Still, the Yankees couldn't help but feel as though they wasted a vintage performance from 40-year-old lefty Andy Pettitte, who lived up to expectations in reclaiming his customary second slot in the playoff rotation following a one-year self-imposed absence.
Pettitte really wanted just one pitch back from his Major League-record 43rd postseason start: a hanging third-inning slider that Chris Davis banged into right field for a two-run single. Mark Reynolds' sixth-inning RBI single held up as the deciding blow.
"It was a tough game," Pettitte said. "Obviously the game came down to, I made a mistake to Davis that scored the two runs. I left him a ball right in the middle of the zone, and that was a serious mistake by me in that situation. That pretty much cost us the game."
As good as Pettitte was, the Orioles' Wei-Yin Chen proved to be a touch sharper in his playoff debut, holding the Yankees to two runs (one earned) over 6 1/3 innings. New York finished 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base.
"You're in the playoffs; there's going to be good pitching," Derek Jeter said. "We hope to get hits every time there's runners in scoring position, but that's not the case. Those guys have jobs to do, and they're in the position they're in now because they have great pitching."
Chen departed to a standing ovation from the crowd of 48,187, many furiously waving white towels urging Baltimore to "BUCKle up." They may need to, as the Yankees' home-field advantage -- earned by owning the best record in the AL -- now comes into play.
Heading to Baltimore, the Yankees would have preferred to win twice and hold a commanding lead, but they're confident knowing Buck Showalter's Orioles now face the tall order of having to win two of three in front of hostile Bronx crowds to advance.
"You have to win the series, that's really what it comes down to," Yankees catcher Russell Martin said. "We split on the road and we come back home, and we believe we can win two out of three over there."
A night after surrendering all five Yankees runs in a decisive ninth inning, Johnson effectively used what Rodriguez lauded as "a big-time cement ball" to put New York away, evening the set.
"They've been resilient all year, there's no doubt about it, the team that we're facing," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I don't expect it's going to change much, but only time will tell."
Ichiro Suzuki created New York's first run with highlight-reel baserunning, scoring on Robinson Cano's double by dodging a tag from catcher Matt Wieters. Ichiro circled around home plate and avoided Wieters for a second time before lunging to slap his hand on the dish.
"It's not something you can practice," Ichiro said through an interpreter. "It's just something you feel; it's just instincts at that time."
New York might have had more in that inning, but A-Rod lined hard to Robert Andino, who flipped to second to double off Jeter. That was just one of the moments the Yankees would grow to lament.
The Yankees had the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning but Chen escaped, and Nick Swisher flied out to leave two runners aboard in the seventh.
"Wei-Yin pitched a great game tonight," Baltimore's Nate McLouth said. "We've seen guys come up with big pitches when they need them for quite a while now."
Even a well-timed A-Rod deke couldn't help the Yankees run off some October magic. Jeter couldn't keep a third-inning Adam Jones grounder on the infield, but J.J. Hardy was either distracted by A-Rod's deke at third or did not pick up third-base coach DeMarlo Hale's frantic waves, stopping 90 feet from home.
"Sometimes you're out there and you get creative," Rodriguez said. "You hope for a miracle, and we got one there."
Pettitte's five strikeouts moved him into sole possession of second place on the all-time postseason leaderboard, behind John Smoltz (199). Pettitte entered the game tied with former teammate Roger Clemens (173).
"The bottom line is that you know that if you give up too many runs, that number doesn't have to get up too high before it adds up to a loss," Pettitte said.
The Yankees trimmed the deficit to a single run in the seventh, as Eduardo Nunez flared a double to right-center and scored on Jeter's single into left field.
But Swisher flied out against Brian Matusz with two runners aboard, and the Yankees soon boarded a northbound train, less than content with the split but expecting no less after 20 games this year in which each team has won half.
"It was a tough game; we just didn't end up on top," Swisher said. "It doesn't change our philosophy, doesn't change our mentality. We just have to go back to the Bronx, where we feel good, and win it there."