Orioles get no relief

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Orioles hadn't hosted a postseason game at Camden Yards since 1997, so the sense of anticipation was palpable as 47,481 diehards and dreamers settled into their seats Sunday night for the opener of the American League Division Series against the New York Yankees. Even a 2½-hour rain delay couldn't kill the buzz. When you love your team and you wait 15 years for a playoff ticket, what's a little water dripping down the back of your seat?

Starting pitcher Jason Hammel, making his first appearance since a balky right knee forced him from the mound almost a month ago, could feel the energy radiating down from the stands from the first pitch of the evening.

"I honestly didn't feel anything with my knee because of the adrenaline," Hammel said. "It was unreal. To bring that sense of excitement every game, every inning for these playoffs is something we're going to need. It's special."

So much for the feel-good portion of our program. Just when the underdog Orioles thought they might be on their way to pulling off their specialty -- the hard-fought one-run victory -- an ill-fated two-seam fastball from their resident sure thing completely altered the mood.

Buck Showalter managed with a sense of urgency in the series opener, summoning closer Jim Johnson from the bullpen with the game tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth. But things went south in a hurry. Russell Martin deposited a misplaced sinker from Johnson over the left-field fence for a solo homer to give New York the lead, and the Yankees tacked on four more runs to win 7-2 and get the jump on the Orioles in the best-of-five series.

It was a rare off night for Johnson, who took advantage of a new career opportunity at age 29 to join Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Thigpen, Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley as the fifth reliever in American League history to record 50 or more saves in a season. He converted 51 of 54 opportunities, and fit the description of "dominant" despite striking out just 41 batters in 68 2/3 innings.

If Johnson does one thing particularly well, it's locate the ball below the knees and keep his infielders busy. During the regular season, he posted a ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio of 1.82. Among American League pitchers with at least 60 innings, only Pedro Strop, Johnson's Baltimore bullpen-mate, finished with a higher ground ball rate.

In 30 innings at Camden Yards this season, Johnson allowed only one home run. It came off the bat of Texas outfielder David Murphy way back on May 10.

The stakes are higher now, obviously, and the margin of error much thinner, and Johnson picked a bad time to leave his Grade A stuff in the bullpen. After Martin's homer, Johnson gave up well-placed singles to Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki and a deflating two-run double to Robinson Cano before Showalter mercifully lifted him.

Give Johnson this much: He was standing by his locker waiting for reporters to grill him the moment they entered the clubhouse after the game. He failed to pitch to his usual standards. But his post-game performance was straight out of the Brad Lidge-Trevor Hoffman school of closer accountability.

"I made mistakes, and I obviously paid for those," Johnson said. "And that was location -- mainly two fastballs that really cost us. I just need to make a better pitch. That's all it comes down to."

If the Orioles are uptight or panicky as a group, they're putting up a good facade. Mark Reynolds, Matt Wieters, Nate McLouth and several other Baltimore players stood at their lockers 20 minutes after the game and spoke in calm, measured tones without a trace of fatalism.

It's not as if the Orioles relish being in this position. But when they left spring training, most people figured they were destined to lose 90 games. Even when they started winning consistently and established themselves as a contender, they were branded a fluke in some quarters because of their unimpressive run differential.

"It would be a different story if we had been blowing everybody out and not been in these close games," Reynolds said. "We know what we're up against because we've been in these spots all year long. I think that's what gives us this calm that we can bounce back from this and put it behind us."

The Orioles will send rookie Wei-Yin Chen to the mound against Andy Pettitte in Game 2 on Monday. They're 54-23 in games decided by one or two runs this year, so it won't surprise anyone if Johnson gets an opportunity to redeem himself very soon. If that scenario comes to pass, Showalter expects his closer to be ready and experience no carryover from Sunday's clunker.

"That's the easiest question I'll get tonight," Showalter said. "It's real easy to put your faith in a guy like Jim Johnson, not only as a pitcher but as a man. He's one of the big reasons why we're out there playing this game tonight. Every guy in that clubhouse knows that he's a special guy. You'd have to be real picky to find something you don't like about Jim Johnson."

Johnson has the requisite short memory to overcome bad games, and his manager shares that attribute. The Orioles suffered through an unpleasant departure from the script Sunday night. But it's going to take more than one poor outing for them to accept that the end is close at hand.