Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ibanez saves Yankees, puts O's on brink of elimination

All right, so there's no escaping last night's excruciating 12-inning loss. That one hurts, a lot, and the Orioles really have no one to blame but themselves. Well, OK, they could blame Raul Ibanez for hitting the game-tying and game-winning home runs in consecutive at-bats. Or they could blame Joe Girardi, who had the stones to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez, who has only hit 647 home runs in his career, is one of the greatest players in baseball history, and has more than five years and $110 million left on his contract after this season.

Most people are blaming Jim Johnson, who allowed that tying home run to Ibanez in the ninth. In his two innings of work, Johnson allowed just that one hit. Some questioned the logic of bringing in Johnson to face at least two lefties (Ichiro and Robinson Cano). And would Rodriguez still have hit if Brian Matusz had entered the game instead of Johnson? Then again, Matusz did allow that second Ibanez homer, so maybe Ibanez was simply destined to become a Yankees postseason legend.

But, really, that's what happens in one-run games, and that's why the O's record in close and extra-inning games this season is/was so remarkable. Anything can happen in those types of games -- and even solid players like Johnson occasionally falter. Obviously, though, losing late leads hurts that much more in the playoffs.

The O's lineup also didn't do Miguel Gonzalez (who pitched magnificently) or any of the other relievers any favors by not tacking on any runs after Manny Machado's go-ahead solo home run in the fifth inning. It's easy to point the finger at Johnson, who was also bad in the first game of this series when he allowed five hits and four earned runs in a tie game. But J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters, and Jim Thome all went 0-5 last night. In these few playoff games, Adam Jones is hitting .154/.154/.154. Wieters is hitting .077/.077/.154; Hardy is batting .083/.154/.167. Thome hasn't done anything, either. Right now, there's plenty of blame to go around.

Fortunately for the Orioles, they play tonight, so they don't have to think about that horrible loss too long. But they also now must win the next two games. Buck Showalter will be handing the ball to Joe Saunders instead of Chris Tillman, a surprising decision. It's a do-or-die game, meaning that if Saunders struggles, he'll probably be removed from the game quickly (possibly replaced by Tillman). But Darren O'Day, Johnson, and Matusz all pitched yet again last night, so the Orioles could really use another strong start. Saunders dodged the big inning in Texas; he may not be so lucky in New York.

O's batters get to face Phil Hughes, who's 2-2 against the Orioles this season in four starts with a 4.76 ERA. Hughes gives up his share of hits, so the O's need to capitalize on those opportunities -- something they haven't done a great job of in this series.

If the O's do somehow win Game 4, they'll face CC Sabathia, who had a very strong outing in Game 1. That's not good, obviously, but watching that potential Game 5 would be a lot of fun.

Now is the wrong time to abandon this team. They've done more than any other Orioles team in the past 15 years, and even if last night's defeat turns out to be one final hurdle that they couldn't overcome, they deserve plenty of praise for how far they've gotten. Moral victories don't mean anything, but we're also talking about an O's team that many predicted to lose between 95 and 100 games this season. Instead, the O's must win the next two games, in New York, to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs. It's improbable, but it's not impossible. And until this team's season is officially over, writing them off is a mistake.