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For our younger readers, there was a time in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when the center of the sports universe -- baseball, basketball and football -- revolved around Baltimore and New York. It was revived briefly in the mid-'90s in baseball, and now, at least for baseball, it is finally back. Hop on I-95, or jump a train, it's the Orioles and the Yankees in the ALDS.
Here are five questions.
Absolutely. This team had gone 14 straight years not only under .500 but not within 13 games of first place in any season since 1997. This year, the O's nearly won the American League East, won a wild-card playoff game despite not having a .300 hitter among the regulars, with no 90-RBI man, with 12 starting pitchers, only one of whom made more than 20 starts, with 19 different pitchers who won a game (including Chris Davis), and with 10 pitchers with five or more victories, one short of the major league record. They won because they hit home runs, because they have a great bullpen and because they had the greatest winning percentage in extra-inning games -- 29-9, .763 -- in any season since 1900. (And they won 16 consecutive extra-inning games, the longest streak since the 1949 Indians.) They won because their manager, Buck Showalter, convinced them that they could. He created an us-against-the-world mentality, and he made them stand up to the Yankees. The result has been a breathtaking return to prominence.
It is as good as it has been all year. Ace CC Sabathia struggled for a few starts after coming off the disabled list in late August, but caught fire late, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his final three starts, going at least eight innings in all of them. Andy Pettitte (19-10 lifetime in 42 starts in the postseason) has made a second remarkable return, first from retirement, then from injury, and seems well suited for the spot in which he excelled so often in the glory years: No. 2 man in the rotation. Hiroki Kuroda recently told us he doesn't enjoy playing baseball and never has, but he's pretty good at it: 16 wins out of the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Phil Hughes is the No. 4, if needed, but he likely won't be with Sabathia being back to himself and able to pitch Games 1 and 5, if needed.
It is set up perfectly, if there is such a thing for a rotation that hasn't been set up all season. The young pitchers who were supposed to carry the rotation this year -- Matusz, Jake Arrieta, et al. -- either failed or got hurt and were replaced by others, including by Miguel Gonzalez, who was signed out of the Mexican League and was not in big league camp this spring, but wound up winning nine games, including becoming the first visiting rookie pitcher ever to strike out eight and walk none in a winning start at Yankee Stadium, new or old. Now Gonzalez, Jason Hammel, once the Orioles' best pitcher before suffering a knee injury, Wei-Yin Chen and Steve Johnson are all well rested, and capable of starting Game 1 of the ALDS. This is how far the Orioles have come since last year, when they had no choice but to throw lefty reliever Clay Rapada against three right-handed hitters in the fourth inning of a game. Now Showalter has all sorts of choices in the 'pen and the rotation.
He finished the season with 24 hits in his last nine games, tying Earl Coombs (1927), Lou Gehrig (1936) and Bernie Williams (2002) for the most hits by any Yankee in any nine-game stretch in their glorious history. Now the Yankees have that guy in the middle of the order who can drive in a run at any time, maybe even in a clutch situation, which was such an issue for most of the season. Now it's up to Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (who is battling a hamstring issue) to find their power strokes to go with Curtis Granderson, who got hot late to finish with 43 homers, the most by a Yankees outfielder since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961. The Yankees scored 48.4 percent of their runs this year via the home run, the highest rate in the major leagues. The Orioles scored 47.3 percent of their runs via the home run, the second-highest rate in the major leagues. So, maybe it's not such a bad thing to hit home runs. Look for a whole bunch in this series.
The Orioles were 74-0 this season in games in which they led after seven innings. The only teams in major league history with a better regular-season record than that were the 1972 Pirates and the 2011 Tigers. Closer Jim Johnson could have been their best eighth-inning guy or their best starter, but he became the 10th pitcher to save 50 games in a season, and he did so with the fewest strikeouts (5.5 per nine innings) of any 50-save season in history. He did so without a four-out save, joining Frankie Rodriguez in 2008 as the only pitchers ever to do that in a 50-save season. But there was no reason for Johnson to get four outs. No one, but no one, handled his bullpen better than Showalter, and he always had the right matchup, be it with Pedro Strop or Darren O'Day or Luis Ayala, or one of his leftover starters, such as left-hander Brian Matusz. "We make it a six-inning game,'' said Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy. You'd better get the Orioles early because you won't get them late.
The pick: Yankees in five.