Orioles rookie third baseman Manny Machado was a 4-year-old when Baltimore and the New York Yankees last met in the postseason.
In case the kid needs a quick history lesson, left-hander David Wells won a game for Baltimore, Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry homered for the Yankees, and a youngster named Jeffrey Maier stuck his glove in the middle of the whole thing.
The 1996 AL championship series was a lifetime ago for many Orioles fans and a rather meaningless event in the development of Machado, now 20 and a key player in Baltimore’s improbable, magnificent 2012 season.
Sixteen years after the Yankees ousted the Orioles from the playoffs and advanced to the World Series, the teams resume their rivalry Sunday night in Game 1 of the AL division series. It will be Baltimore’s first home postseason game since 1997.
The Orioles spent much of the season chasing New York in the AL East, and now they have an opportunity to get the better of the Yankees in a far more significant scenario. After New York swept a three-game set in Baltimore in April, the Orioles rebounded to forge a split of the 18-game season series.
”We’ve played those guys a lot this year. We know what they’ve got, they know what we’ve got,” Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds said. ”It’ll come down to a big pitch or a big at-bat.”
Or, the outcome could be influenced by a fan in pursuit of a souvenir. In the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS, Maier stuck his glove over the right-field wall and appeared to rob Tony Tarasco of the chance to catch a deep fly hit by Derek Jeter. Umpire Rich Garcia called it a home run, and the Yankees won in extra innings en route to capturing the series 4-1.
Jeter and Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, who won the decisive fifth game of that series, have been to many playoff series since. In this one, they enter as part of a team that went 14-4 down the stretch to finish with the AL’s best record.
And yet, the Yankees open the series on the road.
”That’s the topic of discussion right now but, you know, this is a one year thing and we’re going to have to win some games on the road most likely anyway if we make it to the promised land,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. ”We’re not going to complain about starting the first two on the road.”
And the Orioles? Well, they’re delighted to be playing in front of their home fans, but really, they’re just happy to be playing at this time of year – period.
After their abrupt exit from the postseason in 1996, the Orioles returned in 1997. Fourteen straight losing seasons followed before they put together an unimaginable 93-69 record this year under former Yankees manager Buck Showalter. For an encore, Baltimore beat the Texas Rangers and their best pitcher Yu Darvish 5-1 on Friday night in the one-game, win-or-go-home wild-card round.
The Yankees’ first-game starter will be ace CC Sabathia (15-6, 3.38 ERA). The big left-hander came into the season 16-2 versus the Orioles and 10-1 in Baltimore, but that was against the old Orioles. This year, he went 0-2 in three starts at Camden Yards.
”Adam Jones has gotten a lot better, obviously; Mark Reynolds has gotten adjusted to the American League and is swinging the bat well,” Sabathia said Saturday before the Yankees’ workout at Camden Yards. ”(Matt) Wieters has gotten better over the years, so they’ve just gotten a bunch of talented guys that have gotten a lot better and they’ve made it tough on me.”
On Sept. 8, Sabathia yielded five runs and eight hits, including three homers, in 6 1/3 innings. That prompted questions about his health, and Sabathia insisted he was fine.
He proved it in his final three starts of the regular season, going 2-0 while allowing four runs and 13 hits in 24 innings.
Showalter has selected Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.43) to start on the mound for the Orioles, even though the right-hander has pitched only twice since July 17 and not since Sept. 11. Hammel had surgery on his right knee in July and returned to pitch in two games before experiencing pain in the same knee.
”No concern with the knee,” Hammel said. ”First and foremost, I want to thank Buck for having the confidence in putting me back out there in such an important situation.”
Hammel was 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA on June 22. He lost his next four starts, in part because the knee was becoming a problem, and he went on the disabled list after making an early exit from a game in Detroit on July 13.
He pitched a simulated game Monday and a bullpen session Friday, and said both sessions went well.
”He’s not so far removed. It’s not a pitch count thing or anything,” Showalter said. ”The challenge is going to be the Yankees, and they’ll let us know how he’s pitching. We’re excited about the possibility of getting him back.”
The Yankees will have Pettitte follow Sabathia in Game 2, with Hiroki Kuroda starting Game 3 at Yankee Stadium and Phil Hughes pitching Game 4.
Girardi weighed pitching two lefties in a row against giving Kuroda more days off and getting Pettitte on the mound sooner; he last pitched Sept. 29.
”We just felt that the extra rest would probably help him,” Girardi said of Kuroda. ”We don’t want Andy to go too long without throwing, so it’s kind of those two factors.”
Showalter is leaning toward rookies Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2 and Miguel Gonzalez in Game 3 depending on the weather Sunday. If there’s a rainout things could change, he said.
New York comes in as the favorite, but that means nothing to the Orioles. Getting a fine start from August addition Joe Saunders, Baltimore knocked off the two-time defending AL champs on Friday night in Texas.
”The Rangers were the consensus favorite to win the American League, and for us to come out of nowhere was pretty awesome,” reliever Darren O’Day said. ”We were picked to finish in the basement in the AL East. The only guys who believed in us were the guys in our clubhouse. We just kept playing.”
And so, the Orioles will keep playing well into October.
”People thought we’d be making tee times right now,” O’Day said.
NOTES: Yankees OF-DH Andruw Jones says he will not be on the roster for the division series. … Showalter says INF Wilson Betemit (right wrist) took batting practice and felt good, and that he could be a factor when finalizing the roster.