The Orioles’ improbable season marches on

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For most of the regular season, the surprising success of the Orioles was downplayed because of a negative run-differential and their penchant for winning one-run and extra-inning games. Going into tonight’s Wild Card game against the Rangers, most prognosticators didn’t give the Orioles much of a chance because they were using left-hander Joe Saunders against a lineup stacked with right-handed hitters in a venue whether he had fared poorly during his career. However, consistent with everything they did during the regular season, the Orioles just keep defying expectations.

The Orioles topped the Rangers 5-1 tonight in Arlington for their first playoff win since Game 5 of the 1997 ALCS. They’ll now advance to take on the Yankees in the ALDS beginning Sunday at Camden Yards. Yes, there will be playoff baseball in Baltimore. And that’s pretty cool.

We have seen an unlikely cast of characters play important roles for the Orioles this season and the same was the case tonight. Joe Saunders, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks in August, tossed 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. Nate McLouth, who was signed to a minor league deal in June after being released by the Pirates, had an RBI single in the seventh inning and a sacrifice fly in the ninth. Darren O’Day, who was claimed off waivers from the Rangers last November, tossed two innings of scoreless relief. Manny Machado, a 20-year-old who made his major league debut in August, had an RBI single in the top of the ninth to provide some extra insurance for the bullpen. Just another exercise in “Oriole Magic.”

The Orioles have a pretty tough task ahead of them against the playoff-tested Yankees, who will have CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte waiting for them. As such, they aren’t going to shed that underdog label anytime soon. But you know what? They’ve worn it well so far.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.