The drama started in the seventh inning, when Vernon Wells stepped to the plate with the bases loaded, two outs and the game knotted at 2. Wells drilled a pitch from Pedro Strop to straightaway center field, where two-time Gold Glover Adam Jones had trouble handling the ball and dropped it on the warning track, allowing all three runners to score.
"The way the ball was carrying tonight ... I thought he was going to be able to run it down," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The chances of [him dropping it] are slim, slim, slim, but we caught a break."
What happened next was even more shocking.
After the Orioles started the top of the eighth with back-to-back singles to bring the potential tying run to the plate, Sabathia ended the threat -- and his outing -- by inducing the first triple play of its kind.
With Nick Markakis on first and Alexi Casilla on second, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado roped a line drive to second baseman Robinson Cano, who fielded it on a short hop. Cano flipped to shortstop Jayson Nix for the first out, and that's when things got really interesting.
Instead of turning the routine double play, Nix -- knowing Casilla had to freeze momentarily on the line drive -- pivoted and rifled to third baseman Kevin Youkilis. After exchanging throws with Nix, Youkilis tagged out Casilla then -- seeing Machado had rounded first base -- fired across the diamond to first baseman Lyle Overbay. Overbay relayed it back to Cano, who tagged out Machado sliding into second base to complete the first 4-6-5-6-5-3-4 triple play in Major League history.
"You're not going to see stuff like that happen at a crucial moment," Girardi said. "You're going to see some triple plays, [but] it's not always going to be a crucial moment in the game."
In the other dugout, Orioles manager Buck Showalter knew it was simply the nature of Machado's hit that put the baserunners in an unfortunate predicament.
"The two lead runners made the right play. It's a line drive short-hop," Showalter said. "You can't go anywhere because, if he catches it, then he does get multiple outs. We just made a mistake on the trail runner trying to get a little over-aggressive, a young player. But Manny's one of the reasons why we were in that game."
Machado, in the third inning, had singled home the first run of the game to stake the Orioles to an early 1-0 lead. That run, however, would be the last earned run allowed by Sabathia, who conceded just one unearned run over the remainder of his eight innings of work while striking out a season-high nine batters.
"I thought he was brilliant tonight," Girardi said of Sabathia, who was also on the mound for the Yankees' last triple play in 2010. "I thought he had a great sinker and a great changeup and a great slider tonight. I think that was probably the best stuff he's had all year, and that's encouraging as we go on."
Sabathia settled in after allowing the third-inning run, retiring the next eight hitters, including notching five consecutive strikeouts in the fourth and fifth innings. With the southpaw dealing on the mound, it looked for a while as if a fifth-inning RBI single by Cano that put the Yankees ahead, 2-1, might hold up as the difference.
However, that all changed in the seventh inning on yet another unusual play.
With the Yankees clinging to the one-run lead, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters reached on a Youkilis error to start the frame then advanced to second on a controversial balk call against Sabathia. After Sabathia struck out Chris Davis, Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy singled up the middle to plate Wieters, with Sabathia still visibly disturbed by first baseman Larry Vanover's balk call.
"I didn't look at the tape yet, but I know I didn't move my front side," Sabathia said of the balk. "I always wipe my hand off [on my pants], and that's something that I do pretty much every pitch. It's just one of those things. But I know I didn't move my front side."
One inning later, though, Sabathia's frustration had turned to jubilation as he pumped his fist and ran off the field and into the dugout celebrating alongside Cano and Youkilis, among other teammates, following the historic triple play.
"It's special," said Youkilis, who went 3-for-3 with an RBI and an intentional walk to extend his hitting streak to nine games. "It's one of those things where it's a job and it's a grind at times, but when stuff like that happens, you feel like you're back playing Little League again. That's the fun part about it."
There's been plenty of fun for the Yankees of late, as Friday's victory pushed the club above .500 for the first time this season at 5-4. Though only nine games into the season, the four-game winning streak and triple play-type chemistry developing on the field are positive signs in Sabathia's eyes.
"It's good to have a winning streak," Sabathia said. "It's early, but we've still got to keep going, keep playing. We've been playing well, though, so hopefully we keep it going."