Orioles win, clinch playoff berth

The SportsXchange

BALTIMORE -- Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he's challenged his team to always stay together. They've done that throughout the season and did so once more in an interesting way Sunday afternoon.

Moments after the Orioles defeated Boston 6-3 the team came out on to the field at Camden Yards to watch the ninth inning of the Los Angeles-Texas game on the big video board in center field. The Rangers were one out away from winning, which would have clinched Baltimore's playoff spot, but Torii Hunter's two-run double in that ninth inning gave Los Angeles the win in the first game of that doubleheader.

The crowd of 41,257 at Camden Yards gave a collective sad sigh after Hunter's hit, and the Orioles then turned to walk into their first-base dugout - buoyed by a huge ovation from the fans.

"There are so many things here that can separate you," Showalter said. "Let the game, the competition, be the only thing that challenges you. I'm real proud of them."

This victory over Boston completed a sweep of the three-game weekend series and reduced Baltimore's magic number to one for clinching a playoff spot. But that number went to zero, and the Orioles wound up clinching a playoff spot later Sunday night when Texas bounced back to beat the Angels 8-7 in the nightcap of their split doubleheader.

In addition, the Orioles (92-67) stayed tied for first place with the Yankees (92-67) in the American League East after New York rallied for a 9-6 victory over the Jays in Toronto on Sunday.

Both Baltimore and the Yankees have three games remaining, and they're each also one game ahead of Oakland for the top spot in the wild-card race. The A's beat Seattle on Sunday. Whoever wins the top wild-card spot would host a one-game playoff, now scheduled for Friday.

The Orioles head to Tampa Bay to end their season with the Rays, while the Yankees host Boston (69-90) to close their regular season. This is the first time Baltimore has made the playoffs since 1997.

Several Oriole players said afterward they would have loved to clinch the playoff spot at home with the crowd watching like it was Sunday afternoon. But in the end, they just wanted to clinch in some form or another.

"I don't care - who cares?" said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones when asked about where he'd like to clinch. "You're in, you're in. I don't care. Nobody cares. We can do it at home or we can do it on the plane. We are going to party somewhere."

Jones made his comments before the Angels lost the second game of the doubleheader, so presumably the Orioles will celebrate on the plane.

The Orioles have been taking a let's-just-take-care-of business approach and trying to keep the emotions down throughout the last several days. But on Sunday, after coming so close to clinching it, some of those emotions and smiles were leaking out.

"We're close, we're right there," closer Jim Johnson, who earned his 50th save, said immediately after the Orioles' victory. "We're smelling it and obviously want to finish it off. We'll get it done. That's our mind-set."

And what a difference a year makes. Just one year ago, the Orioles played the ultimate spoiler role, knocking Boston out of the 2011 playoffs and opening the door for Tampa Bay.

The Red Sox couldn't do much this weekend in their role of spoilers as they looked flat in all three games, and the Orioles outscored them, 19-7.

"They had a losing culture here," Boston manager Bobby Valentine said. "It looks like they've turned that around. They're playing with a good feel."

On Sunday, they used the combination that's served them well all season - good pitching, defense and power hitting. Joe Saunders (3-3) threw 7 1/3 solid innings, and Baltimore got solo homers from Nate McLouth, J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis en route to the win.

Saunders came up big for the Orioles. He gave up a two-run homer to Daniel Nava, a solo shot to Cody Ross but nothing else and scattered eight hits over his 7 1/3-inning effort.

"I'm very humbled to get the opportunity to do this," Saunders said. "To be able to come out and get a victory for the ball club was pretty special. It was awesome."

The offense gave Saunders a huge lift with three runs in the first en route to an early 5-0 lead as Boston never really challenged. Showalter pulled Saunders in the eighth, earning the left-hander a huge ovation, and Darren O'Day came on to finish the inning .Johnson came on in the ninth to close it.

The Orioles removed most of the suspense early, scoring three runs on four hits in the bottom of the first off Boston starter Zach Stewart (0-2). McLouth led off with a homer to left-center on Stewart's fourth pitch to put the Orioles up, 1-0.

Hardy and Davis followed with singles before Stewart hit Jones to load the bases. Matt Wieters grounded into a double play, but Hardy scored the second run.

Boston then went into a shift against Jim Thome, a left-handed pull hitter. But Thome crossed the Red Sox up for the second time in the series by rolling a single to left field to make it 3-0.

Hardy struck again in the third, as his lead-off homer to left put the Orioles in front 4-0. The Orioles added another run later in the inning on Thome's second RBI single, which ended Stewart's day.

Stewart wound up allowing five runs on seven hits in those 2 2/3 innings. He's made three starts for the Red Sox this year, and opponents have scored 20 runs on 26 hits in just 11 1/3 innings.

Ross put Boston on the board with his solo homer off Saunders to start the fourth, cutting Baltimore's lead to 5-1. Danny Valencia got a one-out single moments later, but Ryan Lavarnway grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Boston cut the lead to 6-3 in the seventh when Nava hit his two-run homer off Saunders, but the Red Sox couldn't do anything else as Baltimore completed the series sweep.

That's when the Orioles came out on to the field to watch the Rangers unsuccessfully try and finish off the Angels. But no matter, Showalter said that even though this was the last regular-season home game, the Orioles want to be back.

"Our goal now is to try to figure out a way to play some more baseball games here at Camden [Yards]," Showalter said.

And the Rangers helped the Orioles take another step toward that goal.

NOTES: Orioles closer Johnson became the 10th pitcher to reach 50 saves in a season since the save became an official baseball statistic in 1969. Johnson had already set an Orioles record -- breaking the old one of 45 that Randy Myers set in 1997 -- and made the All-Star team back in July...Jones was presented with the Most Valuable Oriole Award before Sunday's game. Jones also won the honor in 2011, an award voted on by the media that cover the Orioles on a regular basis. Jones also made the All-Star team earlier this season...Ross has been on a roll against left-handed pitchers recently. After the fourth-inning homer against Saunders, 11 of his last 31 hits versus the lefties have been homers...The Red Sox finished with a 5-13 record against the Orioles this season. The last time Boston lost at least 12 games to Baltimore in one season came in 1970, when the Orioles held a 13-5 edge en route to their World Series title that year.
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