The Baltimore Orioles reached the postseason for the first time in 15 years because of its incredible record in one-run games and in extra innings.
The Orioles were a major-league best 29-9 in one-run decisions and after losing their first two extra-inning games of the season to the New York Yankees on April 10-11, Baltimore didn’t lose again when the game went beyond nine innings, winning 16 straight extra-inning games—one short of the record of 17 straight set by the Cleveland Indians in 1949.
Teams don’t have that sort of success in close or late situations without a great bullpen, and the Orioles bullpen was outstanding in 2012.
The Baltimore bullpen was 32-11 with a 3.00 ERA. The relief wins were the second-highest total in the major leagues, second to only the freak show that was the Colorado Rockies and the 75-pitch limit for their starters.
The 3.00 ERA was the third-best relief mark in the American League, trailing only the Tampa Bay Rays (2.88) and Oakland Athletics (2.94). The relief corps’ 78.5 left-on-base percentage was the fourth-best in baseball.
Closer Jim Johnson was outstanding, converting 51 of 54 save opportunities and recording a 2.49 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 68.2 innings over 71 appearances. Setup men Pedro Strop (24 holds, 2.44 ERA, 1.34 WHIP in 66.1 innings and 70 appearances) and Darren O’Day (15 holds, 2.28 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 67 innings, 69 appearances) were also very good.
The bullpen had to be that good because the starting rotation was pedestrian, at best, with a 4.42 ERA and just one complete game this season.
But in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees on Sunday night, Johnson couldn’t get it done. Manager Buck Showalter called on his relief ace to start the top of the ninth in a 2-2 game.
Russell Martin greeted Johnson with a solo home run after Johnson had allowed only three homers all season.
As it turns out, that was just the beginning of the tsunami of runs against Johnson.
Raul Ibanez singled to shallow right field, and Derek Jeter followed up with a flare into short right to chase Ibanez to third.
Ichiro Suzuki drove in pinch-runner Eduardo Nunez with a single to give New York a 4-2 lead.
Johnson finally got an out when he punched out Alex Rodriguez, but Robinson Cano followed that with a double down the left field line that scored Jeter and Suzuki.
Cano moved to third on an error by J.J. Hardy, the Orioles shortstop. That was it for Johnson.
Nick Swisher hit a fly ball to center field off Tommy Hunter that was deep enough to score Cano, and the book on Johnson was closed: five runs, four earned, on five hits in one-third of an inning.
With the win, the Yankees guaranteed at least a split at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, an absolute necessity this year in the Division Series with the unconventional 2-3 format leading to the higher-seeded teams opening the series on the road.
It was a shocking collapse by a closer who had been all but lights-out since getting lit up by the Oakland Athletics for six runs in one-third of an inning on July 27. From that point on, Johnson allowed just one run over his final 26 appearances, recording a WHIP of 0.80 and an 0.36 ERA in 25 innings and notching 21 straight saves.
Without the bullpen performing to its regular-season levels, this will be a very short series for Baltimore.