Big ninth sends Yanks past O's
By KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency
|New York Yankees' Russell Martin (L) is tagged out trying to score at home by Baltimore Orioles' catcher Matt Wieters in the seventh inning during Game 1 in their MLB ALDS playoff baseball series in Baltimore, Maryland October 7, 2012. (REUTERS)
BALTIMORE - BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Orioles lived off the strength of their bullpen throughout this magical season of revival. Sunday, in the franchise’s first playoff game since 1997, they died by that same vehicle.
Deadlocked 2-2 with the New York Yankees through eight tension-packed innings, the Orioles went to their most reliable reliever, Jim Johnson, for the ninth. All season, Johnson has been Mr. Automatic for the Orioles, saving 51 games but he imploded in this, his biggest assignment of the year. He was tagged with five runs on five hits, including a leadoff home run by Canadian-born catcher Russell Martin, in a 7-2 Yankee win.
Martin’s homer was all the Yankees needed to earn a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five American League Division Series but the Bombers piled on four more runs on three consecutive singles, a two-RBI double by Robinson Cano and a sacrifice fly by Nick Swisher.
CC Sabathia, who had vowed to make up for what he felt was substandard work on his part in last year’s playoffs, came within one out of a complete game, allowing eight hits and striking out seven to get his team off on the right foot in their quest for a 28th World Series championship.
“He gave us a great performance,” said Yankee manager Joe Girardi. “There weren’t many hard-hit balls off him tonight. It was his game to win or lose and he went out and won it for us.”
Leading off the top of the ninth, Martin, who had been thrown out at the plate trying to score in the seventh, looked at two balls from Johnson, then launched the next one on a high arc into the left field seats for his second career post-season home run.
It was Martin’s third game-winning home run of the season in the ninth inning or later.
“It’s one of those situations that I love to be in,” said Martin. “Some guys like to be in that moment and some guys don’t. I got myself into a good count and he left a pitch up. This is a guy who doesn’t make many mistakes and I was able to take advantage of one.”
Martin struggled with the bat all season but came alive in September when he hit seven of his 21 home runs and had an OPS of .886.
“Russell has been huge for us in September,” said Girardi. “He got off to a slow start for us this year but he came on strong.”
Orioles’ starter Jason Hammell pitched a strong 5.2 innings in only his third start since mid-July but his normally-reliable bullpen let him down in this one.
After a two-and-a-half hour rain delay, with Hammel making his first start since Sept. 11 because of a knee injury, the Yankees jumped out quickly. Derek Jeter led off the game with a single and then Ichiro Suzuki promptly scored Jeter with a double lined to the fence in left-centre.
That’s where the rally dried up for New York. Suzuki was gunned down trying to steal third and from there they didn’t get another base hit until Mark Teixeira singled off the right field wall in the fourth, missing a three-run homer by a couple of feet. As it was, the hit plated one run but Teixeira was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
Sabathia mowed down the first six Oriole batters but when they finally did break through, the O’s didn’t settle for just one. Chris Davis led off the third inning with a single into centre and then Lew Ford, the DH, rolled a broken-bat single into left. After Robert Andino sacrificed both runners along, Nate McLouth drilled a two-RBI single past Teixeira at first.
“As good as Sabathia was, I thought Jason and the guys who followed him matched him,” said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter.
Hammel left it all on the field in this one. With only 8.2 innings under his belt since July 13, he threw 112 pitches and was still dealing some nasty stuff in the sixth inning. He got Rodriguez and Cano on weak ground balls but gave up a single to centre by Nick Swisher with his final pitch.
The Yankees, with their experience and patience, are constantly trying to wear out the opposing starting pitcher, trying to get to the bullpen as quickly as possible. Where that strategy normally falls short against Baltimore is the simple fact that the bullpen is this team’s strongest feature.
Lefty Troy Patton got out of the sixth inning but in the seventh he opened the door a crack for the Yankees. In 56 innings this year, Patton has walked just 12 batters and never two in a row but that’s what he did to open the seventh. With Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez on base with free passes, Darren O’Day came on. Jeter sacrificed the runners along and Suzuki hit a sharp grounder to second baseman Andino who threw to the plate where catcher Matt Wieters made a superb one-hop catch and tagged out Martin. O’Day then struck out Rodriguez to end the threat.
Sabathia was a study in economy. He needed just 61 pitches to negotiate his way through the first five innings, allowing just six singles in the process and was at 95 pitches after getting through the seventh.
In the eighth, he faced his high-stress sequence of the night, allowing a leadoff double to J.J. Hardy. Then he struck out Adam Jones, got Wieters on a first-pitch pop-up and ended the threat with a weak groundball off the bat of Reynolds.
That set the stage for the Yankee ninth and Johnson’s meltdown.
“It’s tough,” said Showalter. “(Johnson) has done it all year for us and these things happen to a lot of good relievers. It just hasn’t happened to him until tonight.
“It’s real easy to put your trust in a guy like Jim Johnson. He’s a special guy. We like him wearing our uniform, no matter what his statistics are.”