TORONTO -- During 18 major league seasons with four teams, Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter has earned a reputation as one of baseball’s elite tacticians. His relief pitchers rave about the way he keeps them fresh and puts them in an optimal position to succeed. And opposing managers have to constantly be vigilant to the possibility that Showalter will undress them with his preparation and flair for late-inning matchups.
Which made the ending to Tuesday night’s American League wild-card game so stunning and out of character. When everything could have changed with a swing of the bat here or a managerial oversight there, Showalter committed the quintessential one-and-done transgression: He was so preoccupied with what might transpire in the 12th and 13th innings, he allowed the Orioles’ season to slip away in the 11th.
With the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays tied 2-2, Showalter went with Brian Duensing and Ubaldo Jimenez while Zach Britton, baseball’s best closer, stood idle in the bullpen. Edwin Encarnacion hit a three-run homer off Jimenez to give the Blue Jays a 5-2 victory, and Britton’s contribution consisted of warming up three times and looking on anxiously as the game unraveled.
It was such a classic case of sticking to convention -- waiting for his team to take the lead in anticipation of Britton coming on to protect it -- that media members covering the game were debating the whys and wherefores as they waited for the Baltimore clubhouse to open and Showalter to provide an explanation during his postgame news conference.
Everybody wondered: Was Britton hurt or unable to pitch?
As it turns out, Britton was healthy enough to participate. But he never threw a pitch from the only mound that matters -- on a night that Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Duensing and Jimenez all pitched in relief of Orioles starter Chris Tillman.
“I liked the job that Darren could do," Showalter said. “I liked the job that Brad could do. I liked the job that Mychal could do. I liked the job that Duensing could do. Nobody has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo, too, so there are a lot of different ways to look at it.
“That’s the way we went. It didn’t work out. It has nothing to do with 'philosophical.'"
Britton, who threw 1⅔ innings against the New York Yankees on Sunday with the Orioles pushing for a wild-card berth, said he was prepared to pitch more than one inning if necessary. He had previously recorded four or more outs seven times during the regular season.
“I was frustrated to sit and have to watch that and not participate," Britton said. “I understand that they might want to save [me] in case we do get the lead. But it’s not my job to put me in the game. That’s Buck’s call and the pitching coach’s [call]. I was prepared for whenever he needed me."
The first- and second-guessing surrounding Showalter’s bullpen management came at the end of an eventful and entertaining game between two evenly matched teams. The Orioles and Blue Jays both won 89 regular-season games, and Toronto earned the wild-card home-field advantage by taking 10 of 19 regular-season meetings from the O’s.
It was only fitting that the Orioles, who led the majors with 253 regular-season home runs, scored their only runs on a two-run shot by Mark Trumbo off Marcus Stroman in the fourth inning. But Baltimore’s all-or-nothing offense provided a lot of nothing after Manny Machado reached on an infield single in the sixth inning. The Orioles went 0-for-16 with six strikeouts after Machado’s hit.
Baltimore’s bullpen, which ranked third in the majors with a 3.40 ERA, was superb right up until Jimenez’s five-pitch implosion in the 11th. Devon Travis got things started with a lined single to left and advanced to third on another lined single by Josh Donaldson. When Showalter came out for a mound visit, it wasn’t to discuss walking Encarnacion or to signal for Britton, whose otherworldly 79.4 percent ground-ball percentage seemed to make him the ideal candidate to induce a double play. Instead, Showalter came out to talk to Jimenez about trying to do it.
Jimenez followed with a 91-mph fastball to Encarnacion, and one gargantuan home run later, Rogers Centre was in a state of euphoria.
Jimenez, who has underperformed and been frequently maligned since signing a four-year, $50 million contract with the Orioles, had helped rescue the Baltimore staff when the Orioles were in desperate straits in August and September. He posted a 3-1 record with a 2.31 ERA and held opponents to a .151 batting average in the final month. But he looked like a guy who was overwhelmed by the moment. Beyond that, he had made a total of 300 career appearances in the majors, and only eight had come in relief.
“That’s not an excuse," Jimenez said. “As a professional, you try to do the best you can in whatever position they put you. I tried to do the best I could out there, but that wasn’t my best."
As the Orioles packed their gear for the flight out of Toronto and a long offseason, talk inevitably turned to the many positives the team achieved in 2016. This was the franchise’s third postseason appearance in five seasons after a 14-year fallow stretch from 1998 to 2011, and the players derived some encouragement from that.
“It was a hell of a season," outfielder Adam Jones said. “I couldn’t be more proud of everybody in here. I’m disappointed that we’re not going on to Texas. But we’re one of the last teams in baseball after everyone went home. That says a lot about the character in this clubhouse and the tenacity that we have from guy to guy."
Left unsaid: Would things have been different if Showalter had raised his left arm for Britton at some point during the 3 hours, 25 minutes it took to complete Tuesday’s game? That’s a question a lot of disappointed Orioles fans will be asking over the coming days, weeks and months.