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Orioles defeat Rangers to face Yankees next

The Baltimore Orioles celebrate a 5-1 win over the Texas Rangers in Wild Card playoff action at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday, October 5, 2012, in Arlington, Texas.

By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun –

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Baltimore Orioles’ first playoff game in 15 years took them deep into the heart of Texas to face a team that spent most of the season as the best in the American League.

The eyes of the baseball world turned to the long-suffering Orioles and their unlikely path to the postseason, as they played a do-or-die game in front of 46,931 rally-towel waving fans at the home of the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers.

And much as they’ve done all season — with different players across the roster sharing the role of hero — the underdog Orioles showed how much fight they truly have. They grinded out a 5-1 win at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to advance to the best-of-five American League Division Series against the New York Yankees, which begins Sunday evening at Camden Yards.

“If you had told us at the end of the season last year that we’d have a chance to put a roster together for one game, we’d have signed up for that in blood,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said before the game. “You grind and kick for seven, eight months for the chance to roll the dice in October.”

The night ended with the Orioles charging the field in celebration to the chant of “Let Go, O’s” and Showalter giving each of his players a hug. A champagne celebration then broke out in the clubhouse, a reward the Orioles didn’t get to enjoy when they clinched a playoff berth.

It was the Orioles’ first postseason win since Game 5 of the 1997 American League Championship Series on Oct. 13 against the Cleveland Indians.

To get it, Showalter put the Orioles’ postseason hopes — and a lot of faith — in left-hander Joe Saunders, who entered the game with an 0-6 record in six career starts in Arlington and a 9.36 ERA, second-highest of any pitcher with at least 30 innings at Rangers Ballpark.

Saunders, acquired Aug. 26 in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, tightroped his way out of trouble throughout the night. He allowed eight base runners — six hits, a walk and an error — but just one run over 52/3 innings, before Showalter turned to his bullpen.

A Virginia native who grew up rooting for the Orioles, Saunders had lost nine of his past 12 starts and was getting pinched out of Arizona’s rotation at the time of his trade. Yet he outpitched Japanese rookie right-hander Yu Darvish, in whom the Rangers invested $111.7 million in this offseason.

“It just says a lot about this team and all the heart,” Saunders said in an on-field interview with TBS after the game. “I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

The Orioles turned three critical double plays to help Saunders, tying their postseason club record for a single game set on Oct. 6, 1979, in Game 4 of the ALCS against the California Angels.

As Saunders left the game, he strolled into the Orioles dugout to a greeting full of high-fives and a hug from pitching coach Rick Adair.

The Orioles took a 1-0 lead just two batters into the game. Rangers first baseman Michael Young booted a grounder off the bat of leadoff man Nate McLouth on the first pitch of the game. McLouth quickly stole second and then scored on J.J. Hardy’s seeing-eye single up the middle.

Saunders walked the first hitter he faced, second baseman Ian Kinsler, after he was ahead 1-2 in the count. Elvis Andrus followed with a single that put runners at first and third with no outs, but slumping slugger Josh Hamilton grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, which scored Kinsler from third to tie the score.

Saunders also received key double-play balls in the third — which erased a leadoff fielding error by Mark Reynolds — and an inning-ending double-play ball in the fifth.

Hardy and Chris Davis led off the sixth inning with back-to-back singles to put runners at the corners, and Adam Jones’ sacrifice fly gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead.

The Orioles tacked on another run in the seventh. Rookie second baseman Ryan Flaherty hit a one-out single and was removed for pinch runner Robert Andino, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a wild pitch by reliever Derek Holland.

McLouth, one of the many reclamation projects who turned into a key member of the Orioles’ run to the postseason, then singled to give the Orioles a 3-1 lead.

In the top of the ninth, the O’s added two more runs to their cushion. Jim Thome walked and Andino doubled to put runners on second and third. Manny Machado, the Orioles’ 20-year-old rookie third baseman, delivered an RBI single to left, then McLouth hit a sacrifice fly.

Because baseball rules allow teams to reset their postseason rosters after every series, Showalter had 10 relievers at his disposal. But Darren O’Day, who was claimed off waivers in early November and has emerged as one of the most dependable middle relievers in the game, ate up most of those innings.

O’Day tossed a season-high two scoreless innings, retiring six of the seven batters he faced, before Showalter turned to left-hander Brian Matusz to face Hamilton.

Matusz struck out Hamilton — who was 0-for-10 with six strikeouts against Matusz, on three pitches — putting him away with a 93 mph fastball.

The Rangers loaded the bases against closer Jim Johnson, who led the majors with 51 saves in the regular season, bringing the tying run to the plate in David Murphy. But Murphy flied out to McLouth in left to end the game and send playoff baseball back to Baltimore for the first time in 15 years.

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