With a 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, on Friday night, Oct. 5, in the American League's inaugural Wild-Card Playoff, the Baltimore Orioles punched their ticket to the Division Series against their AL East rivals, the New York Yankees.
The Yankees finished two games ahead of the Orioles to win the AL East title, clinching the division on the final night of the season when Baltimore lost 4-1 at St. Petersburg, Fla., to the Tampa Bay Rays.
During the regular season, the teams split 18 games, with each team going 6-3 in the other's home ballpark.
The Orioles showed during the regular season they aren't intimidated by the Yankees or by the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium. Baltimore hit the Yankee pitching staff hard in the Bronx, bashing 14 home runs and registering a .304 average while scoring 49 runs in the nine games. Overall against New York, the Orioles hit .276 with 30 home runs and scored 92 runs in 18 games.
Similarly, the Yankees hit much better at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. New York hit .284 with 13 homers in Baltimore while scoring 58 runs in nine games. Overall, the Yankees were a .258 hitting team with 24 home runs and 90 runs scored in their 18 meetings with the O's.
The road dominance shown by each club in this series could be a key in the strange 2-3 format for the Division Series. In order to fit the new Wild-Card Playoff into the playoff schedule for 2012, which had already been set prior to approval of the new postseason round, Major League Baseball had to remove one of the travel days in the Division Series. So rather than the traditional 2-2-1 format for the best-of-5 series, with the higher seeded team hosting Games 1, 2 and 5, the higher seed will be on the road to open the series.
In this case, the Yankees will play the first two games of the Division Series at Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 7, and Monday, Oct. 8, before returning home to the Bronx for Game 3 on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Game 4, if necessary, would be Thursday, Oct. 11, with Game 5 to be played on Friday, Oct. 12, should the teams split the first four games of the series.
Baltimore underwent a remarkable metamorphosis during the season, completely reinventing its starting rotation on the fly and emerging as a contender after not having posted a winning season since its last postseason appearance in 1997.
Manager Buck Showalter is a leading contender for Manager of the Year in the American League because of that transformation in his first full season at the helm.
The Orioles started the year with Wei-Yin Chen, Tommy Hunter, Jason Hammel, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta in the rotation. By September, Hunter and Matusz were working in relief, Hammel was out with a knee injury and Arrieta had been shipped out to Triple-A Norfolk. Only Chen remained in the rotation all season.
The rotation was bolstered by youngsters Chris Tillman and Steve Johnson, reclamation project Miguel Gonzalez - who wasn't even on the 40-man roster in spring training - and lefthander Joe Saunders, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks a few days before the postseason eligibility deadline of Aug. 31.
It was Saunders who started the Wild-Card Playoff win Friday night at Texas, despite going into the game with an 0-6 career mark at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
The Yankees will still be favored to put away the wild-card O's in the Division Series but don't be surprised at all if this series is a battle to the finish.
Phil Watson is a 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry and a longtime New York Yankees' fan.