After heading to Kansas City down 0-2, the Orioles faced the unenviable task of trying to climb out of the hole they’d dug themselves in this American League Championship Series. Let’s put it in regular-season terms: The Birds have to take at least two out of three in a road series and then possibly sweep a two-game home series in order to advance to the World Series.
Teams that pull that off are red hot. After making quick work of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series, the Orioles left Camden Yards as a ballclub suddenly sputtering out, straying from a formula that made it possible to eke out wins over the course of a 162-game season. It works approximately like this: strong, though rarely dominant, starting pitching; a lockdown back end of the bullpen to come in and keep the score as is; and a lineup that, if it hasn’t already established the lead, can rally to push ahead. Not all of the ballclub’s 96 regular-seasons wins went this way of course, but when things were tight, this is how it always seemed to play out.
The Birds had this against Detroit. They had it for most of the regular season. So what the hell happened?
For one, the starters, Chris Tillman and Bud Norris in Games 1 and 2, respectively, were both terribly ineffective, with both giving up early leads to the Royals and failing to get past the fifth inning. In fact, the Orioles never held the lead in either of the games played at home. The early deficits took the crowd out of the game a little bit. Having attended all of this year’s home playoff games and the two in 2012 against the Yankees in the ALDS, I can say it seemed like the crowds against the Royals were the quietest.
Part of the games happened the way they were expected: In both, the bats came back to make everything all square. In Game 1, when the Orioles evened things up in the sixth, it almost felt certain they would win. The image of a go-ahead rally or walkoff home run was so clear in everyone’s minds. In Game 2, a big home run from center fielder Adam Jones—remember, they led all of baseball with home runs; they thrive on them—knotted the score up in the third inning. This is how they roll.
Enter the bullpen, which has been the backbone of the club. All year they’ve held opponents down in the final third of the game, setting the table for the hitters a chance to uncork some Orioles Magic. Instead, two of the major cogs in that well-oiled machine, Darren O’Day and Zach Britton, have crapped out. In the ninth and 10th innings, no less! Utterly deflating.
After almost nine hours and a measly 19 innings, this magical 2014 season is starting to develop a bit of a bad aftertaste. These Orioles looked like world beaters after thumping Detroit, facing three consecutive Cy Young winners and handling them with relative ease. It was after such dominance that people threw around words like destiny; some writers said the Orioles were the favorite among the remaining four teams in the LCS round. The good vibes reached a euphoric peak when the club announced a contract extension for shortstop J.J. Hardy before the start of the Royals series.
But now? Now it’s fingernail-biting, nervous leg-tapping time. Now is the time to trot out sports clichés such as “it ain’t over till it’s over” because the comfort of those inane words is better than the gut punches from Games 1 and 2. Everything is on the line.
OK, had you told me back in spring that we’d get an A.L. East title and make it to the ALCS, I would have signed up for that package in a heartbeat. Now that we’re here, you realize, as manager Buck Showalter put it, you can keep rolling the dice. And what’s frustrating is everyone knows in the pit of their stomachs that this team is capable of playing so much better.
We’ve seen it with our own eyes. The team ran like a well-oiled machine, even after key pistons blew out. Buck would push a button or pull a lever and everything functioned as it was designed. The hope now is that the parts starting to fail get the necessary repairs, and all the pieces start working in concert again.
Maybe by the time you’re reading this, we’re in a future where the Orioles have won the first two in Kansas City. Maybe the complexion has changed entirely. At press time, we don’t even have the results for Tuesday’s game at our fingertips. Bringing the series even in the midwest would mean more baseball in Baltimore. If that happens, the Orioles have got to make sure everything is still working at home. If they’re out, the tone of this ALCS was set by their inability to do so.