- Molly Knight
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- It cost the Texas Rangers $107.7 million to get their starter for Friday's sudden-death American League wild-card game. It cost the Baltimore Orioles a nondescript right-handed reliever to get theirs.
When Joe Saunders was traded from Arizona to Baltimore in late August for Matt Lindstrom, few could have imagined he would deliver the club's first playoff victory in 15 years. He did just that on Friday, tossing 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball, tight-roping his way out of trouble time and time again like a cartoon bird on a wire.
And when it was all over, Saunders stood in his socks in the center of a raucous clubhouse celebration, champagne drenched to the bone, and smiled. "Nobody really believes in us," said the 31-year-old southpaw who grew up an Orioles fan in Virginia. "But we believe in ourselves."
Saunders knew he was seen as the heavy underdog against Yu Darvish, the Rangers' dazzling offseason import. Then again, that role is nothing new for these Orioles, a team seemingly held together by popsicle sticks and silly putty that just won't quit. Most think it's silly Baltimore got this far in the first place. Though the club finished 24 games over .500, they outscored their opponents on the season by a mere seven runs -- 113 fewer than the Rays, who finished behind them in the AL East and did not make the playoffs. For the first 161 games of this season, the Rangers were considered the best, if not deepest, team in the American League. The two-time defending AL champs will now have to watch the rest of the postseason from their living rooms, courtesy of the black and orange upstarts.
"We love being the underdog," said Saunders. "When you're the favorite the pressure's on you. When you're the underdog, there's no pressure. So for us it's like [manager] Buck [Showalter] says, we were able to come in here and play with house money."
Baltimore proved it belonged at the table Friday night, turning a sudden-death game into sudden life.
In a season defined by timely contributions from unlikely heroes, Nate McLouth continued the trend in the inaugural wild-card elimination game. The 30-year-old journeyman outfielder reached on an error in the first inning, stole second, and scored the first run of the game before an out was recorded. His two-out single in the seventh put the Orioles up 3-1 and his RBI sacrifice fly in the ninth put the game out of reach.
It's been a roller coaster of a season for McLouth, who was designated for assignment by the Pirates in May, signed by Baltimore to a minor league contract in June, and not even called up to the big league club until August. After the game, McLouth appeared almost dazed, his blond hair slicked back by beer, silently clutching an unopened champagne bottle and eyeing the impromptu dance party happening in front of him. "It's been a strange year," said McLouth, shaking his head. "To come in here and win a big do-or-die game on the road in a place this hard to play in is just an amazing feeling."
It didn't look good for the O's early. Despite taking a 1-0 lead in the first, Saunders allowed the first two runners he faced to reach base, prompting action in Baltimore's bullpen. Showalter joked before the game that he had the ringer on the phone in the bullpen at Camden Yards turned down until more fans started showing up because his starters could hear it from the mound mid-pitch.
"Oh, I definitely saw Steve-O [Steve Johnson] warming up in the first and I told myself, 'Do not let him come in the game,'" said Saunders. "That's when I bore down."
Saunders took the Orioles into the sixth before handing the lead over to the club's much ballyhooed bullpen that posted an incredible 74-0 record when leading after seven innings this season. Friday was no different. Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz and Jim Johnson combined to shut the door on a frustrated Texas team that blew a four-game lead over Oakland with six to play to find themselves in this predicament. In the end, the Rangers' recent playoff experience was no match for Baltimore's magical season.
After the final out was recorded and the last drop of champagne was dumped over his head by a pack of jubilant teammates, Saunders was already looking ahead. "We're not finished," he said. "We hung with the Yankees for 161 games and we're looking forward to getting a chance to play them again."
But the beginning of the American League Division Series on Sunday can wait. As his teammates danced and sang and chanted, Saunders walked into a hallway outside the clubhouse and stood by himself for a minute, soaked and soaking it all in.