BALTIMORE -- These are the games the Orioles have won all year long, and Jim Johnson is the biggest reason they've won them. Close, low-scoring games in the late innings, with Johnson finishing off the job, are the bedrock of "Oriole Magic."
But on Sunday night at Camden Yards, there was no magic. There was only a scuffling Johnson repeatedly missing his spots, permitting a game-winning home run followed by a fusillade of additional Yankees base hits en route to a disheartening 7-2 Baltimore loss. The O's dropped the opener of their American League Division Series against New York by losing exactly the kind of game that got them into the playoffs in the first place.
Jason Hammel battled like Orioles starters have done all year, giving more than could have reasonably been expected from a man who hadn't pitched in almost four weeks. Troy Patton, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz survived some scary moments but kept the tie score intact. And in the ninth, with the score still knotted, manager Buck Showalter went to Johnson in hopes of keeping it even for at least one more inning.
That hope was quickly shattered. Johnson fell behind Russell Martin, 2-0, to open the inning. His third pitch was a fastball up and over the middle of the plate, and Martin did what big league hitters do with that pitch. He hammered it, high and deep into the left-field seats for the second postseason homer of his career.
From there the inning deteriorated for the Orioles, with three singles, a double, an error and a sacrifice fly adding to four more runs. But somehow you knew, even without the insurance, that Martin's homer was a game-winner.
"I made mistakes," Johnson said. "And I obviously paid for those. That was location. It wasn't necessarily anything else. It was just location. Mainly two fastballs that really cost us. But I just have to make a better pitch. That's all it comes down to."
The blast stood out not only because Johnson has been so effective, racking up 51 saves, but because of how he's done it. It was the fourth homer he had allowed all season, and the second to a right-handed batter. In his entire big league career, Johnson had permitted 19 home runs in 329 2/3 innings. He's one of the most extreme ground-ball pitchers in baseball.
But the pitch he threw to Martin was ticketed for the air, not the ground. A man who lives by getting the ball down just couldn't do it in the biggest game of his life.
"I definitely wasn't thinking home run," Martin said. "I got in a good count to hit in, and I got a pitch that was up in the zone, and he's the type of guy that doesn't necessarily make any mistakes over the plate, and in that situation he just left a fastball up, and I put good wood on it."
By the time Johnson was finished, he was charged with five runs and had recorded one out. He was lifted for Tommy Hunter, who allowed an inherited runner to score before finishing off the ninth.
Johnson doesn't give up more than two runs in a game -- he'd done it three times this year and 11 times in his five-year career. He isn't lifted for other pitchers mid-inning. Just once this year had he been removed for another pitcher mid-inning in a game where he entered with the lead.
And the Orioles don't lose close games in the late innings. Except that on Sunday, he did, and they did. And now Baltimore must win three of the next four games, with only one home game remaining, in order to advance to the AL Championship Series.
The pressure is officially on. They'll need Johnson to be right if they're going to make the run they intend to make. Fortunately, there's no hesitation to give him another chance.
"He's an integral part of this season," Hammel said. "Closing down those late innings for us, he's been automatic. You can't expect a guy to go out there every time out and be as dominant as he was this year. Obviously it's not where he wants to be. We all know that, and it is tough to watch. But we're confident that tomorrow is going to be a new day. ... Whatever adjustments he needs to make, he'll make them, and you'll see a different guy."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.