Another tense affair in wild-card game
In tense affair, Orioles’ greatest strength becomes their weakness
Was there really anyone out there who doubted that the 20th game of the season between the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays would be anything but a tense, hard-fought struggle that would test the nerves of both managers and the mettle of both bullpens.
Remember, the season series and home-field advantage for Tuesday night’s sudden-death American League wild-card game came down to a difference of one victory over 19 regular-season games.
So, anybody who sat down at game time thinking that the outcome was anything other than a coin flip had not been paying attention. The tension mounted for 10-plus innings before Edwin Encarnacion launched a three-run walk-off homer against the last person you might have expected to be on the mound in extra innings with the
Orioles season on the line. Ubaldo Jimenez faced three batters and gave up three solid hits and that was that.
The Blue Jays celebrated for the second game in a row and headed off for Arlington, Texas, to open their American League Division Series against the AL West champion Texas Rangers.
The sellout crowd was as raucous as advertised. The Jays fans have packed Rogers Centre all season, but an ugly incident at the end of the seventh inning didn’t exactly endear them to the Orioles or, presumably, the international television audience. Someone threw a full beer can at Orioles left fielder Hyun Soo Kim as he was settling under a fly ball.
That figured to be a storyline if the Orioles had won, but it was replaced by the disbelief on the part of the TBS commentators and, no doubt, a lot of fans that Orioles closer Zach Britton — coming off one of the greatest seasons by a closer in baseball history — did not throw a pitch in the game.
Buck Showalter will be second-guessed for holding him back for a possible save opportunity, but he would have faced the same criticism if the Blue Jays had scored off Brad Brach or Darren O’Day in the ninth and the 10th.
The outcome notwithstanding, both starting pitchers confirmed the good judgment of their managers, who each had a difficult decision to make when he decided who would get the opportunity to start what would be the only postseason game one of the teams would get to play.
Showalter chose Chris Tillman over Ubaldo Jimenez, who stifled the Jays five days earlier in Toronto, and Tillman grinded through a workmanlike 41⁄ innings before getting a quick hook when he got in a game-tying jam in the fifth.
The pregame analysts on the TBS pregame show unanimously agreed that Blue Jays manager John Gibbons should have given the assignment to in-season pickup Francisco Liriano, but Marcus Stroman got the start and held the Orioles to just four hits over six strong innings.
Let’s be honest. The Orioles are an aggressive, free-swinging team, so if anybody thought they’d come out and try to make Stroman twist in the wind, it became obvious pretty quick that nothing had changed since the regular season ended two days earlier.
Adam Jones set the tone by lofting the first pitch of the game to center field, and the Orioles did what they have done so often during the second half of this season. The lineup went down in order through the first three innings.
It wasn’t as if they had never been there before and they quickly changed the subject the second time through the order. Jones led off the fourth with an opposite-field single and Mark Trumbo needed just one pitch.
Trumbo had never before appeared in a postseason game at the major league level, so it had to be quite a thrill for him to pick up right where he left off after leading the major leagues with 47 homers during the regular season.
The guy had to prove it all season, because there were whispers after his All-Star first half performance that he was not a second-half player and would not be nearly as productive in the second half. There was a drop-off after the All-Star break, but he still hit 19 home runs over his final 72 games.
That euphoria wore off quickly and the game turned into another referendum on the Orioles’ overdependence on the home run ball. They hit more than any other team in baseball this year and challenged the franchise single-season record, but their greatest offensive strength was also their greatest weakness and that — not Jimenez or Showalter — would be their undoing.
Orioles right fielder Michael Bourn can’t make the catch on a double hit by the Blue Jays’ Kevin Pillar during the fifth inning.