|Not much in the way of rings or star power here, but these Orioles have learned how to win. (AP)|
BALTIMORE -- The exuberant Orioles fans at Camden Yards were all handed white towels to wave, but it certainly didn't represent a symbol for their team, which has plenty of fight left, it turns out. The hometown Birds, showing characteristic pluck and poise, is back even with the $200 million neighbors to the north, the most surprisingly common position all year.
The Orioles head to New York with a real chance against the despised Yankees in the Division Series after beating Andy Pettitte, the winningest pitcher in postseason history, and a Yankees team with possibly five Hall of Famers in its lineup -- the latest in a string of improbable accomplishments during the Orioles' impossible season. Buck's boys lack glamour or name recognition, but they believe.
And why not?
After 165 games (164 by the Yankees, to be exact), the two teams are again all square, tied with three games to go in the Division Series, thanks to a big performance by unheralded Taiwanese import Wei-Yin Chen and the usual collection of contributions by the lesser known, the low paid and the underrated in the Orioles' 3-2 Game 2 victory here.
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Perhaps the night's biggest surprise, though, was the lefty Chen outdueling Pettitte before everyday Darren O'Day, then Brian Matusz and Jim Johnson of the Orioles' shutdown pen closed out their first home postseason victory in 15 years. Johnson's final three outs in gaining the save were, in order, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Alex Rodriguez, who might all be more assured of making Cooperstown than the ALCS now.
"It was obviously a frustrating game, one you hate to lose," Pettitte said. "I felt really good early and pretty suspect after that."
Throw out the two-run third when the Orioles strung four hits and a walk and actually Pettitte turned in one pretty successful evening, as he managed to pitch into the eighth inning but fell to 19-11 lifetime in the postseason. Typically, the Orioles who beat him weren't the ones you would guess.
The twice-released Nate McLouth had another big hit for the Birds. And so did pesky No. 9 hitter Robert Andino, who made the play of the day by spearing an Alex Rodriguez liner and turning it into a double play after Jeter and Suzuki reached to start the game.
The Orioles, who finished 20 games over .500 during the regular season in one-run games, did it again in a victory that was absolutely necessary. Miracles are one thing, but sweeping the Yankees in the Bronx isn't something anyone wants to face. It's only one win, but much better, as the Orioles head to New York with hope, knowing they won two out of three in all three series played there this season.
"We know it's a tough task ahead of us, but you like the mathematics of it after tonight," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's one win closer to winning three."
For the O's, it's a story of luck, pluck and Buck, the mellowing genius in the Orioles' manager's office who started as the Yankees' manager two decades ago and must be enjoying this more than he'll let on. The Orioles are talking more confidently than one might imagine, and why shouldn't they? Beyond going 6-3 in the Bronx, they won the biggest game of the year at Texas. "We've played pretty well in a hostile environment," the Orioles' Johnson noted.
They've overcome a talent gap, as well.
The remarkable Pettitte, who overcame a broken foot, a year off and 39 other years (he's 40), turned in a mostly vintage performance. But the upstart Orioles, who won't quit, overcame a tough start, using a two-run hit by Chris Davis to put them ahead to stay after Ichiro Suzuki's fancy footwork on a play at home in which he stepped away from and then over Orioles catcher Matt Wieters after Cano's double into the right-field corner chased the elusive Ichiro from third.
According to Orioles people, Wieters was quite annoyed that Ichiro was able to slip past him and touch the bag even though Wieters received the ball in plenty of time. But afterward, he was able to discuss the miss. "I thought I had him the second time," Wieters said. "But somehow he made another move the third time."
But even with Ichiro and all his Cooperstown-bound teammates (the Yankees' first four hitters in their lineup are likely Hall of Famers while their No. 6 hitter is, too, and their 8 hitter swatted 43 home runs this year), the Orioles are making the team they love to hate here sweat. The Yankees even looked oddly shaky on a couple plays, as the normally unflappable Jeter made one error and the usually flawless-fielding Mark Teixeira made another.
The game had regrettable plays on both sides. Even beyond the Wieters missed tag, the Orioles' J.J. Hardy was decked out by third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who faked like he was going to receive the ball, causing Hardy to ignore third-base coach DeMarlo Hale and remain at third rather than run home on an Adam Jones single that should have scored him.
"Sometime you hope for a miracle, and we got one there," Rodriguez said.
No one, of course, would suggest the Yankees are the team in need of a miracle, not when more than half their lineup is comprised of perennial All-Stars. Of course, at some point they would just be happy to get a couple hits with runners in scoring position. As is the story of their season, they left 10 more men on base in Game 2.
If the Yankees were too dependent on the home run this year, they might also be a bit over-reliant on their best player Robinson Cano, who finished the season an extraordinary 23 for 39. Showalter even had lefty reliever Matusz intentionally walk the lefty-swinging Cano so Matusz could face the switch-hitting Nick Swisher in a crucial juncture. The unorthodox move worked as Matusz retired Swisher, continuing the Yankees' season-long story of wasted chances.
"I believe these guys are going to come through," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I believe they're going to break through. I believe in them."
The two teams are now 10-10 against each other for the year, as the effect of the big names seems to just about have worn off. Neither side seemed especially thrilled with the strike zone of home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez, and at one point an Orioles employee, in reference to the great Pettitte and the calls, blurted out, "You know, our guys have bubble-gum cards, too."
They also have one heck of a story they are working on this year.