Orioles so close, and yet so far

It was fitting, if nothing else, that a game and a playoff series between two evenly matched division foes — rivals who split their regular-season series (with only two runs separating them over 18 games) and battled down to the final day of the season for home-field advantage — may have come down to a matter of inches, fair or foul.

Baltimore Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth stepped to the plate in the top of the sixth inning of Friday night’s ALDS Game 5 against the New York Yankees, his team trailing 1-0. And after working Yankees starter CC Sabathia into a 3-1 count, McLouth belted a Sabathia offering, sending it hooking down the right-field line.

What happened next is still up for debate — and will be for quite some time.

The initial call on the field was a foul ball, and McLouth, afterward, said he agreed in real time, though he admitted that he hadn’t yet watched a replay. Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters said he thought the ball sailed directly over the top of the foul pole. Orioles starting pitcher Jason Hammel said he thought it was fair, and Baltimore supporters will assure you the ball nicked the foul pole; Yankees diehards will inform you that it didn’t.

O’s manager Buck Showalter wasn’t sure what he thought, but he knew it was close enough to cause a stink. And in the end, the umpires, after a video review, determined the pivotal play in question to have been merely a long strike two.

Then McLouth, Baltimore’s hottest hitter to that point in the divisional series, struck out on the next Sabathia pitch, ending the inning and thwarting the Orioles’ momentum just as quickly as they thought they had gained it. He’d strike out again later with one out and the bases loaded in the top of the eighth, spoiling a chance at redemption.

In short, it was that kind of series for Baltimore, which went on to lose Game 5 by a score of 3-1, putting an early end to the team’s first playoff appearance since 1997. And McLouth’s home run that wasn’t seemed a fitting metaphor for a series that no one expected the Orioles to be in to begin with.

Baltimore, which hit .256 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, went 3-of-22 in such situations in three games on the road during the ALDS.

And their best hitters, for the most part, simply stopped hitting altogether. The team batted .187 for the series, with Jim Thome (1-for-12), Adam Jones (2-for-23), Manny Machado (2-for-16), J.J. Hardy (3-for-22), Wieters (3-for-20) and Mark Reynolds (3-for-19) all on the south side of that average.

Then there’s the curious case of closer Jim Johnson, who was nearly perfect in the regular season, but had an ERA above 10.00 in four ALDS appearances.

If any one of those once-sure bets goes the Orioles’ way against New York, it’s a whole different series, and Baltimore is headed to Detroit for Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday. Instead, the O’s find themselves on a bus back home, wondering what could have and should have been.

“It’s easy to do that, and say, ‘If I had this chance again,’ but that’s a bunch of ifs, ifs, ifs,” said Jones, who was the team’s best everyday hitter, with a .287 average and 32 home runs in the regular season, before his postseason collapse.

“Reality doesn’t work with ifs; in reality you cant go back in time. A lot of us would love to go back and change things, but we laid it out on the line. We gave it our all. We went out there and when we stepped out on that field there was not one excuse made.”

Added McLouth: “Those guys have carried the team at different points and it’s obvious that we wouldn’t be here without them. But it’s one of those things, the bats kind of went dry at a tough time. Even so, we found ourselves in a fifth game here and just weren’t able to come through.”

In the Orioles’ defense, the Yankees are the Yankees — higher paid, more experienced, always favored — and they played a heck of a series while they battled through a bevy of their own hitting issues. More specifically, Sabathia proved to be every bit the ace he’s advertised to be, allowing just three earned runs in 17-2/3 innings pitched in the ALDS.

“If you’re going to lose, he’s a pretty good guy to lose to,” Reynolds said. “It stings, and we’re going to remember it, and next year we’re going to come out fighting and be ready to roll for 162.”

That forward-thinking attitude was hard to miss in the Baltimore clubhouse Friday, and though the team left Yankee Stadium losers, they hardly looked or sounded the part — hugging and congratulating each other on a season well played.

“I thought we had a tremendous year,” said Thome, the Orioles’ elder statesman at age 41. “You look at our ballclub, I think we brought a lot of excitement to Baltimore. We had a lot of good young players who stepped up and put baseball back in a good way on the map in Baltimore.”

And don’t expect it to go anywhere, either. The Orioles team that came just inches short Friday night will, for the most part, be the same group that reconvenes in Florida next spring.

Baltimore will have to make a decision regarding Reynolds’ $11 million option for next season, and it remains to be seen whether McLouth will return to the team as a free agent. Thome said his future is still up in the air, with retirement always an option, and the team could afford to solidify the second base position.

But other than that, the same core will be back for 2013 — and ready to make amends.

“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,” Showalter said of his club. “It was about them. They cared about pleasing their teammates and playing to a certain standard.”

Said Jones: “It’s kind of like now anything else is a failure. We got here once, and now we need to repeat it. We’ve got that hunger to get back here.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.