Sometimes, it's hard to explain the absurdity of an amazing story like the Baltimore Orioles. Sometimes, it's best to just break things down to their simplest forms.
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Here was the New York Yankees' lineup Sunday in their playoff game against Baltimore:
Batting first: SS Derek Jeter
Age 38. Thirteen-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Batting second: LF Ichiro Suzuki
Age 38. Ten-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, Rookie of the Year in 2001, MVP same year, two-time batting champion, major league record holder for most hits in a season, a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Batting third: 3B Alex Rodriguez
Age 37. Three-time MVP, 14-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove winner, batting champion. He has hit 647 home runs, fourth-all-time. He has hit 266 homers since 2005 -- one of six American Leaguers to have 200-plus homers in that time frame. He has been a contentious player after signing the biggest contract in baseball history and then being traded to the Yankees, but he is inarguably one of the best who ever played. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer unless his steroid use motivates voters to send a message.
Batting fourth: 2B Robinson Cano
Age 29. Four-time All-Star, Gold Glove winner, MVP candidate the last three years, widely viewed as one of the best players in the game.
Batting fifth: RF Nick Swisher
Age 31. All-Star, has hit 207 homers since 2005, one of six American Leaguers to have more than 200 homers in that time frame. Star of the book "Moneyball."
Batting sixth: 1B Mark Teixeira
Age 32. Two-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, runner up for MVP in 2009, one of six American Leaguers to have hit 200-plus homers since 2005.
Batting seventh: CF Curtis Granderson
Age 31. Three-time All-Star, twice led the league in triples, last year led the league in RBIs, one of six American Leaguers to have hit 200-plus homers since 2005, fifth Yankee to hit 40 homers in back-to-back seasons (Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Giambi).
Batting eighth: C Russell Martin
Age 29. Three-time All-Star, one-time Gold Glove winner, has hit 39 homers the last two seasons.
Batting ninth: DH Raul Ibanez
Age 40. All-Star, has hit 20-plus homers seven times, has driven in 100-plus RBIs four times, hit perhaps the Yankees' most important homer of the 2012 season to bring them back against the Red Sox in ninth inning of their penultimate regular-season game.
Pitching: CC Sabathia
Age 32. Six-time All-Star, Cy Young award winner, finished top five in the Cy Young voting four other times, has led the league in wins twice, shutouts three times, strikeouts-to-walk ratio twice, and is widely believed to be well on his way to a first-ballot Hall of Fame election.
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Great. OK, now, let's take a look at the Baltimore Orioles' lineup Sunday night, shall we?
Batting first, LF Nate McLouth
Age: 30. All-Star in 2008 for Pittsburgh. Traded to Atlanta next year. Was OK down the stretch, unplayable next year. Pirates signed him. Pirates released him. Came to Baltimore.
Batting second: SS J.J. Hardy
Age: 30. All-Star in 2007 for Milwaukee. Hit .229 in 2009. Brewers traded him to Minnesota. Had injury-plagued season. Twins traded him to Baltimore.
Batting third: CF Adam Jones
Age 27. Drafted by Seattle. Traded to Baltimore in ill-advised (for Seattle) Erik Bedard deal. Two-time All-Star, Gold Glove winner, spent three or four years as the obligatory "good player on the Orioles."
Batting fourth: C Matt Wieters
Age 26. Two-time All-Star. Was widely viewed as such a phenom that people came up with cool "Matt Wieters facts" before he ever played a single game in the major leagues.
Batting fifth: 1B Mark Reynolds
Age 29. Played for Arizona, where he became first man to strike out 200 times in a season, then the next year he smashed his own record by striking out 223 times (but also hit 44 home runs). The Diamondbacks traded him to Baltimore after 2010 season, when he hit .198 with 211 strikeouts.
Batting sixth: 3B Manny Machado
Age 20. First round pick for Orioles in 2010, was hitting around .260 in Class AA when the Orioles called him up to play third base, though he had been a shortstop. His second day in the majors he hit two home runs.
Batting seventh: RF Chris Davis
Age 26. Showed promise in his rookie year for the Rangers and his 21 homers his second year. Third year he hit .192 and spent most of the year in the minors. Next year he was up and down from tje minors when Rangers traded him to Baltimore.
Batting eighth: DH Lew Ford
Age 36. Had not played in the Major Leagues since 2007. Had hit .226 and .233 for Minnesota the two years before that. Baltimore signed him as a free agent in May.
Batting ninth: 2B Robert Andino
Age 28: Longtime minor leaguer for Marlins. Played total of 79 Major League games from 2005 to 2009 for Marlins before they traded him to Baltimore for a pitcher, Hayden Penn, whose 9.51 ERA is the highest in baseball history for anyone with 30 or more appearances.
Pitching: Jason Hammel
Age 30. A 10th-round pick by Tampa Bay, he was called to the big leagues in 2006 and promptly went 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA. Three years later, Tampa Bay traded him to Colorado, where he pitched for three relatively uneventful years before Colorado traded him to Baltimore.
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It would be tempting to say, based on how it ended, that the game played out the way a matchup like this must … the Orioles played over their heads for eight innings, stayed close, and then, in the end, succumbed to the talent, history and crushing power of the Empire. It's tempting to say that, but I would argue that is not exactly how the rhythms of baseball work. Yes, in baseball, sometimes talent does win out. But sometimes -- especially in short series -- it does not.
The Orioles have been in the Yankees' heads for a while now. Baltimore, with a team that seemed to be playing over its head even when it was playing .500 ball, marked the Yankees sometime in July, tracked them down, caught them close to the end. For eight innings Sunday, the Yankees looked entirely out of sorts. Derek Jeter sacrifice bunted with two strikes again,* A-Rod looked helpless at the plate again, Ichiro twice seemed to swing right through the baseball on strikeouts, and the Orioles kept threatening against CC Sabathia.
*Jeter did this in the World Series in 2009 -- that time with the Yankees up two runs -- and bunted foul for strike three. Jeter admitted then it was a dumb play. It was just as dumb on Sunday, but at least this time he got it down.
In the eighth inning, with the game tied 2-2, the Orioles had their chance. J.J. Hardy led off with a double -- and the heart of the Orioles' lineup (such as it is) was due up. And then Sabathia threw a hanging change-up right over the middle of the plate to Adam Jones, a pitch I imagine Jones will see in his nightmares for months to come. Baseball over a long season is a game of opportunities, missed and utilized, blown and exploited. Over 700 plate appearances, how many fat change-ups did Adam Jones see this season? How many did he crush? How many did he misfire on? It makes the story better to say that such differences of success and failure come down to character, to will, to the inner strength that rises up in some people in the biggest moments and does not rise up in others. Maybe. Or maybe, it comes down to a minuscule difference, an infinitesimal angle shift on the bat, a millisecond miscalculation on the swing, a slight wobble of the baseball.
Jones swung hard and fouled the pitch straight back. And then Sabathia, a pitching artist who had already made his one mistake, pounded Jones inside with a fastball, pounded him inside again, threw the nasty change-up he had intended to throw the first time and finally threw a diving slider that Jones swung right over for strike three. Matt Wieters promptly broke his bat on a foul pop-up and Mark Reynolds grounded out to Jeter after looking overmatched for his whole at-bat and that, for the Orioles, was that.
The Yankees scored five runs in the ninth and won. In that half inning, the Orioles did, in fact, look like a team that had flown too close to the sun. Jim Johnson, who had been money all year, threw a 2-0 fastball up and over the plate to Russell Martin -- a pitch, in its own way, as fat and happy as the change-up Sabathia threw to Jones, only Martin did not miss. He crushed a long home run to give the Yankees the lead. And then, it was prime-cut Yankees -- a ground-ball single by Raul Ibanez, a hit-and-run jam-shot single to right by Jeter, a perfectly placed squibber in front of the plate by Ichiro, a strikeout by A-Rod, a smashing opposite-field double by Cano, a throwing error by the Orioles, a helpless pitching change by the Orioles, a sac fly by Nick Swisher.* The Yankees won 7-2.
*To give you an idea about the joys of batting average -- Nick Swisher came into this game 1-for-31 in the postseason with runners in scoring position. He came up with runners in scoring position twice Sunday night. The first time, he walked. The second time, he hit a sac fly. That means Nick Swisher is now … oh yeah … 1 for 31 in the postseason with runners in scoring position. It's like they never happened.
Now, it's tempting to say the Orioles are done now. And maybe they are done. How could this team -- THIS TEAM -- possibly beat the Yankees three out of four, especially with three of those games at Yankee Stadium? But, again, you can't just expect logic to suddenly dictate Baltimore's path, not now, not at the end of this crazy season. The Yankees are a team of All-Stars and all-time greats. The Orioles are a team of rejects and reclamation projects. This series, by that logic, shouldn't even be happening. Of course, the Yankees look like they will win, and win with ease. If the Orioles somehow pulled this thing off, it would be a Disney movie.
Well, they still make Disney movies, don't they?