Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Orioles Like Mondays, So Far

By Jeff Kallman

What a difference Monday makes. To Jim Johnson and to the Baltimore Orioles.

On Sunday night, Johnson got slapped around like a parakeet when he came in to try holding a two-all tie. On Monday, he and his fellow bullpen bulls stood fast enough, after rookie Wei-Yin Chen out-pitched and out-smarted out-of-retirement, wizened Andy Pettitte, before getting tired in the top of the seventh.

And the Orioles had it even with the Empire Emeritus, a 3-2 win played about as tightly as a baseball game can be played under any conditions, never mind postseason conditions that include only slightly veiled weather threats.

"To hold that offence to two runs," Baltimore right fielder Chris Davis told reporters after the game, "is saying something." Derek Jeter knew what it said for the Orioles. "They're a good team," he said, simply. Pettitte was a little finer about it. "They were tough," he said. "We weren't able to get the big hits with runners in scoring position."

First baseman Mark Reynolds called Sunday night, on which the Yankees pasted five runs on Johnson and the Orioles in the top of the ninth, "a hiccup. [Johnson] obviously showed what he was capable of tonight." He was capable of getting Jeter to open the ninth with a meek ground out to shortstop, Ichiro Suzuki to ground one up the pipe to second base for a two-strike out, and Alex Rodriguez to a full-count swinging strikeout that brought down the Camden Yards house as wildly as Chen did when he came out.

Chen pitched a masterpiece on a night Pettitte, who came out of retirement with hopes of pitching just such games, wasn't necessarily in terrible shape and made the Orioles work for the three runs they pried out of him. It must have seemed a bit of a culture shock for the old left-hander who, somehow, doesn't quite look his age even so, since he hadn't faced the Orioles in postseason play in almost two decades.

Chen had to shake off a 1-0 deficit early, and it began with Jeter, who'd tagged him for a bomb in his major league debut, lining one up the pipe for a leadoff hit. Ichiro snuck aboard on two strikes when Reynolds couldn't come up with his tapper up the line, but A-Rod lined into a fast double play, Robert Andino spearing the sinking liner and doubling Jeter off the pad at second.

Then Robinson Cano smashed one off the right field corner wall and Ichiro, rather athletically, slid around the tag at the plate. And Chen seemed to get two a-has for the price of one: don't give Cano a chance to beat him, and don't spend the evening trying to pound these Yankees, who feast on the stuff, with pure fastballs alone, no matter how well they're working when they come out of your hand. Then he threw one that sank just enough on Nick Swisher to lure him into grounding out to shortstop J.J. Hardy for the side.

For the Oriole first Pettitte looked and performed plenty enough like his vintage self, dispatching them with a leadoff liner to left (Nate McLouth), a ground out to second (Hardy), and a called third strike (on Chris Davis). Chen settled in likewise in the Yankee second, ridding himself of Mark Teixiera (foul pop behind first), Russell Martin (fly to center), and Curtis Granderson (a pounding strikeout) so swiftly you almost forgot these were the Yankees with whom you were dealing.

The fun really began in the bottom of the third, and with two outs in the bargain. Robert Andino fought one off with a broken bat and still managed to dump the Orioles' first base hit of the night into center field, and McLouth followed promptly with a clean single of his own before Hardy wrung Pettitte for a bases-loading walk. Davis, whose 33 bombs led the Orioles on the regular season, waited out ball one before lining an inside slider that fell into right, with Andino and McLouth running on the pitch and crossing the plate unmolested.

All of a sudden the Orioles had overthrown the early Yankee lead. And they might have come out of it with more than a 2-1 advantage had it not been for a little clever sleight-of-hand in the Yankee infield.

With first and second Adam Jones shot a 1-2 pitch toward the hole at shortstop. Jeter stabbed at it, managing to make Hardy think he'd come up with it as the Oriole shortstop also missed third base coach DeMarlo Hale's sign to head home with Rodriguez at third abetting Jeter's deke, and Hardy stayed at third, re-loading the bases for catcher Matt Wieters, who popped out to Cano at second to keep it there.

Chen squirmed out of trouble in the fourth after loading the bases on two hits (Teixiera and Granderson lining up the middle) surrounding a walk (to Martin), getting Eduardo Nunez to bloop a floater to shortstop and Jeter to force Granderson at second. Pettitte matched him after Reynolds opened safe when a high throw from Jeter pulled Teixiera off the pad at first, getting Jim thome on a strikeout, Manny Machado to whack a grounder to third that forced A-Rod to play a quivering hop and force Reynolds at second, and Andino on a grounder up the pipe for the side.

Then Chen and Pettitte swapped three-up, three-down in the fifth. Chen shook off an unlikely shortstop error in the Yankee sixth, when Martin's two-out smash skipped through Hardy's wicket under his glove, to rid himself of Granderson on a meek popup. The Orioles bought some insurance promptly enough in their half. Wieters lined one that might have taken Cano's head off if the stout Yankee second baseman hadn't ducked and turned, legging himself a double for his effort, and Reynolds shot one through the hole at second allowing Wieters to score the third Oriole run.

Pettitte regrouped to get Thome on a full-count strikeout and Machado to dial Area Code 1-4-3. But Chen finally ran out of fuel in the Yankee seventh, after Davis dove for but couldn't come up with Nunez's full-count leadoff double and Jeter lined him home post haste to close up the Yankee deficit to 3-2. Ichiro slapped one to Hardy, who nailed Jeter for one, while Andino's followup to first just missed getting Ichiro, and Chen came out to a thunderous standing O.

Not that the Orioles were alarmed. They trust their bullpen as few normally do. Darren O'Day came in to strike out A-Rod while Ichiro was occupied stealing second, Brian Matusz came in and — after manager Buck Showalter called for a free pass to Cano, defying the (ahem) conventional wisdom and putting the prospective tiebreaker on — wrestled Swisher (1-for-19 against Matusz to that point; 1-for-32 with men in scoring position lifetime in the postseason) into a fly out to left, and there went the Yankee threat.

Matusz went on to survive Teixiera's leadoff bullet to left, McLouth backhanding it smartly to keep the Yankee first baseman on first, striking out Martin and Granderson before Nunez popped out behind first base for the side. The Yankees decided Pettitte had given all he had to give, too, sending out David Robertson after Pettitte opened the bottom of the eighth surrendering Davis's up-the-pipe bullet base hit. Jones tapped one back to Robertson to push pinch-runner Endy Chavez to second.

Chavez took third as Wieters grounded out to Teixiera unassisted behind the first base pad, before Robertson ended it with a swinging strikeout on Reynolds. Which did nothing but set the table for Johnson to redeem his Sunday night slaughtering in magnificent fashion.

It was the new Oriole Way, the way they'd managed to put baseball on stun all season long, getting close enough to overthrowing the Yankees for the American League East title. They were defiant virtuosi in winning one-run games (29 on the season), and they had the bullpen bulls to take them for the unlikely ride right down to Monday night's masterwork.

And the Orioles aren't exactly shivering about the trip to New York for the rest of the division series, either. Hell, they won all three sets they played at Yankee Stadium on the regular season. "I think the biggest thing for us," said Davis, "is we feel comfortable playing in New York."

Even with Hiroki Kuroda to send out for Game 3, that isn't necessarily a comfortable thought — facing Baltimore rookie Miguel Gonzalez, he of the 2.63 ERA in two Bronx starts — for the Yankees to remember.

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