Let there be no doubt about it: This was a game that had the feel, all night, of one that the Yankees would lose. The night played out exactly the way the Orioles wanted it to. The game was tight throughout, with the Yankees unable to break through against Jason Hammel and the Orioles’ bullpen and, most importantly, with every little break going the Orioles’ way. A Mark Teixeira shot that was this close to being a three-run homer turning into a single and Teixeira out at third. A foul fly ball to right field that Chris Davis caught without seemingly being able to see it. Ichiro Suzuki hitting a hard ground ball right at the second baseman with runners on second and third and one out. (After a very odd Derek Jeter bunt.) A-Rod doing whatever the heck this was.
And then the ninth inning came. The Orioles brought in their closer Jim Johnson, and the whole thing felt like a coronation for a vintage Orioles ninth-inning walkoff. (Johnson has been amazing this year.) Then Johnson threw a 2–0 sinker that didn’t sink, and Russell Martin — who had a terrific game — bashed it over the left field wall to give the Yankees a 3–2 lead. The rest of the inning was full of little breaks that finally went the Yankees’ way, and next thing you knew, they’d won 7–2 to take a 1–0 ALDS lead. And the Orioles had to be concerned that this was as close as they might get for a while.
Martin will get the headlines, but the hero was CC Sabathia, who was wonderful, pitching 8 2/3 innings and giving up only two piddly runs and scattering seven hits. Sabathia was the steadying presence when everything seemed to be going the Orioles’ way, keeping the Yankees afloat until the offense finally took over in the ninth.
You had to wonder when the Yankees would finally take over, and it almost looked like it would happen in the first. The whole Orioles thing is about keeping the game close and trusting their bullpen (and the healthy heaps of good fortune they’ve enjoyed all season, of course), and the Yankees were in danger of ruining that whole strategy within five minutes of the first pitch. Jeter’s leadoff single was one thing, but then Ichiro — focused, perfectly willing to wait for the perfect pitch, in a way he hadn’t for Seattle in about six years — smashed a gap double to score Jeter, and the Camden Yards crowd, going nuts just a few minutes earlier, was deflated. The Yankees had Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson all set to come up, with Ichiro already in scoring position, Jeter already having scored and pitcher Jason Hammel looking overwhelmed and terrified. The Orioles were cute, but the Yankees would pour it on here: This is not a come-from-behind team, and the Yankees were about to put them far, far behind. And then Ichiro tried to steal third. No one was quite sure why he tried to steal third, with those guys coming up, with the Orioles already on their heels. But Ichiro was out by a mile, and the crowd was suddenly back in it. And so were the Orioles. It would stay that way until the ninth.
This is precisely the sort of breakthrough the Yankees needed: In an odd way, it broke through the Orioles’ sense of inevitability, a sense that the Oriole Magic that has surrounded the team all year would cross over to this round. It felt like it would until the ninth. But then the wheels came off, and the Yankees scored five. The Yankees needed, at minimum, a split in Baltimore before coming back on Wednesday, away from a raucous, famished Camden Yards crowd. Now they have a chance, with old reliable Andy Pettitte on the mound, to go up 2–0. The Yankees are a better team than the Orioles, and Baltimore could only beat them in this series if every break went their way. Tonight, those breaks all did … and the Yankees still won. It’s just one game, one inning really … but it feels like a lot more than that right now.