Texas Road Report - Part 4

This is part 4 of the Orioles Observer Road Trip Report to Arlington, Texas for the 2012 American League Wild Card Game.

Friday, October 5, 2012 – 9:30 pm (CST)

While writing the road report, I sat at my desk for ten minutes trying to think of a way to describe the feeling I had while watching the game unfold.  I came up with nothing.  And maybe that’s the best way to describe what I was feeling – nothing.  You’d think I would have been nervous, but you’d be wrong.  You might think I was excited or worried, but I wasn’t.  As the game entered the 6th inning, I found myself watching it like it was a random June game back at Camden Yards.  I certainly expected to feel a little more emotionally involved than I did.  Maybe it was the fact that being in Texas and watching the O’s in a playoff game just didn’t feel real.  I don’t know.  But the first five innings came and went and I felt oddly numb to the entire ordeal.

JJ Hardy singled to right to begin the Birds’ half of the 6th inning.  Two pitches later, Chris Davis did the same and Hardy scurried into third.  Adam Jones stepped in next and drove the first pitch he saw to deep right-centerfield.  It was the best hit ball of the inning even though it was caught for an out.  Hardy tagged up and hustled him to plate the O’s second run.  I turned to Tim.  “There we go.”  He nodded.  For the first time all game, I started feel like this was more than just another game.  For the first time, the thought entered my head that the Orioles were going to win the game.

Yu Darvish was feeling something as well – pain in his back.  After the sac fly, Darvish began stretching, which lead to a fairly significant delay.  We were convinced Yu was coming out, but after some warm up tosses he stayed in the game.  The Orioles went quietly, failing to add to their lead.

That singular run didn’t just snap me out of my emotional paralysis, it also woke up my entire body – my bladder included.  I excused myself before the bottom of the sixth and made a beeline towards the bathroom.  There was a line of course, but it was moving nicely.  One Oriole fan came up to me, said nothing, and delivered a fist bump.  A minute later while nearing the front of the line, I made eye contact with another Oriole fan.  He smiled, while I grinned and shook my head in a “I can’t believe this” kind of motion.  I tried to say something, but nothing came out.  The other guy must have been having the same issue because he was silent as well.  We all had the same thought – this is all so close to happening – but we dared not speak of it.

I hurried back to my seat just in time to see Joe Saunders removed from the game in favor of Darren O’Day.  Joe got a nice hand from those of us behind the visitor’s dugout as he left.  O’Day received some jeers from the Ranger faithful – apparently one injury-plagued season after two sub 2.03 ERA seasons from Darren while in Texas was enough for some Rangers’ fans to turn on him.   Nothing more could have been asked from Joe Saunders, who gave the team 5 2/3’s of 1-run ball before giving way to the O’s stellar bullpen.  With lefty-killer Nelson Cruz about to make his third appearance of the evening, Buck pulled the trigger at the perfect time.  O’Day got Cruz to harmlessly pop up to put an end to the inning.

Tim already mentioned the family sitting next to him.  Behind us and to our left were a couple of non-uniformed Orioles’ fans.  They just happened to be in Dallas on vacation from Maryland.  It was man and a woman and the man was the only one – along with me – to shout “O!” during the anthem.  Tim decided against it at the last minute when I told him to wait and see if anyone else shouted it first.  The guy behind us shouted it so I followed suit.  Tim choked and stayed silent.  Also to our left – but in front of us – was an O’s fan there with his kid.  This guy ordered two beers every time the vendor showed up and I don’t think the second one was for his 11 year-old son.  By the 7th inning, this guy was tanked and became the loudest and only semi-obnoxious O’s fans in our vicinity.  There were also four or five girls of indeterminable ages sitting in front of us.  I am terrible with ages but theirs were particularly head scratching.  As Tim later noted, they could have been anywhere from 12 to 21 years old.  There were no parents and they seemed out of place at the game.  They sung along very loudly to David Murphy’s overtly-Christian theme song.  Let’s move on …

Ryan Flaherty singled with one out in the 7th – his bat really heated up at the end of the season and I would be surprised if he doesn’t find time as the regular second baseman sooner or later – and Manny Machado got him over to second while attempting to bunt for a base hit.  That signaled the end of the road for Yu Darvish who left to a chorus of yells of his own first name.  Darvish is a good pitcher and his ability to change speeds with his fastball, cutter, and offspeed offerings makes him tough to pick up.  At the same time, for many millions less, Wei-Yin Chen will do just fine.

Local meth dealer Derek Holland took over on the mound for the Rangers.  Holland has cleaned his look up a bit after rocking a neck-length hairstyle and ridiculously sleazy mustache at the start of the season.  He doesn’t look quite like the guy you would expect to see hooking up Will Rhymes after a game anymore, but some of the early-season sleaze still remains in his new look.  Fortunately for the O’s, Holland’s grooming did little to help his pitching ability.  He issues a wild pitch that moves Bob up to third and McLouth follows that up with a line drive single to score the third Oriole run of the ball game.  Nate was a stud as Markakis’ replacement atop the order and a real lifesaver not only down the stretch, but in the playoffs as well.  Holland decides to add “error on pickoff throw” to “wild pitch” and “RBI single” on his AL Wild Card game resume, which allows Nate to move up to second.  Holland escapes any further damage by striking out Hardy to end the inning.

We sing God Bless America before the bottom of the 7th.  Or maybe we sung that earlier and we sung “Deep in the Heart of Texas” before the bottom of the 7th.  Potato, Potato (that phrase really doesn’t work when it is written down).

It was around this time – the scoring of the third Oriole run – that Tim said to me in a semi-whisper, “This is really happening.”  In terms of jinxes, that’s a safe thing to say.  Had he said something more definitive like “This is going to happen” or “We are actually going to win this”, then we would have been in trouble.  I smirked and nodded – I was still unable to verbalize any thoughts about the prospect of winning this game, although I was feeling it too.  No longer numb to the proceedings, I was at about an 8 on the giddy-scale.  That third run felt like seven runs and as Darren O’Day submarined his way through the bottom of the Ranger order in the 7th, the win started to feel more and more like a real possibility.

Koji came on in the 8th for the Rangers and for old-time sakes, we watched him strike out the side in order.  Unfortunately, the O’s were on the receiving end of it this time but it is still fun watching Koji blow good hitters away with 89–90 MPH heat.  A woman a few rows in front of us thought Koji had one of the Orioles struck out on a ball in the dirt that was tipped.  She made the universal “get out of here” hand motion only to see a few seconds later that it was a foul ball.  This wouldn’t be notable if it weren’t the twentieth time she had a completely incorrect reaction to a play.

I mentioned jinxes before – potential ones started to roll in by the barrel around this time.  First it was our Dad calling after the third run to say “Looking good”.  Tim more or less hung up on him rather than risk a jinx.  Then it was Department of Homeland Security’s biggest Oriole fan, Nick Kamprad, texting Tim multiple times - “This is really happening” and “Oh my god!”.  Then, our brother Phil, exiled in Chicago and not a big baseball fan to begin with, unexpectedly messaged us at 10:30.  “Looks like your boys are playoff bound.”  Our Mom completed the mass-jinx attempt with an “I BELIEVE” text 15 minutes later.  We did our best to act as if none of these communications ever took place.  You don’t want to risk angering the Baseball Gods.

Darren O’Day came back out for the 8th.  Buck was obviously weary of using a struggling Pedro Strop in this situation.  However, O’Day also has the most neutral splits of any Oriole relief pitcher so it also made sense to leave him in to face the very split-heavy Rangers’ lineup.  With one out in the 8th, Ian Kinsler hit a weak ground ball to short.  The ball was hit too softly for Hardy to make a play and Kinsler reached safely.  O’Day than made the mistake of trying a serious pickoff attempt of Kinsler at first - that’s not usually a good idea for a submarine pitcher.  The ball sailed past Reynolds at first and Kinsler moved up a base.  O’Day retired the next batter on another ground ball to short.  With the lefty Josh Hamilton due up, that signaled the end of O’Day’s evening.  O’Day’s scoreless two innings of relief would foreshadow his absolute dominance during the 2012 postseason.

Rangers fans started stirring a bit with the tying run at the plate. Hamilton had an odd season up to this point.  He got off to a torrid start in April and May, including the previously mentioned 4 home run game against the O’s. Hamilton was - quite literally - hitting everything.  Pitchers stayed off the plate against Hamilton but he still managed to get a fair number of hits on pitches out of the strike zone.  Opposing teams kept going further and further off the plate against Hamilton who kept on swinging.  This lead to a .223 batting average in June and a .177 average in July.  The former MVP picked up the pace in August but contributed to Texas’ late season swoon by once again struggling at the plate.  On this night, Hamilton had already struck out once and grounded out weakly twice.  His second groundout game in the 6th against Joe Saunders lead to quite a bit of booing from Rangers’ fans.

Speaking of odd seasons, here comes Brian Matusz.  After once again struggling as a starter, Matusz found a home in the O’s bullpen down the stretch and had been nothing short of dominant as a reliever.  Hamilton’s numbers against Matusz were poor coming into the game and that wasn’t about to change.   On this night, you would have never known that Brian is a pitcher whose fastball command and velocity has kept him from being a truly effective starter.  Brian “Just try to hit my fastball” Matusz blew three straight ones right by Hamilton to abruptly end the inning and any possible ranger threat.  The usually stoic left-hander casually nodded his head for good measure as he walked off the mound.

3 outs to go.

I polished off the beer I ordered in the seventh inning (which reminds me – not everything is bigger in Texas.  Beers were $7 and bottled waters ran $3.50 a bottle, both of which are about a dollar cheaper than Camden Yards).  We had faith in Jim Johnson closing out a two-run lead in the 9th but at the same time a couple of more runs sure would be nice.

As if on cue, Rangers’ closer Joe Nathan walked Jim Thome to lead off the inning.  Tim and I waited for a pinch runner to come out.  It seemed like a sure thing.  Wayne Kirby and Thome thought so too as they starred into the O’s dugout waiting for someone to emerge.  I spotted Buck get up on the first step of the dugout and demonstrably shake his head “no” towards first base.  That settles that, I guess.

Mark Reynolds struck out before Andino hit an absolute bullet off the wall in left field for a double.  Off the bat, I thought the ball had a chance to clear the top of the fence.  Thome raced into third.  The ball was hit so hard, I don’t think anyone was scoring on that play so Buck’s earlier non-move for the pinch runner was not a factor.  With a potential add-on run on third base with less than two outs, Buck decided now was the time to make a move and summoned Lew Ford off the bench to run for Big Jim.  Manny Machado continued to look far more composed in pressure situations than his age might imply by serving a ball into left field on a 2–2 count.  The hit chased home Lew for the fourth run of the game.  Some Rangers’ fans headed for the exit around this time.  When McLouth drove in Andino on a sacrifice fly to up the score to 5–1, more fans headed for the parking lot.

Thanks Joe Nathan – that's what you get for denying the Orioles and their fans the chance to celebrate clinching a playoff berth at home.

The Oriole fans in attendance were all feeling it now.  A four run lead heading into the bottom of the 9th was a very, very comfortable cushion, especially for a team that had a historically great winning percentage in one run games during the regular season.

The Rangers played their rally/”it’s not over until it’s over video” which the fans responded to with what I would call restrained optimism.  Jim Johnson took the mound.  The Rangers’ fans stood, so we stood to watch the end.  Adrian Beltre flew out to center for the first out before Johnson decided to make things a little interesting.  He gave up a single to Cruz, got Michael Young on a ground out, and then walked Mike Napoli.  The Rangers’ fans got loud as rookie Jurickson Profar was announced as hitting for Joe Nathan – Ron Washington had given up his designated hitter when he pinched hit Moreland for his catcher Soto a couple of innings prior and had to move Napoli from designated hitter to behind the plate as a result.  Profar – another rookie wise beyond his years – knew Johnson would be giving him a first pitch fastball and he poked into left-field for a single.

The Texas fans were rocking now.  Tim and I had moved down one row and closer towards the isle once the second out was recorded.  We wanted to get behind the O’s dugout as soon as the game ended.  Now we were wondering whether our move had come too soon.  Jim Johnson does a good job of keeping the ball in the park but he does give up the occasional home run.  “Just throw strikes.  The worse that can happen is the game is tied,” I said out loud to nobody.  David Murphy stepped to the plate and Johnson immediately fell behind 1–0.  I shifted my feet back and forth.  I still felt good – you never feel bad with a four run lead and two outs in the 9th, even if the bases are loaded – but things were getting a little tense.

Then Jim Johnson threw a sinker that rode in on Murphy.  The ball lifted into the air, seemed to hang there for a minute, and then landed into McLouth’s game for the out number three.  The stadium went silent and Rangers’ fans retreated en masse.  I almost couldn’t believe it.  I turned towards Tim to celebrate, but he was already gone.