Baltimore Orioles' Nate McLouth is congratulated by teammate Adam Jones after scoring against the Texas Rangers in the first inning of their MLB American League Wild Card playoff baseball game in Arlington, Texas October 5, 2012. (Reuters/TIM SHARP)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - A lot of folks thought Buck Showalter had lost his marbles by selecting Joe Saunders to start the Baltimore Orioles’ most important game of the last 15 years Friday.
A lot of folks were wrong.
In fact, a lot of folks might know baseball but not many of them know pitching like Showalter knows pitching. The O’s manager ignored Saunders’ 0-6 record with a 9.38 ERA in six starts in Arlington, and his 3-7 record with a 6.48 ERA in 11 career starts against the Texas Rangers and handed him the ball for Baltimore’s first postseason game since 1997.
The payoff was a masterful pitching job by the lefthander in shutting down the formidable Texas offence in a 5-1 wild card showdown victory that sends Baltimore into the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees.
“We talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death,” said Showalter, “and we played that way. You’ve got to seize the opportunity. And we don’t get many.”
Saunders helped send the two-time defending AL champions to the sidelines, working 5.2 innings, allowing six singles, making key pitches at critical moments along the way. Three of those six singles were wiped out by subsequent double-play balls.
After the Orioles broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the sixth inning, Saunders came back out for the bottom of the inning and got the first two outs. Despite the fact he still looked strong and effective, having thrown just 77 pitches, nobody questioned Showalter’s instincts when he immediately popped out of the dugout and went to his superb bullpen, bringing in sidearmer Darren O’Day. The Orioles have not won 94 games this year, including 29 of them by a single run, by having their manager stay one hitter too long with a starting pitcher.
“It’s all about the players,” said Showalter. “It was the entire team. In Our society, we want to hang the golden hero on somebody. It doesn’t fit in this case.
“With our team, it’s just a bunch of guys that raised the bar and wouldn’t give in, and still haven’t.”
This is a team without a superstar that has become greater than the sum of its parts. Neither GM Dan Duquette nor Showalter is shy about giving young, unproven players a chance, as evidenced by the fact that 18 of the 35 players who finished the season in uniform have played in the minors this year.
Showalter reasoned that Saunders, a veteran, was a very different pitcher than he was in 2009 when he last faced the Rangers. In effect, it would be like facing someone they had never seen before. Turns out, he was right. Again.
“It all starts with Saunders and the outing he gave us. I felt if he could get his feet on the ground, with all the emotion in the ballpark, that his experience would show.”
The leadoff hitters for both teams each scored in the first inning. Nate McLouth reached base for the Orioles on an error by Texas first baseman Michael Young, stole second and then promptly scored on a J.J. Hardy single.
In the bottom of the inning, Ian Kinsler walked, went to second on an Elvis Andrus single, then scored on a double-play ball hit by Josh Hamilton.
That’s the way things remained until J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis combined for Baltimore’s first back-to-back singles of the game, leading off the sixth inning against Texas starter Yu Darvish, who had allowed just two hits to that point.
That put runners at first and third for Adam Jones, who delivered the go-ahead sacrifice fly to right field.
After the Jones sacrifice fly, a mildly bizarre sequence occurred as Darvish called out the trainer because of some mild discomfort in his neck or back. Because Darvish speaks no English, his interpreter joined the trek to the mound, but was sent back to the bench by the home plate ump, Gary Darling.
The umpires immediately went into conference and eventually decided the interpreter could join the conversation on the mound. The bottom line was that Darvish stayed in the game and got Matt Wieters to pop up and Jim Thome to strike out to end the inning.
The O’s added an insurance run in the top of the seventh on a two-out single that scored pinch-runner Robert Andino from third base, sending Baltimore to the eighth inning leading by two.
After Kinsler reached base on an infield single, Brian Matusz came into the game to face slugger Hamilton in a pivotal at-bat - perhaps Hamilton’s last at-bat, ever, with Texas - and struck him out with three consecutive fastballs.
After Baltimore scored two more in the ninth, closer Jim Johnson, working with a four-run lead in a non-save situation, dismissed the Rangers in order.
In this magical season, the Orioles were 73-0 when taking a lead into the eighth inning. Now they are 74-0 and heading back home to face the Yankees Sunday in the opening game of a five-game Division Series.
And the Rangers? A team that led the AL West almost every day of the season, except on the all important last day; a team that lost five of its last six to blow a four-game lead, must now disappear into the offseason, wondering how it all went wrong.
“I always stay optimistic,” said Texas manager Ron Washington, “and when things like this happen, I am shocked. Right now, I’m shocked. What we have to do is think about what happened over the winter and how we can get better coming into next year.”