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As was noted in the Wild Card Roundtable, Joe Saunders’ performance in the Orioles’ 5-1 win over Texas serves as a near-perfect analogy for Baltimore’s season as a whole. Nobody expected either to stick around very long, but while it wasn’t pretty, both got the job done. Saunders, whom I wrote would have a short leash, didn’t need much slack tonight, hurling 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball. Though he found himself in quite a few jams of varying sizes, he never let things get out of hand. He allowed a baserunner in every inning (except the sixth, when he got pulled), but Saunders’ specialty, the well-timed groundball—including three double plays!—helped him minimize the damage. As a result, the Orioles have reached the ALDS for the first time since 1997 and will host the division-rival Yankees at home on Sunday.

Still, I’m surprised manager Buck Showalter left Saunders in as long as he did. It seemed as if he was toying with fate—Jonathan Bernhardt remarked (or perhaps cracked) during the Roundtable that Showalter would leave Saunders in until he gave up another run. It hardly seemed like a winning strategy to push his luck like that, but then again, Showalter’s strategy with his pitchers seemed counterintuitive all around.

As Ben riffed on yesterday and I mentioned this morning, the Orioles were starting a shaky pitcher yet had a very good and very deep bullpen. It would have been completely defensible (and arguably preferable) to pull Saunders after three or four innings and work the matchups the rest of the game. The Orioles did almost the opposite, though, as Saunders worked into the sixth and just two relievers bridged the gap between him and closer Jim Johnson: Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz. (And were it not for an error in the eighth, Matusz—who recorded just one out—might not have pitched at all.)

It was a surprising game all around. Between Saunders’ success (be it by design or fortunate event sequencing) and the Rangers’ lack of firepower, things went exactly the way we wouldn’t have expected. In closing out my preview, I said that “a superior offense against an inferior starting pitcher could be all that matters in this one.” I was right. I just didn’t realize which team would have which.

  • The Rangers’ defensive alignment was different than I projected, and for the better. Gentry started over Murphy, playing center and keeping Hamilton in left. Beltre was able to play third, and Michael Young played first. His athleticism may have even saved a run in the second that Napoli might not have been able to.
     
  • How about those errant pickoff throws?
     
  • I said to keep an eye on Darren O’Day, “whose submarine delivery makes him particularly effective against righties, which the Rangers’ lineup is stacked with.” Indeed, he came on to relieve Saunders and pitched in three separate innings. He retired three straight righties before lefty Mitch Moreland pinch-hit for Geovany Soto, which I also said to expect. Unfortunately, for all of my Moreland love, O’Day struck him out too, then came back in the eighth to secure two more outs.
     
  • It was surprising to see Derek Holland and Matt Harrison make the Rangers’ roster, and more surprising still to see Holland relieve Darvish. This might be a little nit-picky, so I’ll leave it at that, but it didn’t seem like a conventional call.
     
  • I loved the use of “Land of Hope and Dreams” in playoff commercials. Random, super underrated Springsteen song. Haven’t heard it in years.
     
  • The ninth inning got interesting when Jim Johnson loaded the bases before finally ending the game. As I alluded to this morning, things can get sticky for a closer who allows as much contact as Johnson does, but he managed to shut the door and send the Orioles to the ALDS. Still, that’s something to keep an eye on in the next round.
     
  • Josh Hamilton went 0-for-4 and saw just eight pitches. When Ron Washington was asked to account for this after the game, he was noticeably upset by the question: “Sometimes when he swings like that he gets a hold of it, and sometimes when he swings like that he doesn’t.” That’s a great way to summarize this game. Hamilton, like the Rangers as a whole, is terrific. But in such a small sample, having terrific talent can lead to little success.