Saunders delivered, turning in a solid start that paved the way for Orioles manager Buck Showalter's crew to do what they have done all season: defy their critics. Saunders rebuked an abysmal record in Arlington and the Orioles manufactured a trio of runs off Yu Darvish to stun the Rangers in a win-or-go-home showdown. The victory, in front of 46,931 -- the largest crowd the Orioles have played in front of all season -- gives Baltimore its first playoff win since Oct. 13, 1997, against Cleveland and makes the O's storybook season that much sweeter.
"This makes up for it," said reliever Darren O'Day, who tossed two scoreless innings. "This [Rangers club] was a team that was favored to win the American League. For us to come out of nowhere and beat them was pretty awesome."
"We talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death, and we played that way," Showalter, who has helped engineer a total turnaround of the Orioles culture, said of the new one-game Wild Card format. "You've got to seize the opportunity. We don't get many."
Considered a strong candidate for AL Manager of the Year, Showalter watched from the dugout like a proud father as his players sprinted onto the field, jumping and diving into a joyous dog pile. But as soon as Showalter set foot into the clubhouse, it was a different story. The players immediately flanked their manager, who stopped and simply bent over, letting the champagne pour down his face and sting his eyes before finally standing up and exchanging a hug with first-year executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
"We had everything to gain and nothing to lose tonight," Duquette, who was equally soaked, said of an Orioles club expected by many to finish last in the AL East. "This team is fearless. They go out and they put it on the line every day."
And on the biggest stage, Saunders led the charge. The 31-year-old, who entered Friday with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts at Rangers Ballpark, shined in a gutty 5 2/3-innings outing. Using three double plays -- tying a club postseason record -- Saunders never had a clean frame but managed to keep a lethal Texas lineup in check. The first pitcher in Major League history to start a postseason game at a ballpark in which he is 0-6 or worse, Saunders held Rangers sluggers Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre hitless in six at-bats.
"As a baseball player and an athlete, you always want to prove people wrong. We strive on that, and I strive on that, too," Saunders said. "No one really gave me a chance, and I wanted to go out there and prove people wrong."
"He had two good outings in a row and I felt like if he could get his feet on the ground, all the emotion around the ballpark, you could see the experience that he's had play out," Showalter said.
The Orioles got on the board before Saunders took the mound, but the Rangers evened the score in the first on Hamilton's double-play ball, which scored Ian Kinsler, who led off with a walk. Manager Buck Showalter had right-hander Steve Johnson warming up after the first two batters reached base, but Saunders escaped the inning with only one run allowed.
"It was a little dicey in the first inning, walking Kinsler to lead off, and then just got a big double play," Saunders said. "I just kept telling myself, 'Hey, minimize damage. Keep us in the game.' I got some big double plays against a really great team. Hat's off to our defense, and we got some really clutch hits."
He worked his way out of trouble again in the fourth, allowing a pair of one-out singles to put runners on the corners. But Saunders -- who lived on the outside pitch -- struck out Mike Napoli for the second time and got Geovany Soto to ground out to keep the game tied, 1-1.
Acquired in an August trade with Arizona, Saunders -- who grew up an Orioles fan in Virginia -- threw 77 pitches (46 strikes) and scattered six hits and a walk with four strikeouts. He exited in favor of right-handed reliever O'Day, who got Nelson Cruz to pop out to end the sixth.
"That's our M.O.," O'Day said of the Orioles' ability to scratch out wins when the odds are stacked against them. "We've been having a good time playing ball, a bunch of ballplayers on this team and for Joe to go out there tonight and do what he did was something special."
The Orioles scored on Darvish's fourth pitch, with J.J. Hardy's single scoring Nate McLouth, who reached on first baseman Michael Young's error to lead off the game and promptly stole second. Darvish retired 15 of the next 17 batters, but the O's hung in and Hardy got the scoring started again with a sixth-inning leadoff single. Former Rangers first baseman Chris Davis followed with a hit to put runners on the corners, and Adam Jones broke the tie with a sacrifice fly.
The O's pushed another run across on Darvish in the seventh for a little breathing room and they added a pair of runs off Rangers closer Joe Nathan in the ninth, courtesy of McLouth's sacrifice fly and Machado's RBI single.
"Nobody thought we could make the playoffs nobody thought we could win this game," said closer Jim Johnson, who worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth. "Who cares? We don't, obviously. We are going to play hard and see what happens at the end."
An Orioles bullpen that went 74-0 when leading after seven innings during the season continued its shutdown mode. O'Day retired the first five batters he faced before Kinsler's single, and he handed the ball to lefty Brian Matusz after tying a season-high with two innings. Matusz struck out Hamilton on three pitches, making him 15-for-15 in stranding inherited runners since moving to the bullpen.
"This is so, so rewarding," veteran slugger Jim Thome said of an Orioles club that will face the Yankees in a five-game ALDS starting Sunday. "Hopefully, we got a great journey ahead of us. This never gets old, no doubt."