On This Day: 2012 Ragtag Orioles Win Wild Card Game

Oct 5, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Joe Saunders (48) celebrates defeating the Texas Rangers in the 2012 American League wild card playoff game at Rangers Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 5, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Joe Saunders (48) celebrates defeating the Texas Rangers in the 2012 American League wild card playoff game at Rangers Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orioles convincingly beat the Rangers on the road.

On October 5, 2012, the Baltimore Orioles beat the Texas Rangers in the first-ever AL Wild Card Game.  A satisfying all-around performance kept Orioles Magic alive a little while longer and knocked out a team coming off back-to-back pennants.  The whole game is worth watching, even just to see Manny Machado bunt.

The O’s had last made the playoffs in 1997 and therefore introduced a new generation of Birdland fans to October baseball in convincing fashion.  The game was a bit of an afterthought at the time since earlier in the day was the infamous infield fly call in the outfield, giving the Cardinals a controversial win over the Braves.  Other than a generous strike zone, nothing buzz-worthy occurred in Texas.

What did occur was a hard-fought, if a bit sloppy, game in a tense, playoff atmosphere.  Stands of packed Rangers fans at the not-so-old Ballpark in Arlington before it was renamed then torn down is a bit of an eye shock.  TBS aired the game with a crew of Ernie Johnson, John Smoltz, Cal Ripken, and the late Craig Sager.  Smoltz was milder than what we are used to now, though he stopped himself from complaining about pitch count limits.

Cal of course introduced the O’s at the beginning of the broadcast and called them a “loose bunch of guys”.  When Smoltz commented that they have “it,” Ripken added that “they have very good chemistry.”  The Orioles, as we know, used no analytics at the time, but their intangibles were off the charts.

Seasoned veteran Joe Saunders, an August waiver trade acquisition, got the start for the road team.  In his career before that game, he was 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA at Texas.  He opposed a fresh-faced Yu Darvish in his first Major League season and had been pitching well down the stretch.  Darvish pitched much like he does today, except his curveballs were consistently 64 MPH.  The Orioles were beating the odds all year long, and they would need to once again.  After the game, Saunders said, “you always want to prove people wrong”.

Texas scored the most runs in the league behind a loaded lineup of Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, and Mike Napoli.  Mitch Moreland and a teenage Jurickson Profar came off the bench.  The Orioles famously beat their Pythagorean record by 11 games.  But the game happened at the right time for the O’s, as the Rangers were in the midst of a 2-7 skid that cost them the AL West despite a five-game lead on September 24.  The Orioles finished two games back in the AL East but were riding high on their first playoff berth of the century.

What Happened on the Field

The Orioles had most of their mainstays in the starting lineup, but Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis were both out with injuries.  Manny Machado was batting ninth, but as Cal put it, “let’s not forget about the 20-year-old phenom”.  But the less heralded names are the ones who came through.  Darvish had trouble landing his cutter, and the Birds took advantage early.  Nate McLouth reached on an error on the first pitch, stole second, and then J.J. Hardy singled him in.

The Rangers also got on the board in the first inning.  Saunders was expected to be on a short leash, and when he allowed first and third with no outs, someone started warming in the bullpen.  He then elicited a double play from Hamilton to score a run but allowed nothing else the rest of his outing.

The game then turned into a pitchers’ duel, with Saunders and Darvish putting up zeros through the fifth inning.  Saunders was effectively wild by throwing outside two-seamers to then dot one on the corner or drop in a slow curve.  The Rangers put a lot of balls in play, almost all of it was soft, leading to many groundouts and easy flyouts.  Darvish figured out his cutter, and the Orioles were consistently baffled by his diving slider.  Warming up someone in the first inning seems laughable in retrospect, because Saunders pitched 5.2 solid innings.  He gave up just the one run on six hits, one walk, and four strikeouts.

The lineup showed up again in the sixth.  After Hardy and Chris Davis hit back-to-back singles, Adam Jones drove in the shortstop with a sac fly.  In the seventh, Ryan Flaherty singled before Robert Andino pinch ran for him.  After a bunt, a pitching change, and a wild pitch, McLouth singled in the folk hero.  Darvish went 6.2 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits while striking out seven.  The Rangers could not blame him for the loss.

Once the starter was gone, Darren O’Day was lights out over two innings.  After an infield single, lefty specialist Brian Matusz retired Hamilton, who got booed for his poor performance.  The Orioles broke it open in the ninth with two more runs.  After Jim Thome walked and Andino doubled, Machado singled in pinch runner Lew Ford, McLouth hit a sac fly.  Jim Johnson made it interesting in the bottom half by loading the bases, but he got out of it.  5-1, road warriors.

Looking Back

The marketing department dubbed this squad the “BUCKle Up Birds” to fittingly celebrate manager Buck Showalter turning the team around, but fans remember them fondly as the Ragtag Orioles.  The roster featured many part-time role players throughout the season, and especially in the Wild Card Game.  Endy Chavez, Andino, Ford, and Flaherty all played in a winner-take-all game.  Saunders was an All-Star in 2008, but he is now remembered for this one start as a journeyman.

The bench players are what made the ’12 team amusing, but the stars are what made them fun.  A roster of Jones, Markakis, Roberts, Davis, Hardy, Matt Wieters, and uber-prospect Machado was way more talented than what we’d witnessed during the Dark Years.  The rotation was still pretty thin, but Jason Hammel and Miguel Gonzalez had career years, and the Orioles usually won the battle of the bullpens.  Dan Duquette got the right group guys together in his first season as GM.

This team was very enjoyable to watch–or rather, follow online as an out-of-town middle schooler.  Growing up with the 2000’s O’s would turn off most kids, but my dedication was rewarded the same year my friends suffered through Bobby Valentine.  I would anxiously follow along with all those extra-inning games and one-run squeakers, most of which ended in magical wins.  I have always loved baseball, but the 2012 Orioles made me a part of Birdland for life.