Coming into Wednesday night’s ALDS Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, the Baltimore Orioles were 16-2 in extra-inning games on the year — a blemish-free 16-0 against everyone but the New York Yankees, and 0-2 against the one team standing between them and their first playoff series win in 15 years.
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Make that 0-3.
In one of the most improbable postseason finishes in baseball history, Raul Ibanez hit a pinch-hit solo home run off of Baltimore closer Jim Johnson to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, then hit lefty Brian Matusz’s first pitch of the 12th deep into the right-field stands, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win and a 2-1 series lead.
But the game’s ending wasn’t stunning just because Ibanez, who entered the game in place of the struggling Alex Rodriguez, became the first player in postseason history to hit two home runs in the ninth inning of a game or later (though the feat and the riot it incited were pretty spectacular). Rather, the conclusion of the game, much like the end of Baltimore’s Game 1 loss at Camden Yards, was so indescribably surreal because losing games this way — when the margin for error is zero — simply isn’t the Orioles way.
Winning games under pressure is what got O’s manager Buck Showalter and his club to this point in the first place. Relying on the All-Star Johnson, who had a league-high 51 saves in 54 chances and allowed just one earned run in his final 24 regular-season innings, is largely the reason Baltimore was 29-9 in one-run games. This is an Orioles team that had a 3.00 bullpen ERA that only got lower as games went on. Baltimore pitchers combined for a 2.07 ERA in the ninth inning or later this year and the team went 74-0 in the regular season when it led after seven innings. The O’s went 11-0 in extra-inning games on the road.
The Orioles simply don’t do what they did Wednesday night, and now they’ve done it twice in three games. So yeah, it was weird.
That said, Showalter wasn’t going to let the shock linger too long. The Baltimore skipper, who may well be named manager of the year for the third time in four career coaching stops, has been around too long for much of anything to catch him off guard.
“Stunned? No,” Showalter said when asked about his reaction to the ending. “Stunned left me a while ago. I’ve got a grip on how hard this is to do. The problem with a lot of coaches and managers, they forget about how hard the game is to play and how tough a night they’ve had on given times.”
Unfortunately, through three games of this series, Baltimore has made just about everything look hard, and that’s what’s got the Orioles players with their backs against the wall. It’s easy to point the finger at Johnson, who now has a loss and a blown save, but he’s certainly not the only player in that clubhouse who has disappointed.
Aside from the starting pitchers, who have allowed just four earned runs in three games — including a masterful playoff debut by rookie Miguel Gonzalez, who allowed just one earned run on five hits in seven innings Wednesday, striking out eight — nearly everyone has struggled.
In the third inning of Game 3, center fielder Adam Jones misplayed a deep fly ball off the bat of Derek Jeter for a triple to drive in Russell Martin. After the game, Jones copped to his mistake and the impact it had.
“I’m not satisfied that I didn’t catch the ball,” Jones said. “To make an excuse, that wouldn’t be me. I point-blank missed the ball. I don’t know what happened. I thought it was where it was going to be and thought wrong, and it cost the team a run.”
More importantly, the middle of the Orioles lineup has been atrocious at the plate, with Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy, catcher Matt Wieters and DH Jim Thome combining for just four hits in 46 at-bats during the series. Against a team like the Yankees, who finished second in the league in runs scored with 804, an average of nearly five per game, it’s tough enough to hang around when your best hitters are hitting — and nearly impossible when they’re not.
“We feel confident that it’s going to come that next AB; that’s the way you have to think in this game,” Wieters said, wistfully. “Put together good ABs, and eventually you’ll find some holes.”
The task of getting on base may get a little bit easier in Game 4 on Thursday against Yankees starter Phil Hughes, who was 2-2 with a 4.76 ERA in four starts against Baltimore this year and has allowed 20 earned runs in his past 34-2/3 innings pitched — including seven in his last 11 innings against the Orioles. But to say it will be easy would be giving the suddenly punchless Baltimore offense a little too much credit.
“Tee high, let it fly; that’s what Showalter has been telling us most of the year,” Jones said. “Let it go, let it rip, and what got you here, play that way and live with the results.”
In any case, the Yankees don’t expect another miracle like Wednesday’s to save them on Thursday, and they fully expect Baltimore to bounce back.
“They’ve been resilient all year,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I mean, I wouldn’t expect them to be any different. They played us tough all year. What are we now, we’ve played 21 games and there’s one game between us? So I would expect them to come back excited to play.”