After a 15-year playoff drought and a pregame rain delay of almost 2½ hours, the Baltimore Orioles continued to tease their eager, orange-clad supporters into early Monday morning before falling, 7-2, to the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The first playoff game since 1997 for the unlikely postseason qualifiers ended in an similarly unlikely way in front of a season-high 47,841 fans, with major league saves leader Jim Johnson giving up five runs, four earned, in the top of the ninth inning of a game that had been deadlocked at 2 since the fourth.
New York catcher Russell Martin led off the ninth with a home run to left field off Johnson, who proceeded to give up another three consecutive hits to Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki.
Suzuki’s infield dribbler scored pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez for the fourth run, and with one out Robinson Cano delivered a two-run double to left field, also off Johnson. Nick Swisher added a sacrifice fly off Tommy Hunter.
“He’s been great for us all year and will be again,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said of Johnson. “Gave up, really, one hard-hit ball. It’s real easy to put your faith in a guy like Jim Johnson, not only as a pitcher but as a man. He’s the reason why we’re out there playing this game tonight, one of the big reasons.”
Johnson set the franchise single-season saves record with 51, becoming the fifth reliever in American League history to save at least 50 games. He had not given up a home run since June 5, a span of 48 appearances.
Baltimore had a chance to take the lead in the top of the eighth when J.J. Hardy sliced a ball just inside the right field line for a leadoff double. But Yankees starter CC Sabathia then set down Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds in order to preserve the tie.
In the bottom of the ninth, Sabathia retired the first two batters before giving up a double to Lew Ford. David Robertson struck out pinch-hitter Ryan Flaherty to end the game.
Sabathia entered the night in an odd statistical position — a 16-4 record with a 3.12 ERA in his career against the Orioles, but 0-2 with a 6.38 ERA in three starts against Baltimore this season, with the Orioles batting .312 off him.
Sabathia rediscovered that old magic, throwing 80 of his 120 pitches for strikes, with seven strikeouts and one walk. He gave up eight hits.
“I wish I could tell you I change my game plan, but I don’t,” Sabathia said. “I pitch to my strength, attacking in, and just going off my fastball command, and it was working today. The change-up was working really well. These guys know what I am trying to do. I’ve faced them a lot. I was able just to execute tonight.”
In losing the opener of the best-of-five series, the Orioles benefited from a strong, if laborious, starting outing from right-hander Jason Hammel, who was making his first appearance since Sept. 11, when he aggravated his right knee injury that was surgically repaired in July.
Hammel, whose first 10 decisions this season included eight wins, threw 112 pitches, 70 for strikes. He left the game after giving up a sharp two-out single to Nick Swisher with no one on in the sixth.
“Honestly, it took me into the third inning to where I felt strong and my timing was there and I felt like I was me again,” said Hammel, who left the mound to a rousing ovation. “As I got stronger, the command was better.”
Two of Hammel’s five strikeouts were inning-ending punchouts of Suzuki. Hammel walked four, one intentionally.
“Jason was great,” Showalter said. “As good as Sabathia was, Jason matched him.”
After a 146-minute rain delay that preceded the first pitch, the Yankees took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Derek Jeter bounced a leadoff single up the middle and scored when the next batter, Suzuki, lifted a double to the left-center field gap.
Sabathia retired the first six Orioles in order before giving up a line-drive single to right fielder Chris Davis to lead off the bottom of the third and a broken-bat single to designated hitter Lew Ford. Second baseman Robert Andino bunted them up a base for the first out. Two pitches later, left fielder Nate McLouth drove in both with a sharp single to right for a 2-1 lead
The Yankees tied the game in the fourth when first baseman Mark Teixeira drilled a shot off the right field scoreboard to score Alex Rodriguez from second. Teixeira was thrown out at second trying to stretch the hit into a double.