ARLINGTON, TEX. — The eyes of the baseball world turned to the long-suffering Baltimore Orioles and their unlikely path to the postseason as they played a do-or-die game Friday night in front of 46,931 rally-towel waving fans at the home of the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers. Much like they’ve done all season, the underdog Orioles showed how much fight they have.
They grinded out a 5-1 win at Rangers Ballpark to advance to the best-of-five American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, which begins Sunday evening at Camden Yards.
Manager Buck Showalter put the Orioles’ postseason hopes — and a lot of faith — in left-hander Joe Saunders, who entered the game with a 0-6 record in six career starts in Arlington and a 9.36 ERA. Saunders tightroped his way out of trouble throughout the night and allowed only run in 52 / 3 innings to earn the win.
Saunders, acquired Aug. 26 in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, allowed eight base runners before Showalter turned to his bullpen.
A former West Springfield and Virginia Tech pitcher who grew up rooting for the Orioles, Saunders had lost nine of his past 12 starts and was getting pinched out of Arizona’s starting rotation at the time of his trade. Yet he outpitched Japanese rookie right-hander Yu Darvish, whom the Rangers invested $111.7 million in this offseason.
The Orioles turned three critical double-play balls to help Saunders, tying their postseason club record for a single game set on Oct. 6, 1979 in Game 4 of the ALCS against the California Angels.
As Saunders left the game, he strolled into the Orioles dugout to a greeting full of high fives and a hug from pitching coach Rick Adair.
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead just two batters into the game. Rangers first baseman Michael Young booted a grounder off the bat of Nate McLouth on the first pitch. McLouth quickly stole second and then scored on J.J. Hardy’s seeing-eye single up the middle.
Saunders walked the first hitter he faced, second baseman Ian Kinsler, after he was ahead 1-2 in the count. Elvis Andrus followed with a single that put runners at first and third with no outs, but slumping slugger Josh Hamilton grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, which scored Kinsler from third to tie the score.
Hardy and Chris Davis led off the sixth inning with back-to-back singles to put runners at the corners, and Adam Jones’s sacrifice fly gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead.
The Orioles tacked on another run in the seventh. Rookie second baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a one-out single and was removed for pinch runner Robert Andino, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a wild pitch by reliever Derek Holland.
McLouth, one of the many reclamation projects who turned into a key member of the Orioles’ run to the postseason, then singled to give the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
In the top of the ninth, the Orioles added two more runs to their cushion. Jim Thome walked and Andino doubled to put runners on second and third. Manny Machado, the Orioles’ 20-year-old rookie third baseman, delivered an RBI single to left, and then McLouth hit a sacrifice fly.
Because baseball rules allow teams to reset their postseason rosters after every series, Showalter had 10 relievers at his disposal. Darren O’Day, who was claimed off waivers in early November and has emerged as one of the most dependable middle relievers in the game, ate up two innings before left-hander Brian Matusz struck out Hamilton to end the eighth. Jim Johnson finished it out, bringing postseason baseball back to Camden Yards for the first time in 15 years.
— Baltimore Sun
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