NEW YORK – Whether the path of Nate McLouth's towering fly ball was interrupted by the right-field foul pole at Yankee Stadium will likely be discussed in Baltimore for years to come.
But when it fell harmlessly into the second deck of seats as a foul ball, it was the beginning of the end to a season in which the Orioles forced the rest of baseball to take notice.
The Orioles' first postseason in 15 years ended with frigid bats on a cold New York night with a 3-1 loss to the Yankees in a do-or-die Game 5 of the American League Division Series.
A team that opened the season as a 75-1 long shot to win the pennant put itself one win away from playing in the AL Championship Series for the first time since 1997. Through 168 games, this group of Orioles thrived on the notion they were never out of a game — through 17 extra-inning truimphs and 31 one-run wins.
But when catcher Matt Wieters grounded out weakly to Yankees ace CC Sabathia for the final out in the top of the ninth inning, prompting a Yankees celebration at the mound, Orioles players remained leaning against the dugout railing, eyes transfixed on the field with "New York, New York" ringing in their ears.
Moments later, a fresh coat of paint was being applied to the postseason logos in front of both dugouts at Yankee Stadium. And manager Buck Showalter, who took the Orioles from the AL East cellar to the playoffs in his second full season, lost a fight with his emotions in his final postgame news conference of the season.
"It's not goodbye to this group, it's 'See you later,'" Showalter said, his words slow and his eyes glassy. "I am not going into what was said to them, but I am sure they now think it's a little tougher on me than them. But they are a special group. You don't know how many times you are going to pass this way.
"We'll see them again," Showalter continued. "It's been about as much fun as I have had in the big leagues, watching how they play the game every day, the standard they held themselves to and the way they raised the bar in Baltimore with each other."
A year after losing 93 games, the Orioles won 93 in the regular season, taking their chase for an AL East title down to the final day. Together, they relished the role of underdog and came to New York with plans of writing another chapter of Oriole Magic against the 27-time world champion Yankees, a team they split 22 meetings with heading into Game 5.
Instead they had to settle for consolation prize — the satisfaction of bringing baseball excitement back to Baltimore.
"Today, we put the postscript on a season where we improved more than any team in baseball," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "And we won 96 games, including three playoff games. We won a couple of playoff games before the end of the season. This team should be really proud of itself. We've a lot to look forward to ahead."
The momentum of Game 5 turned on McLouth's shot down the right-field line with two outs in the sixth with the Orioles trailing 1-0. The ball sailed into the second deck of seats hugging the outside of the foul pole and was ruled foul, prompting a collective gasp from the announced crowd of 47,081.
Right-field umpire Fieldin Culbreth called the ball foul. Replays shown on TBS' broadcast appeared to back that up, but one angle appeared to show the ball's trajectory change as it approached the foul pole. The umpires met to review the play and quickly upheld their call.
"I really do think it was a big momentum changer," said McLouth, who hit .318 (7-for-22) in the series. "They had just scored the half inning before and that would have tied it. But in the end, our downfall was we just weren't able to get the big hit this series like we had so often."
While the call would have tied the game, the Orioles' bats were silenced throughout the night by Sabathia, who held them to one run and four hits and struck out nine for a complete-game win. The big power bats of the Orioles, who were second to the Yankees in the AL in homers this season, froze during the entire series.
"[They're] a very good team that's going to be around for a long time," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said. "They pitch well, they hit well, the bullpen's deep. They do a lot of amazing things. You know it's not a Baltimore team that you've seen in the past. It's going to be a very good Baltimore team for a long time to come."
J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds were a combined 15-for-104 in the series and were 1-for-18 for the night.
"We didn't get it done," said Jones, who had a breakout season and was named Most Valuable Oriole. "No matter how you put it. You can say the pressure did this. Plain and simple, we didn't get it done."
The Orioles scored their only run in the eighth on Lew Ford's one-out single to left off Sabathia, which scored Wieters from second.
The O's loaded the bases after Robert Andino's infield single, but Sabathia bore down. He struck out McLouth on a nasty 1-2 slider and got Hardy to tap a roller that shortstop Derek Jeter charged and threw to first for the inning-ending out.
Orioles starter Jason Hammel retired the first 12 Yankees batters he faced until Severna Park native Mark Teixeira singled to open the fifth inning.
Teixeira, who had gone 35 postseason games without a stolen base, broke for second with Reynolds not holding him on first. Teixeira, who battled a calf injury late in the season, stole his first base since July 6 and his third of the year.
Raul Ibanez — the hero of Game 3 when he came off the bench for Alex Rodriguez to hit a pair of solo homers, the second one a walk-off in the 12th inning — singled to center to score Teixeira for the first run of the game.
After inducing a 6-4-3 double play from Nick Swisher, Hammel allowed a two-out single to Granderson. Granderson quickly stole second on Hammel, who seemed slow to the plate, but Hammel got Russell Martin to fly out to center to end the inning.
The Yankees added another run against Hammel in the sixth. Hammel issued a one-out walk to Jeter, which was followed by a double by Ichiro Suzuki that hit off the bottom of the right-center field fence and easily scored Jeter.
After Hammel struck out Robinson Cano looking and issued an intentional walk, left-hander Troy Patton entered to face the left-handed hitting Ibanez and struck him out swinging on a curveball in the dirt.
Hammel , who battled back from tweaking his right knee to pitch in the postseason, allowed two runs on four hits over 52/3 innings, striking out six.
Granderson, who entered the night with 1 hit in 11 at bats in the series, took Patton deep in the sixth for his 6th career postseason homer, a solo shot into the second deck in right that made it 3-0.
In the tunnels underneath Yankee Stadium, Showalter emerged from his postgame news conference and immediately congratulated Yankees manager Joe Girardi, wishing him the best.
In the Orioles clubhouse, where club managing partner Peter G. Angelos made another rare appearance, the players aimed to quickly put disappointment in the past, even though this one will linger until they regroup in Sarasota, Fla., in mid February.
"We made it to the playoffs and nobody expected that. We pushed the Yankees to five games," Reynolds said. "Nobody expected us to beat Texas on the road [in the wild-card game]. Overall, it's not the final result we wanted, but we're going to regroup and get ready for another 162."