The Orioles' 2016 postseason died on the branch in Toronto Oct. 4.
The Birds suffered a heartbreaking 5-2, 11-inning loss to the Blue Jays during the Wild Card game, as Edwin Encarnacion put a stake in the Orioles' season with a three-run walkoff home run.
Although there was plenty of blame to go around for the Orioles' season-ending loss -- including an offense that managed just four hits in 11 innings and none after the sixth inning -- the game will most be remembered for a baffling managerial decision. Manager Buck Showalter used six relievers in the game without ever bringing in closer Zach Britton, who had a dominant regular season in 2016. In the end, Ubaldo Jimenez coughed up three hits in the 11th, including the Encarnacion blast, to end the Orioles' playoff run barely after it began.
After the game, Showalter was peppered with questions from the media about his decision not to use Britton. He insisted Britton was healthy and available and said he simply preferred his other relief options.
That wasn't the only decision that backfired on Showalter. His decision to use Chris Tillman over Jimenez to start the Wild Card game didn't pan out well, as Tillman's performance fell mostly flat. His first mistake came in the second inning when he fell behind Jose Bautista 3-1 in the count and left a fat pitch Bautista clobbered into the left-field seats. That gave the Jays a 1-0 lead.
The Blue Jays, like the Orioles, made a somewhat controversial starting pitching choice, electing for righty Marcus Stroman over lefty Francisco Liriano despite the extreme splits of the Orioles' offense this season (a .234 average and .693 OPS against southpaws, compared to .263 and .783 against righties). Early on, Stroman made manager John Gibbons' decision look smart, mowing down the first nine batters he faced and feeding off the energy from the sellout crowd at Rogers Centre.
The Orioles, though, broke up Stroman's no-hitter and shutout in the fourth. Adam Jones led off with a single. With two down, Mark Trumbo -- making his first postseason appearance during his seven-year career -- golfed a two-run homer just over the left-field wall, putting the Birds on top, 2-1.
Despite that hiccup, Stroman continued to pitch well against the Orioles. He was pitch-efficient, throwing just 81 pitches in six innings, and allowed two hits -- both singles -- after the Trumbo blast. Orioles hitters seemed anxious and overaggressive, often hacking at the first pitch and getting themselves out.
Tillman wasn't as successful against the Jays lineup. He struggled with his command at times, but he was able to gut his way through it for innings one through four. He met his demise in the fifth, though. With one out, Michael Saunders laced a ground-rule double into the left-field corner. The next batter, Kevin Pillar, drove a shot down the right field line. Michael Bourn, who had previously made two excellent catches, raced to catch up to the ball but had it glance off his glove and into the corner. Saunders got a bad read on the play and was only able to advance to third on Pillar's double.
No. 9 hitter Ezequiel Carrera drove Saunders home anyway, ripping an RBI single to center that tied the game at two. Showalter decided he could go no further with Tillman, who lasted 4.1 innings and gave up two runs on four hits, walking one and striking out four. He threw 74 pitches. Had this been a regular-season game, Tillman surely would've had a longer leash, but in a one-game do-or-die situation, Showalter needed a fresh arm.
Righty Mychal Givens, making his first career postseason appearance, saved the day for the Birds. With the go-ahead run at third, Givens threw just one pitch and got Devon Travis to ground to third for an inning-ending double play.
Givens retired all six batters he faced, and fellow rookie Donnie Hart retired Melvin Upton a long flyout to end the seventh. That play brought one of the ugliest moments in recent postseason memory. As left fielder Hyun Soo Kim camped under the ball, a Blue Jays fan threw a can of beer onto the field that nearly hit him.
The Orioles were livid, with Kim glaring into the stands while Jones screamed and gestured at fans. Showalter stormed out of the dugout for an extended discussion with the umpires, and Rogers Centre security swarmed to search for the fan who had thrown the beer. This wasn't the first time Blue Jays fans had thrown things onto the field. In last year's AL Division Series against Texas, fans peppered the field with trash after a controversial call gave the Rangers a late-inning lead. And in 2013, a Blue Jays fan threw a beer at then-Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth during a play.
The Orioles' anger, though, didn't bring any spark to their offense. The Birds were held hitless by the Blue Jays' bullpen, despite Toronto's relief struggles in September. Five Jays relievers combined for five scoreless innings, including Liriano, who entered the game in the 10th after closer Roberto Osuna left with an injury.
Still, a battle of the bullpens would seem to favor the Orioles, considering they had an ace in the hole: Britton, their dominant, perfect closer who will be in contention for the AL Cy Young award. However, as the game progressed, Showalter never got Britton into the game, instead nearly emptying his bullpen with all his other available relievers. After Givens and Hart came Brad Brach, who pitched a scoreless eighth. Many fans expected to see Britton pitch the ninth in a tie game, but Brach stayed on and allowed a leadoff double to Donaldson. Even with the winning run in scoring position, Showalter didn't turn to Britton, instead bringing in righty Darren O'Day with one out.
That decision paid off when O'Day induced a double play on one pitch, escaping the jam and sending the game to extra innings. To the consternation of O's fans, Britton still didn't appear. O'Day worked the 10th inning as well, and in the 11th, Showalter turned to another lefty -- Brian Duensing -- instead of Britton. After Duensing retired his batter, Showalter went to the bullpen again, this time for Jimenez.
At that point, many fans and media began to wonder whether Britton had injured himself and was unavailable. It seemed to defy explanation Showalter would fail to use the most valuable relief weapon in baseball when his team was fighting for its playoff life in an extra-inning game.
The Orioles' end came quickly. Jimenez -- who hadn't pitched in relief since Aug. 19 -- threw just five pitches and got nobody out. Travis and Josh Donaldson ripped back-to-back singles, and then Encarnacion jumped on Jimenez's first pitch and swatted a mammoth home run to left field, a no-doubt-about-it shot that sent the Blue Jays and their fans into hysterics.
The O's trudged off the field, their season finished, and Showalter's decision to leave Britton stapled to the bullpen bench -- waiting for a save situation that never came -- is likely to be second-guessed in Baltimore for a long time.