Head or gut: Heartbreak again in Fat City
Well at least we’re consistent.
In Fat City – the name the late Hunter Thompson wanted to give to Aspen, Colo. once he was elected sheriff of Pitkin County that I have co-opted as an all-encompassing place to refer to the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Capitals and Baltimore Orioles – we are nothing if not consistent.
The local teams have stomped our hearts out in January, May and now October. Whenever one of my teams gets into a big playoff game my first inclination I feel like Bruce McGill in “The Last Boy Scout” while our opponents are Bruce Willis asking “head or gut?” just before violently punching us in our chosen location.
The Orioles had no less than three legit chances to win this series with the M’Fn New York Yankees and they came up short in all of them:
Game 1, 8th inning – JJ Hardy hits a lead-off double with the meat of the Orioles order coming up. CC Sabathia promptly gets Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds in order. Hardy never leaves second base. Next inning, Russell Martin touches up a Jim Johnson sinker that doesn’t sink (more that later) and the Yankees win 7-2.
Game 3, 9th inning – The Orioles had a 2-1, 9th inning lead to their 51-save closer, who gives up a game-tying home run to Raul Ibanez by again throwing a sinker that didn’t sink. They lose in 12 innings when Ibanez touches up Brian Matusz on a pitch down and in, almost the exact spot where Ibanez had homered off Johnson.
The Game 3 loss Wednesday night may have been the worst of them all. This loss had everything but Sterling Moore swiping the game away just before Billy Cundiff comes on to miss wide left before Joel Ward takes a four-minute high sticking penalty and then Brad Richards comes in to score with six seconds left.
You can now add the name Raul Ibanez to the long, long list of Fat City sports villains. The fact that he looks like Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter films and plays for the MF’N Yankees only adds to his villainous mystique.
But wait, there’s more.
Game 5, 8th inning – The Orioles finally get to Sabathia and get a run off him to narrow the Yankee lead to 3-1. The O’s load the bases with one out and Nate McClouth, the team’s most consistent hitter this series at the plate. McClouth strikes out, and then Sabathia gets Hardy to ground out to end the inning. I knew right then the O’s were dead.
As I said before, we have now had – to steal Bill Simmons’ gimmick – a Level 1 stomach punch game three times this year.
The Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
The Caps in Game 5 against New York.
The Orioles in Game 3.
In all of those cases, it was all right there. The ball, the Super Bowl, in Lee Evans’ hands for a split second. The Caps, six seconds from taking a 3-2 lead heading back home. And the Orioles in Game 3, two outs away from forcing the Yankees to rely on Phil Hughes (instead of CC Sabathia) to save their season, two outs away from the New York papers ready to rain fire and brimstone on the Yankees, particularly Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson.
It was right there, and the Orioles, just like the Ravens and the Caps, couldn’t close the deal.
You can make a lot of bones about the size of the Yankee payroll and how it gives them an unfair advantage, but the one place in this series it reared its head is: they had the one true ace in this series (Sabathia) and they are able to have a bench loaded with former all-stars like Ibanez.
Not saying payroll made the difference, because it wasn’t what did the Orioles in. That would be the Oriole hitters and their lack of production, particularly from the meat of the order.
Hardy struggled mightily all series, but at least got the big hit in Game 4.
Matt Wieters couldn’t do much of anything.
Mark Reynolds couldn’t duplicate his success against the Yankees during the regular season, being a regular strikeout victim.
Chris Davis, after a good start, was shut down in the Bronx, swinging out of his shoes trying to hit home runs.
The salad fork sticking out of Jim Thome’s back could be seen from Neptune. Dan Duquette desperately needs to bring in a run producer or two this offseason.
But the biggest struggler of them all was Adam Jones, the man who grew this year into a superstar only to have a disaster of a postseason, finishing an astounding 2 for 20 this series.
It was a sad end for Jones, who did a great job this season growing into the face and the voice of this franchise. Anyone who follows Jones’ twitter account knows the guy cares deeply about the Baltimore Orioles. Ultimately, Jones’ passion for the team may have done him in. At the plate, Jonesy looked like he was trying too hard to get the big hit and the Yankees killed him all series long with breaking stuff in the dirt. Hopefully, he’ll learn from this experience.
If anybody is emblematic of this scrappy, overachieving O’s team, it’s Jim Johnson. He worked his way up the ladder, from nobody to a mop-up guy to set-up guy and finally, closer. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He’s tall and gangly. He’s not a prototypical closer. He relies on one pitch, the sinker. The man has been around a lot of losing since he came up in 2003. This is the first time he’s played on a winner.
So to see Johnson’s meltdown this postseason, to see him morph from an automatic game-ending assassin to Armando Benitez is disheartening, to say the least. For whatever reason Johnson was mostly erratic. Right from the get-go, he came in the wild card game against Texas with a 5-1 lead, proceeded to load the bases and bring the tying run to the plate before wiggling out of it. It was JJ doing a George Sherrill impression.
In Game 1, he threw a sinker that didn’t sink to Russell Martin, who did with it what big league hitters do to sinkers that don’t sink: he turned it into a souvenier. The Yanks touched Johnson up for five more runs in a 7-2 win, part of it through bad luck (dink hits by Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki) and part of it from being right over the plate (the homer by Martin and the double to Robinson Cano).
Even when Johnson was good in Game 2, he was scary, trying to throw the sinker so hard it didn’t move. He managed to get Jeter, Ichiro and A-Rod to win that one, so all was forgiven.
Then comes Game 3 and the sinker that didn’t sink to Ibanez. Making it worse, that sinker went down and in, the sweet spot for a leftie like Ibanez, and even sweeter for a lefthander in the leftie bandbox that is Yankee Stadium. The Yankees didn’t need Jeffrey Maier for that one, Ibanez’ game-tying homer was bomb.
The fact that Ibanez would get the winning in the 12th off Matusz was almost a foregone conclusion. That first one had taken the air out of the Orioles balloon. Johnson came back and got the save in Game 4, but the damage, two winnable games squandered, had been done.
The one group you can’t blame is the starters, who gave the Orioles a chance to win every night. Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Joe Saunders did as good a job as you can ask for. Gonzalez in particular was masterful in Game 3.
It’s crazy, if you asked me before this series if those four gentlemen were going to pitch as well as they did, completely shutting down A-Rod (an automatic out who got booed mercilessly in NY before being benched in Game 5), Curtis Granderson (another automatic out before breaking out in Game 5) Ichiro (scary in Game 1, less scary as the series moved on), Robinson Cano (quietly, he was A-Rod level awful at the plate) and Nick Swisher (1 for 500 with runners in scoring position), I would have loved the O’s chances.
And yet, all that was wasted by the popgun O’s offense that never got untracked all series. The lack of production from the middle of the order absolutely murdered this team.
Still, despite the loss, it’s worth taking a pause and applauding what this team has done this year. The 2012 Orioles reinvigorated baseball in Baltimore. The last time this franchise made the playoffs I was an 18-year old college student. I am now a married, 33-year old with a 15 month old kid.
It felt great to watch postseason baseball. I had forgotten how nerve-racking playoff baseball was: you’re hanging on every pitch, every at-bat. It’s like playoff hockey only worse because its slower. You develop a lot of weird tics and become a tired wreck the day after one of those extra-inning games. I must say I enjoyed it.
So despite the heartbreak of losing to the MF’n Yankees, thanks Buck Showalter and the 2012 Orioles. You made baseball fun again.