At the end of the season, the Yankees were two games better than the Orioles. A two-game spread after 162 games doesn't make these clubs fundamentally different types of species, either.
The Yankees have all the history -- recent and long, long-term -- on their side, the 27 World Series championships, and the fact that since 1996, there has only been one postseason in which they were not a participant.
Before this October, the Orioles hadn't been in a postseason in this century. But they are in now. And they displayed their worthiness by defeating the Texas Rangers, 5-1, on Friday night in the American League's one-game Wild Card game. The Rangers had won two consecutive AL championships, and they were playing at home.
The Orioles were not in awe, of the circumstances or the opposition. They played as though they belonged here. And they do belong here, not only because of this one game but because they earned a shot with their performance over the six-month marathon of a season.
Oh, they didn't have the proper run differential? Spare me. The O's outscored the opposition only 712-705, which would make them essentially a .500 team. So what? Success is still based on wins and losses, and there the Orioles were the third-best team in the AL while going up against the typically rigorous competition in the AL East.
And the offensive statistics the Orioles put up were deemed as insufficiently gaudy in some quarters. They were merely ninth in the AL in runs scored, while the Yankees were second. Well, the Rangers led the Major Leagues in runs scored, but they were eliminated, courtesy of the O's.
In pitching, however, these two teams, publicity aside, are remarkably well-matched. The Yankees were fifth in the AL in team ERA at 3.85. The Orioles were sixth at 3.90. In this elemental measurement, the edge again is slight.
This number might be telling. The Orioles were unbeaten when they led after seven innings (74-0). That generally tells you something about the quality of the relief pitching, which in the case of this club cannot be overstated.
This is a true strength of this team, a relief corps with both quantity and quality. Closer Jim Johnson led the Majors with 51 saves. It is a winning combination for them; a bullpen that pitches a lot of innings, but remains supremely effective; timely hitting and an improved defense. A pitching staff built from the back end of the game is not a conventional path to success, but the Orioles have defied convention with considerable success. The question is no longer why are the O's winning, but why wouldn't they win with this combination?
Nothing that is said on behalf of the Orioles should be read as diminishing the quality of the Yankees. They have, of course, power all over the place. They led the world with 245 home runs.
They have a trio of veteran starting pitchers that should keep them afloat in any postseason matchup. Andy Pettitte, back from a retirement, and then back from a fracture, is the all-time leader in postseason victories. CC Sabathia is the rare free-agent pitching acquisition who has consistently pitched like an ace. Hiroki Kuroda, moving from the NL West with the Dodgers to the AL East with the Yankees, has put up the best season of his Major League career, even as the pitching circumstances became more difficult.
And yes, naturally, the Yankees have an insurmountable edge in postseason experience over anybody, but particularly over the Orioles. Then again, those 27 championships aren't playing here.
This matchup represents the beauty of contemporary baseball. A team like the Orioles can reach this level, regularly defeating expectations and opponents, because it has made the right choices. General manager Dan Duquette has done a brilliant job of building a winning roster without spending untold millions. Manager Buck Showalter has instilled an ethic of accountability into his club, and his players have responded with an aggressive, intelligent brand of baseball.
And on the other side there are the Yankees, the epitome of success in not only baseball, but all of North American professional sports. The central issue here becomes not whether this is an improbable meeting. The central issue is that there is reason to expect that Orioles vs. Yankees should be a terrific Division Series.