These exciting young Birds had been 76-0 this year when leading after seven innings, their relievers carrying them through the hot days of summer and the crisp nights of early fall. They had won 16 consecutive extra-inning games since losing their first two of the year to the New York Yankees in April, the best streak in the big leagues in more than a half-century.
They were two outs from taking control of their AL division series. Jim Johnson had converted a big league high 51 saves.
And then, just when you least expected ... Raul Ibanez, pinch hitting for no less than Alex Rodriguez, drove a 94 mph fastball over the right-center field scoreboard with one out in the ninth inning to tie the score 2-all. Three innings later, it was Ibanez again.
The 40-year-old sent a 91 mph Brian Matusz pitch into the right field second deck leading off the 12th, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win Wednesday night and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
“Obviously, it hurts,” Johnson said, “but you got to get over it quick because we got to come back tomorrow and compete again.”
The Yankees have a long history of doing this.
There was Tino Martinez’s tying, two-run homer off Arizona’s Byung-Hyun Kim with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. There Scott Brosius’ tying, two-run homer off Kim with two outs in the ninth the following night.
Rodriguez hit a tying, two-run homer off Minnesota’s Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the 2009 AL division series, then hit a tying solo shot of the Los Angeles Angels’ Brian Fuentes in the second game of that year’s AL championship series.
Ibanez, as Orioles’ fans might remember, hit a tiebreaking double in the 12th off Pedro Strop that gave New York a 5-4 win at Camden Yards on April 10. The next night, Nick Swisher’s two-run homer in the 10th against Kevin Gregg propelled the Yankees to a 6-4 victory.
Since then, the Orioles had won 16 in a row in extras, the best in the majors since Cleveland won 17 straight in 1949.
“Just left the pitch up. Ibanez obviously has been swinging the bat well and I just missed my location, and he made it hurt,” Matusz said. “You just keep going. Just clear it out of our minds and move on to tomorrow. We’re still in this.”
All for naught was the great effort of Miguel Gonzalez, a 28-year-old rookie making his postseason debut. He allowed one run and five hits in seven innings with eight strikeouts and a walk, allowing his only run on Derek Jeter’s RBI triple just out of reach of bubble-blowing center fielder Adam Jones in the third.
Baltimore’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters provided early power, with Ryan Flaherty sending a slider from Hiroki Kuroda over the right-field short porch in the third and Manny Machado putting another slider in the Baltimore bullpen leading off the fifth. Just 20, Machado became the second-youngest player with a postseason home run, behind only Atlanta’s Andruw Jones who was 19 in 1996.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter already was looking ahead.
“Stunned left me a while ago. I got a grip on how hard this is to do. The problem with a lot of coaches and managers, they forget about how hard the game is to play and how tough a night they’ve had on given times. It’s very hard to do what they do,” Showalter said. “Jimmy is a big-hearted, talented guy, that — believe me, we’d be at home watching without people like Jim Johnson. He’s a special guy. We’re real proud of him, and you’ll see him again tomorrow night, I hope.”
In the playoffs for the first time since 1997, the Orioles must win Thursday night to save their season.
“You’ve got to stay positive through this,” Matusz said. “We’ve all worked so hard this year to get to this point. And you can’t let one bad pitch or one game ruin it. You’ve just got to keep positive.”