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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: October 11, 3:51 AM ET
Orioles' season on the line

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Baltimore Orioles stood gamely at their lockers late Wednesday night and delivered the rote answers that are the last refuge of teams on the brink. We've been a resilient team all year, so why stop now? You can't win two games until you get the first one. And as any reliever who's walked off the mound after blowing a late lead or giving up a walk-off homer can attest, You need to have a short memory to survive in this game.

Perhaps because Miguel Gonzalez is a rookie and this is his first October experience, he let down his guard a little, and provided a glimpse into the anguish and emptiness he felt sitting in the dugout and watching Raul Ibanez blow the top off Yankee Stadium. With two memorable swings and accompanying trots, Ibanez turned a seemingly sure win for the Orioles into a soul-crushing defeat that could haunt the Baltimore franchise for years.

"It breaks your heart," Gonzalez said.

Baltimore fans have suffered through a fallow stretch for a decade and a half, so maybe they were out of practice for the flurry of agony that transpired Wednesday. Gonzalez pitched valiantly for seven innings, fellow rookies Ryan Flaherty and Manny Machado hit solo homers, and the Orioles were two outs from taking a 2-1 lead in the American League Division Series when the unthinkable happened: Relievers Jim Johnson and Brian Matusz experienced Byung-Hyun Kim moments at the hands of Ibanez, and the Orioles, rather than the Yankees, now find themselves one loss from elimination.

Before the Game 3 shocker, the Orioles were 76-0 when they led after eight innings and had won 16 straight extra-inning games. The skeptics said the Orioles' luck might turn eventually, and sure enough, they finally paid for all that fun. This defeat hurt so much, it could have counted twice.

"It's a tough loss," center fielder Adam Jones said. "But there's no such thing as an easy loss. At this point in the season, you've just got to flush it out. On the bus ride back to the hotel, I'm sure multiple guys are going to be thinking, 'If I did this,' or, 'If I did that.' OK. Think about it and then just come out tomorrow ready to strap it back on.

"Tee-high, let it fly. That's what [Buck] Showalter has been telling us most of the year. Let it rip. Play the way that got you here and live with the results."

Ibanez's late heroics put a painful slant on what had been a neat feel-good story for the Orioles. Until Ibanez showed up, three Baltimore rookies drove the agenda and debunked the notion that newcomers might be intimidated on the big stage at Yankee Stadium in the postseason.

Gonzalez -- a former Angels farmhand, Red Sox Rule 5 pick and Tommy John surgery survivor -- challenged the Yankees with fastballs, and kept them off balance with his changeup and curve while allowing only one run in seven innings. He struck out eight Yankees and didn't walk a batter.

Flaherty, selected from the Cubs' organization in the Rule 5 draft, became the first Maine native to homer in the postseason when he took Hiroki Kuroda into the right-field stands in the third. And Machado, a former first-round pick who has "star" written all over him, gave the O's a 2-1 lead with a homer in the fifth.

After Darren O'Day retired the Yanks in order in the eighth inning, things set up nicely for Johnson, he of the 51 regular-season saves and roller coaster 2012 playoff odyssey. The Yankees rocked Johnson for five runs in a 7-2 victory in the series opener, but Johnson came out smoking in Game 2, and retired Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Alex Rodriguez on 12 pitches to earn the save.

Welcome to the life of a closer in October. One night, Johnson bore the strain of letting down his teammates in a huge spot. The next night, the mood in the Baltimore clubhouse was so jocular that O'Day spent several minutes riding Johnson for his lack of basketball prowess. As Brad Lidge, Dennis Eckersley and other prominent closers can attest, a reliever's self-image can change from one pitch to the next at this time of year.

In Game 3, Johnson returned to suffering mode. With one out in the ninth, New York manager Joe Girardi threw everyone for a loop by lifting A-Rod and sending up the left-handed hitting Ibanez.

"That part caught me off guard," said Jones, who watched the inning play out from center field. "Pinch hitting for a guy who's half a billionaire."

Johnson, a sinkerballer, knew Ibanez is an excellent low-ball hitter, but he caught way too much of the plate with a 94 mph two-seamer, and Ibanez lined it five rows into the right-field seats to tie the game.

"I missed over the plate, and he put a good swing on it," Johnson said. "It's on me, obviously, not executing the pitch. I had every intention of getting it where I wanted to. It's fractions here and there, and they get magnified in the playoffs. It comes down to location. It's frustrating, but you have to get over it quick."

Three innings later, one of Johnson's bullpen mates came to share his sense of regret and remorse. Matusz has been borderline unhittable of late, with a 1.35 regular-season ERA in 18 relief outings and more excellent work in the playoffs. But he got too generous with a 91 mph cutter, and Ibanez clubbed it into the second deck to send everyone home for the evening.

For all the focus on the bullpen, the Orioles aren't making life easy on themselves with their lack of offensive production in this series. J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters and Jones, three big offensive cogs for the Orioles, are hitting a combined .105 (4-for-38) against the Yankees. Jones also took a suspect route on a long fly ball by Jeter in the third inning and played it into an RBI triple. To compound matters, the TV replay captured Jones blowing a bubble in slow motion.

"It definitely wouldn't be me to make an excuse," Jones said. "I plain missed the ball. I don't know what happened. I thought it was where it was going to be, and I thought wrong at the time. It cost us a run."

The Orioles have some soul searching and a gut check in front of them as they try to win back-to-back games in the Bronx. For what it's worth, their manager has spent the entire season conditioning them to live in the moment. Showalter adheres to that mindset as well. When asked how big a knot he felt in his stomach after Wednesday's missed opportunity, he refused to take the bait.

"Is that what I'm supposed to do?" Showalter said. "Is that what the conventional thinking is? Well, we don't live in that world."

For much of this season, the Orioles have lived a charmed existence filled with walk-off celebrations and shaving cream pies. Now they'll come to the park with zero margin for error. Showalter likes to say the 2012 Orioles have a firm grip on reality. It'll be tee-high, let it fly Thursday night. Win or go home.