Written by Dean Bartoli Smith
The city turned a deep shade of orange late yesterday afternoon.
At my daughter’s soccer practice, a father appeared in Oriole hat and Machado jersey. At football with my son, several parents appeared in O’s attire. At traffic lights, I noticed drivers wearing cartoon bird caps.
There was more.
I received a message from Sister Paulette Doyas, the baseball nun at Notre Dame. Not only had she succeeded in getting the campus tower lit like a jack-o-lantern for the O’s, she had also encountered an orange mushroom cluster in the grass during an afternoon walk between the buildings.
Sister Paulette said it was a good sign. The last three games of the season in the miserable baseball dungeon that is Tampa’s Tropicana Park had thankfully passed. The O’s lost two out of three to the Rays and the Yankees won the division by beating what looked like the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league team.
The wildcard playoff against the Texas Rangers represented a whole new season—a one-and-done Game Seven elimination, with ultra-high stakes.
Despite their freefall collapse this year, Texas was never going to be easy to beat. They had scored 30 runs in one game against us several years back. We’d only won two games against them this year. Josh Hamilton had hit four home runs in one game at Camden Yards.
The Rangers were as close as a misjudged fly ball to winning the World Series last year.
Joe the Pitcher
Last night, manager Buck Showalter appeared at the dugout rail in the bottom of the first, squinting at the mound with his Derek Jacobi eyes fixed on his pitcher’s shaky first inning.
Joe Saunders had been named the starter to mixed reviews on Thursday. Buck would give his starter the quick hook, the pundits speculated. Saunders had never won in Texas.
But when the Rangers tied the score at 1-1, and threatened in the fourth in inning, Saunders worked his way out of every jam unscathed and held them ultimately to just that one run.
Winning pitcher Joe Saunders “got it.” He told reporters afterwards: “giving the Orioles playoff baseball is a special thing.”
To an unwavering Showalter, Saunders had simply been the logical next man up, a late-season veteran pick-up among youngsters trying to hold their jobs.
And after he turned the ball over to his manager five innings later with a 2-1 lead, he had become another regular Baltimorean, working his ass off for this city – “Joe the Pitcher.”
Growing up in northern Virginia, Saunders really seemed to understand the magnitude of what he and his team had just done: “Coming to games as a kid and [now] giving the Orioles playoff baseball is a special thing,” he told reporters.
Staying Alive for Markakis
For once in a long time, the Orioles didn’t rely on the home run to win the game. They scratched and sacrificed and singled five runs across the plate.
Hardy, McClouth, Andino, Jones and Machado mustered just enough wood on the ball to “out dervish the Darvish” and other members of the Texas pitching staff.
On a 2-2 pitch in the ninth, Manny Machado leaned down and lined a single into left field to extend the lead to 4-1. It was an astute piece of hitting for a twenty-year-old in the most important at-bat of his young career.
The 5-1 victory was a tense, methodical and patient effort in a season that has never ceased to enthrall.
“This has been such a special season,” said Tony Pente of OriolesHangout.com. “It’s really one like no other in the Orioles history. After 14 years of sub .500 baseball and four straight years in last place, this team has played with as much heart and desire as any Orioles team ever.”
It may not be over for some time. Showalter told the media the team is trying to stay in the playoffs long enough for Nick Markakis to return to duty from his broken thumb.
The Yankees will be here on Sunday evening for the start of a five game series – something that has felt destined to occur since early September.
“Getting into the American League Division Series and having a home playoff game here on Sunday night is going to be something to remember for a long time,” said Pente.
“The pure joy I’ve seen from Orioles fans just goes to show how much they’ve missed this kind of competitive baseball in Baltimore. I tell you what, don’t sell this team short. There’s something special about this group and they may not be done yet.”
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