|Yankees ace CC Sabathia steps up vs. the O's, allowing two runs in 8 2/3 innings. (US Presswire)|
BALTIMORE – The upstart Orioles and their fans were loving their first home playoff date in 15 years, as Camden Yards rocked all night. Then the storyline became all too familiar for them.
In the end, the arch-nemesis Yankees spoiled the home team’s considerable fun. That's a tale they've seen before here, many times before.
Now the Orioles desperately seek an original ending for a season that’s been a storybook so far.
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Baltimore's all-night orange party was put on hold by a Yankees' ninth-inning outburst that started with a Russell Martin home run and silenced an all-Orioles crowd. The Yankees, thanks to Martin and his brilliant batterymate CC Sabathia, won Game 1 of their Division Series 7-2.
So suddenly, Baltimore's Cinderella season is in need of another miracle or three.
The Orioles played the Yankees even through 18 matchups during the regular season and eight innings Sunday night before the reality-raising 5-run Yankees outburst put a temporary crimp in Baltimore’s fairytale hopes or restored order, depending on one’s perspective. The victory, won as the clock struck midnight (the game was delayed by nearly two and half hours at the start, due to rain), put the favored Yankees into a commanding position over the Orioles, one of the greatest surprise stories in decades.
The Orioles fell into a tough spot with the loss, needing to win three out of four including at least two in New York over the Yankees, a $200 million team with as many as six or seven future Hall of Famers. Yet no one in New York can be sure how this will go, not after seeing the Orioles erase New York’s 10-game summer lead before the Yankees held on to win the AL East by two games.
"No one can count them out … no matter what," Yankees star Alex Rodriguez said. "Buck [Showalter] has those guys believing, and they’ve done a great job all year."
The crowd, which reveled in the rare October action here, was rocking before Martin’s home run to lead off the ninth against Orioles reliever Jim Johnson. Normally, there's a big Yankees contingent of fans at Orioles game here, less than a four-hour train ride from New York. But this was a special hometown occasion, the first playoff game here since the days of Davey Johnson, Robbie Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., who was up in the TV booth for TBS.
This Orioles team is more of the no-name variety.
Showalter, arguably the biggest star of Baltimore’s season, nicely mixed and matched the relievers through eight innings Sunday night, then logically called upon the infallible closer Johnson to start the ninth inning with the game tied. Martin, who rarely caught Sabathia’s outings during the season, lofted the home run into the left field pavilion to greet Johnson before a string of hits finished the Orioles.
Johnson’s fastball caught the fat part of the plate, and also Martin’s bat. "I didn’t hit it perfect, but it felt good off the bat," Martin said. "It looked like [left fielder Nate McLouth] just ran out of room."
Martin and Sabathia worked well together, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi sat Sabathia’s personal catcher Chris Stewart to opt for more offense. Martin and Sabathia seemed to be in synch all night.
Sabathia wound up going 8 2/3 innings and throwing 120 pitches, a performance befitting an ace, as he dueled O's starter Jason Hammel and five Orioles relievers. The Orioles knew they were in trouble as Sabathia kept his pitch count to a manageable number.
Sabathia's strength is a big edge for the Yankees. But there's good news for Baltimore: CC only gets one more start this series: "He's got to rest," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day, who pitched out of one of many jams, pointed out. "He can't pitch every night."
"CC's a tough guy to beat, obviously," the Orioles' Chris Davis said. "He stayed in there a little longer than we would have liked."
The same could be said about the Orioles’ staying power. Though the Yankees appeared to have the division wrapped up by early July, the anonymous Orioles kept plugging along.
One explanation for the Yankees' inability to put the Birds away this summer came from an Orioles person: "I think they were bored," that person surmised of the Yankees.
The other explanation, of course, is that the Orioles are a lot tougher than anyone ever imagined. The Orioles spoiled several Yankees chances on Sunday. With several Yankees running into outs on the basepaths, as is their way, the Orioles hung around.
It was easy to imagine them improving on their incredible record of one-run victories (they were 20 over .500 in one-run games during the season), or even extending their extraordinary 16-game winning streak in extra-inning games.
But Johnson, who became the 10th reliever to save at least 50 games in a season this year, just didn’t have it. Perhaps he showed his first a sign of weakness in their play-in wild-card win, and this time he was rocked, first by Martin’s homer, and then by four more hits and five runs (four earned).
The defeat left the Orioles in a familiar spot, looking up at the Yankees. But this is the same team that’s survived a lot, including that do-or-die playoff game on the road, at Texas.
O'Day, one of six pitchers used by Showalter in Game 1, called that Texas encounter "the most intense game I've ever been a part of. And games like that give the O's hope they are battle-tested enough to stare down the Yankees, who are a part of every October.
"Having gotten through that," O'Day said of the wild-card game, "we think we can do anything."