ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Buck Showalter thrust his arm into the air, then stood back and savored watching his surprising Baltimore Orioles celebrate on the field.
Champagne showers followed in the clubhouse after hugs from their manager following a 5-1 victory over the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers in the league’s first win-or-go-home wild-card playoff Friday night.
“One of our biggest regrets of the year would have been if our guys couldn’t have a moment after the game like that,” Showalter said. “We came so close a couple times. We got in the playoffs and didn’t really get to.”
The Orioles were on a team flight from Baltimore to Tampa Bay last Sunday night when their first playoff berth in 15 years was clinched. Now they get to go home for another shot to overtake the New York Yankees, with a best-of-five division series that starts Sunday at Camden Yards.
For Texas, which twice came within a strike of its first World Series title last October, there is nothing to celebrate. The Rangers didn’t win a postseason game this time, even with Yu Darvish on the mound at home.
They lost nine of their last 13 games in the regular season, which cost them their AL West crown on the final day after being swept by Oakland and put them in an unexpected elimination game — especially after leading the division for a majors-best 178 days.
“To be honest with you, I never thought anything like this would happen,” manager Ron Washington said. “I don’t get pessimistic, I always stay optimistic, and when things like this happen, I am shocked. And right now, I’m shocked.”
Texas is starting its longest offseason in three years, while Joe Saunders and the Orioles keep playing. Baltimore split 18 games this season with the East champion Yankees, the AL’s top seed.
Saunders, acquired by Baltimore from Arizona in late August, had lost all six of his previous starts with a 9.38 ERA at Rangers Ballpark. And the Orioles bullpen was already scrambling after Saunders, who hadn’t walked anybody his previous three starts, started the game by walking Ian Kinsler and giving up a single to Elvis Andrus.
But Saunders pitched effectively into the sixth. He also benefited from three double-play grounders, including Josh Hamilton’s in the first that sent Kinsler home with the only Texas run.
“Just an awesome experience. It means everything,” Saunders said. “It’s special to prove people wrong. I’ve been telling people all along that I’ve pitched better than my numbers here. … I love being the underdog. To knock off the defending two-time champs from the past couple of years is pretty amazing.”
Hamilton wound up getting booed in what might have been his last home game in a Rangers uniform.
The slugger was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, both on three pitches. He swung at the first pitch his other at-bats — including the double play in the first and a comebacker to start the sixth. He struck out with a runner at second base to end the eighth, when it was still a 3-1 game.
The former AL MVP and batting champion is eligible for free agency, and the Rangers might not be willing to pay the big money likely necessary to keep him.
“I hadn’t thought about it too much. I’m going to go home, spend some time with the family and figure out what’s going on,” Hamilton said. “I’d love to stay here. They understand it and know that. … Even if you send me off with boos, I still love you.”
Four pitches into the game, the Orioles led against Darvish, who struck out seven while allowing three runs (two earned) in 6 2/3 innings.
Nate McLouth grounded Darvish’s first pitch toward first baseman Michael Young. The longest-tenured Rangers player got charged with an error when he tried to backhand the ball, which ricocheted off the heel of his glove and away from him.
McLouth stole second base on the third pitch. J.J. Hardy then drove him in by grounding a hard single up the middle.
The O’s had consecutive singles to start the sixth before Adam Jones’ sacrifice fly made it 2-1. McLouth added an RBI single in the seventh and had a sac fly in the ninth, when the Orioles scored twice off Rangers closer Joe Nathan.
Jim Johnson, who set an Orioles record with 51 saves, allowed a walk and two hits in the ninth, including a two-out pinch single by 19-year-old Jurickson Profar that loaded the bases, before David Murphy’s season-ending flyball caught by McLouth in left field.
“Me and my teammates and the Rangers’ fans, I don’t think we all thought that it would end this early,” Darvish said through a translator. “I mean, right now, no. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do tomorrow.”
Darvish won 16 games in his rookie season in the majors, after the Rangers committed more than $107 million last winter to acquire Japan’s best pitcher. The 26-year-old right-hander was 8-2 with a 1.38 ERA in 11 postseason starts in Japan the past six seasons.
Showalter managed in Texas for four years before being fired and replaced by Washington after the 2006 season. Darren O’Day, the sidewinder who pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Saunders, is one of seven former Rangers players now with Baltimore — and advancing in the playoffs.
“I have a lot of respect for the Texas Rangers and what they’ve done these past few years and the opportunity they gave me,” said O’Day. “It was more satisfying just to make the playoffs with this group of guys. People thought we’d be making tee times right now.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)