NEW YORK -- The Orioles’ entire season was so unlikely and so sustained, despite all the odds, that it seemed reasonable to wonder why, if they’d kept it up this long, they couldn’t keep it up just another week or two more. They made it this far with this group, no matter how much of that one-run record may have been owed to luck.
So why couldn’t they make it just a little bit longer?
The short answer to that question is not actually short: CC Sabathia, the Yankees’ ace. The American League’s other fairy-tale team, the A’s, ran into a similar bridge troll in Detroit’s Justin Verlander. Despite generally strong pitching staffs, neither Oakland nor Baltimore could get past its opponent’s biggest gun.
“We could have won the other three games,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
“[Sabathia] didn’t pitch all five, but it certainly felt like it, didn’t it? … We had very few opportunities against him. We had a shot there in the eighth, and he took it to another level, if there is such a thing.”
Jason Hammel pitched very well for the Orioles. No one made any damaging errors. Showalter didn’t have any cringe-inducing managerial blunders.
Sabathia just pitched better.
For a while, early in the game, given how extremely anemic both offenses had been all series, it seemed as if no one -- no Yankee, no Oriole and perhaps no other professional baseball player anywhere in the world, including the Japan League -- would ever score a run again. One began to imagine trying to explain to a puzzled grandchild how, many decades ago, baseball players had actually gotten “hits,” wherein they used the bat to make contact and strike a ball past fielders and …
But no. It started quietly enough for the Yankees in the fifth inning, with a Mark Teixeira single. Then Teixeira, who runs like he’s in a vat of Nutella even when not recovering from a calf injury, stole second base against the rocket-arm of Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters. You can hardly blame the Orioles for not expecting it, as Teixeira had stolen just two bases all year and 21 in his 10-year career.
“I was fired up,” said Raul Ibanez, Wednesday night’s star, who followed Teixeira. Was he surprised? “Everyone was surprised.” Ibanez then singled, giving the Yankees a one-run lead, and while they did not exactly go on a scoring spree, they were back in business. The next inning, Derek Jeter doubled and Ichiro Suzuki doubled him home. Curtis Granderson homered in the seventh. After Thursday, and the beginning of Friday’s game, it felt like an offensive explosion. And it was enough.
Nate McLouth’s near-homer -- called a foul, though whether it nicked the pole was tough to tell, even on HD replays -- got attention for being a potentially controversial decision, but for the Orioles, the eighth inning was the crux of this game.
They finally put a string of successful at-bats together against Sabathia, three hits and a walk. But he fought back from bases-loaded-and-one, striking out McLouth -- more or less the only player on either team who’d been hitting well before Friday -- and getting J. J. Hardy to ground out, reaching back to get his velocity up to 94, 95 mph as he passed 100 pitches. Verlander put on a similar show in Oakland.
Afterward, the Yankee clubhouse was a weird, plastic-wrapped nightclub for about 10 minutes -- music bumping, Beau Joie Brut spraying -- but there’s another game on Saturday. Besides, the depressing thing about the Yankees is that they’re supposed to get this far. So soon the lights got brighter, the plastic came down, and players went about their business, showering and complimenting the Orioles and vowing to take it one game at a time, etc. and so forth. Andy Pettitte, now the ALCS Game 1 starter, expressed the unsurprising goal to “give us a good start and get the series off to a good first game, that’s for sure.”
Showalter talked about how proud he was of his team, and Joe Girardi echoed his words: young guys who play the game the right way, who play hard. “We played 23 games [against Baltimore],” Girardi said, “and there were four runs that separated us. … They never went away. People thought they were going to go away, they never went away.”
Until Friday night, anyway, when they finally ran out of unlikeliness -- a great season in the books, but just a couple weeks short of one of the greatest out-of-nowhere seasons in recent memory.
The AL’s two most surprising and exuberant teams have been dispatched. Now it’s time for the ogres who prevented their storybook endings to face off.