Orioles Playoffs: Birds down early, but far from out

During 14 years of losing seasons, I spent sleepless nights wondering how the Orioles were ever going to beat the Red Sox and Yankees and win the division. I watched the majority of the games during those losing seasons because I wanted to experience just how far we’d come when we were good again.

I suffered through the exploits of players like Mike DeJean, Daniel Cabrera and Jack Cust. I didn’t once consider the Kansas City Royals a legitimate threat. I never associated the phrase, “Mr. October” with Mike Moustakas.  I didn’t give Eric Hosmer or Alex Gordon a second thought.  And yet, here we are seventeen years later headed to Kansas City down 2-0 in the American League Championship series.

So “no,” I don’t want to lose to the Royals.

Jones takes it deep. (Alexandra Hewett)
Jones takes it deep. (Alexandra Hewett)

Kansas City possesses a dynamic combination of pitching, speed and occasional power that can hurt you in a number of ways. They’re playing with the frenzied energy of a College World Series team. They approached the first two games with a football mentality of “hitting us in the mouth” early on. The strategy worked and had us on the defensive in our own ballpark. We’ve never had a lead in the series. The Royals forced us to be perfect on the mound and not take risks. At the plate, our hitters are off balance and impatient.

In the first game down 5-1, we battled back and just missed blowing the game open with a Nelson Cruz home run that landed a foot below the edge of the wall. It ended up being a double scoring one and not a three-run jack. Ryan Flaherty’s long single into the right field corner with two on would have scored the go-ahead run if Aoki hadn’t made a great play.

We never blew the game open and we had multiple chances to do so.

We’ve done everything but win the first two games. We’ve thrown out their base stealers and knocked out their starters. We’ve battled and scraped our way back, but we’ve not had that inning that blows the game open.  Both games have been exciting to watch.

The Royals just keep getting on base. They play both small and long ball and are playing the best baseball of their lives. This Royals team reminds me of the Oakland A’s teams of the early 1970s. It was Charles O. Finley, A’s owner who first introduced speedsters as pinch runners. Hosmer, Gordon and Moustaka  remind me of Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi and Sal Bando. They also had Bert Campaneris who would walk, steal second and third with his spikes high to start a game. The A’s featured Rollie Fingers in the bullpen – as untouchable as his handle-bar moustache.

The A’s pitchers closed the door in the late innings. Kansas City relievers Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Al Holland have been better than our relievers Darren O’Day and Zach Britton.  That’s what the edge boils down to. The difference in the series is the Royals’ bullpen.  When you get this far, the advantages are slight and the match-ups everything.

I headed to the Yard on Saturday afternoon with my son Quinn. I was giving him the gift of playoff baseball, just as my father had given to me in the 1970s. On the way in, I saw “Schwally” Greg Schwalenberg, the most lovable beer vendor in the Major Leagues and took it as a good luck charm. We couldn’t lose again.

Hardy has been clutch this year. (Alexandra Hewett)
Hardy has been clutch this year. (Alexandra Hewett)

In Game 2, we’d all but shut them down in the third and then Lorenzo Cain beat out a hit on a bang-bang play and they scored a run.  We’ve had our chances, loading the bases and failing to cash in. With runners on first and second and nobody out in the bottom of the seventh, Adam Jones struck out on three pitches. Cruz singled hard to left, and we could score from second. Pearce popped weakly to shallow left and Hardy flied out.  Jones had homered and singled in his first two at bats. What about a bunt there to move the runners over – a surprise move that might have worked to load the bases?

We need to play with the reckless abandon that won the AL East.

With the series moving to Kansas City, we can get back to the baseball that got us here.  We need to win one game and build on that. Buck Showalter knows how to take away parts of their game and he will do so before it’s over.

All championship teams respond when they are facing elimination.

The Royals did so down 7-3 to Oakland with Jon Lester on the mound in the wildcard game and they are feeding off that.

Now it’s our turn.

One loss will stop the train and make them think.

In 2014, adversity has been a gift to the Orioles.

Let’s just win one and go from there.

Jarrod Dyson, the speedy KC outfielder said “The O’s are out of fight.”

This is what you tape to the clubhouse door from here on in.