This season, the Baltimore Orioles went 74-0 in games they led after seven innings. Nothing lasts forever. But considering their history and their excellent relief pitchers, the Orioles had to figure if they could just take a lead, however small, into the eighth inning, they would be awfully hard to beat. Which they were. It wasn't easy, though. At least not until the end.
Entering their winner-take-all contest against the Rangers, though, the figures weren't on the Orioles' side. Starting for them: Bazooka Joe Saunders, who'd posted a 9.38 ERA in six starts at Rangers Ballpark, and the lefty couldn't be expected to thrive against Ron Washington's righty-heavy lineup. Starting for the Rangers: rookie sensation Yu Darvish, who pitched brilliantly in his last seven regular-season starts.
But while Saunders gave up a few hits, he kept escaping jams thanks to key strikeouts and three double plays. By the time he departed in the sixth inning in favor of reliever Darren O'Day, his O's were ahead 2-1. And they tacked on another in the seventh when Nate McLouth singled home pinch-runner Robert Andino.
It was a rough game for Josh Hamilton. In his first three at-bats, all against Saunders, he lasted only five pitches: ground-out, strikeout, ground-out. In the eighth, Showalter summoned reliever Brian Matusz to face Hamilton, with two outs and a runner on second base. Matusz, a lefty, lost his spot in the rotation in early July. But since taking a spot in the Orioles' bullpen in August, he's pitched brilliantly. And he completed Hamilton's nightmarish game, possibly his last with the Rangers, with a three-pitch strikeout. Hamilton heard boos as he doffed his batting helmet and gloves.
And in the ninth, closer Big Jim Johnson, the single biggest reason for that 74-0 mark, took the mound for Baltimore. Johnson blew a save on the 27th of July; since then, he'd given up one run while converting 21 straight save opportunities. Eventually these streaks must end. But with the Orioles scoring two insurance runs against Joe Nathan in the top of the ninth, no streaks were likely to end tonight, and they didn't.
Not quite. Johnson gave up a one-out single to Nelson Cruz and a two-out walk to Mike Napoli, and 19-year-old pinch-hitter Jurickson Profar loaded the bases with a first-pitch single into left field. But, almost inevitably, the streak continued when David Murphy lifted an easy fly ball to Nate McLouth in left, and it was over.
There was a sense in some quarters that Ron Washington and the Rangers lost the game, but it's probably more fair to say that Buck Showalter and the Orioles won it. Which is nothing new, in 2012.
Next up? Two games against the Yankees, back home in Baltimore.