held the Blue Jays scoreless for six innings. They needed three inning-ending double plays to get there, but up until the end, it seemed like every one of Showalter's chess moves worked.
Britton warmed up three different times, but watched the bullpen empty while his name went uncalled. He even shared the bullpen warmup mounds with Jimenez, who hadn't pitched in relief since Aug. 19 and had a 7.56 ERA as a reliever in his career, and saw him get into the game.
"Who's going to anticipate giving up a home run and losing a game like this?" Jimenez said. "Never. It's part of the game. I tried to do the best I could, especially as a reliever. It didn't happen. … It was very difficult. You never want to end up our aspiration like that. We worked really hard the whole year, but to lose that game, it's never going to be easy. It's part of the game."
But even after Jimenez put runners at first and third with one out, Britton's power sinker – and the closer's unheard-of 80-percent ground-ball rate this season – seemed like the Orioles' best choice for getting out of trouble.
"I was expecting it in certain situations, maybe if there was an opportunity for a double-play ball in a big situation, whether or not we were ahead, behind or whatever," Britton said. "Coming into today they told me to be ready to go, multiple innings if need be. And like I said, I was prepared."
Showalter has always been a master of keeping his bullpen arms healthy and putting them in positions to succeed. That has been a key to the Orioles' resurgence over the past five years, which include three playoff berths.
But there were times when he held back on late-inning arms such as Britton and Brad Brach, deciding not to pitch them late in the season without a lead.
Just three days earlier, he stuck with starter Wade Miley into the seventh inning after the left-hander had thrown 99 pitches. And Miley allowed a game-tying homer in the seventh, turning the momentum in an eventual 7-3 loss.
But Showalter's decision to not use Britton was his most baffling move, especially given the fact that the manager had counted on Britton to give him 1 2/3 innings in Sunday's regular-season-finale win.
"It was frustrating, but that's not my call," Britton said. "The guys ahead of me threw really well. Ubaldo has thrown great recently, so there was no doubt in my mind he was going to go out there and throw some zeros. They've got the best part of their lineup coming up and you knew eventually one of these teams were gonna score. Let's be honest about it. With the numbers we've put up, both sides."
There was no surer choice than Britton, who was enjoying a historic season. He was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities. He allowed just four earned runs over 67 innings this season and allowed just one earned run in 58 appearances since the end of April.
Asked after the game whether he regretted leaving his best reliever in the bullpen, Showalter said, "You can do [that] afterwards, yeah."
"We went for about four innings there trying to get that spot. It crosses your mind from about the sixth inning on. … We wanted to have a strong Zach and have him there in case the game goes extra innings. There's so much more to that game."
Showalter didn't hesitate to go to his bullpen early – as is expected in the one-game series format – pulling Chris Tillman in the fifth inning after 74 pitches. Matching up with his relievers was easy, especially early, since the Blue Jays stacked the top of their lineup with six right-handed hitters and had their only two lefties in the bottom third.
While the Orioles bullpen locked down the Toronto offense, the visitors' bats were silent. The Orioles' only runs came on Mark Trumbo's two-run homer in the fourth inning, and they were hitless in their final 17 plate appearances.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
"The luxury on the road is that if you can hold them until you get a lead, we can then get [Britton] in there and win the game that way," catcher Matt Wieters said. "It's different at home. Once you have the lead, the game's over. I'm sure we were planning on scoring a run and getting him in there, we just couldn't score a run."
Said Trumbo: "This was as action-packed as you could have hoped for. … And that's kind of the nature of a one-game playoff. One side is going to go home pretty angry."
The end happened quickly. Encarnacion dropped his bat and raised his arms immediately after making contact, punching the Blue Jays' ticket into the American League Division Series. Wieters stood from his crouch and walked to the dugout. Left fielder Nolan Reimold barely moved, turning to watch the ball disappear into the stands along with the Orioles' playoff dreams.
"Hell of a season," center fielder Adam Jones. "I couldn't be more proud of everybody here, disappointed that we aren't going on, going to Texas, but to say that I'm not extremely happy that we played a hell of a season, got ourselves in here, we're one of the last teams in baseball while everybody else is at home, it says a lot about the character in this clubhouse, the tenacity from guy to guy.
"We lost tonight. It was a great game, 2-2 until the three-run home run. Overall, we played a hell of a game. … They all sting unless you win it, right? But, I think that … it sucks to lose on the road. It's all loud, but it doesn't matter where you lose, you lose."