Orioles advance to face the hated Yankees

907217.jpg

Orioles advance to face the hated Yankees

From Comcast SportsNetARLINGTON, Texas (AP) -- Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles will get another chance to overtake the New York Yankees.The surprising O's have already beaten some big odds, getting past the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers and their Japanese ace, Yu Darvish, in the win-or-go-home wild-card playoff.Joe Saunders pitched effectively into the sixth inning at a place where he had never won, Adam Jones delivered the tiebreaking sacrifice fly and the Orioles, in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, eliminated the Rangers 5-1 Friday night."With our team it's just a bunch of guys that raised the bar and wouldn't give in and still haven't. Now they get a chance to win to roll the dice, and there's a lot of good card players in there," said Showalter, their manager.The Orioles advanced to play the East champion Yankees, the AL's top seed -- the teams split 18 games this season. The best-of-five division series starts Sunday at Camden Yards.The upstart Orioles spent the whole second half chasing New York, never passing them and falling just short in a neck-and-neck race for the division title.Turns out, the Yankees haven't brushed off these Birds just yet."Real proud of everybody. Tacking on runs were big, knew they were going to run at you," Showalter said. "But just a real proud moment for us.""Our guys approached it and we talked about it being sudden life instead of sudden death, and we played that way. You've got to seize the opportunity. We don't get many," he said.After twice coming with a strike of winning last year's World Series, this season is over that quickly for the Rangers, who were in first place for a majors-high 178 days this season. Texas loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth before David Murphy flied out to end it."We just didn't get it done," manager Ron Washington said.The Rangers lost the AL West crown on the final day of the regular season, after being swept in three games at Oakland for a stretch of nine losses their last 13 games."I'm not stunned, I was right there watching it," Washington said.Their worst slump of the season came at the wrong time for Texas, which a week ago had a four-game division lead with six games to play. Because of that, they couldn't avoid the majors' new winner-take-all postseason openers, and then couldn't get past their Orioles with their top pitcher on the mound."To be honest with you I never thought anything like this would happen," Washington said.Wiped out by San Francisco in the 2010 World Series, the Rangers twice came within a strike of their first World Series championship last October against St. Louis.When the Rangers committed more than 107 million last winter to acquire Darvish, they did so with the anticipation he'd be on the mound for many big games."Me and my teammates and the Rangers' fans, I don't think we all thought that it would end this early," Darvish said through a translator. "I mean, right now, no. I don't even know what I'm supposed to do tomorrow."They never would have expected him being outdueled in a playoff game by Saunders, a late-season addition by the Orioles who had lost all six of his previous starts with a 9.38 ERA at Rangers Ballpark."Our main job tonight was be as calm as we could and not try to do too much," Saunders said. "I think we did that to the best. We just clawed and scratched our way to a couple runs and played great defense."Saunders quickly gave up the Orioles' 1-0 lead in the first, but that was the only run he allowed in 5 2-3 innings. The left-hander struck out four and walked one."I love being the underdog. To knock off the defending two-time champs from the past couple of years is pretty amazing, I think," he said.Even though it was the postseason, the Orioles stuck to the regular Friday night uniforms -- including black tops and caps with script O's instead of the traditional smiling cartoon bird.Four pitches into the game, they led against Darvish, who struck out seven in 6 2-3 innings.Nate McLouth grounded Darvish's first pitch toward first baseman Michael Young. The longest-tenured Rangers player got charged with an error when he tried to backhand the ball, which ricocheted off the heel of his glove and away from him.McLouth stole second base on the third pitch. J.J. Hardy then drove him in by grounding a hard single up the middle -- the Orioles had only one more hit until a sequence in the sixth that needed some interpretation.The O's had consecutive singles to start the sixth before Jones' sacrifice fly made it 2-1.After backing up the plate when Jones hit the ball in the air, Darvish started stretching his shoulder and rolling his neck. Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux went out to the mound to try to figure out what was wrong when their pitcher still looked uncomfortable.Darvish's translator, Joe Furukawa, was also on his way out before initially being waved back by umpires. The six umpires then conferred before allowing the translator to come out while Darvish kept stretching and then threw a couple of pitches. Darvish said he had a cramp in the muscle on the top of his shoulder.Darvish finished the sixth with a strikeout, and started the seventh with another, before Ryan Flaherty's single and a sac bunt by Manny Machado. Derek Holland took over and gave up an RBI single by McLouth for a 3-1 lead.Even though he was a rookie in the majors, the 26-year-old Darvish was 8-2 with a 1.38 ERA and five complete games in 11 postseason starts for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters from 2006-11.McLouth added a sacrifice fly in the ninth, when the Orioles scored twice against Rangers closer Joe Nathan.Jim Johnson, who set an Orioles record with 51 saves, allowed a walk and two hits, including a two-out pinch single by 19-year-old Jurickson Profar, before Murphy's game-ending flyball to left.Saunders, who was with Arizona until the end of August, benefited from three double-play grounders and some bad swings by slugger Josh Hamilton, the former AL MVP and free-agent-to-be who might have played his last home game in a Texas uniform.Hamilton was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, both on three pitches, including with a runner at second base to end the eighth. He swung at the first pitch his other at-bats -- grounding in a double play in the first that did send home Texas' only run, and hit a comebacker to start the sixth.Even if a second wild card hadn't been added this year, the Orioles and Rangers would have been playing a winner-take-all game since both had 93 wins in the regular season.Under the old playoff rules, they would have met in a 163rd regular-season game the next day to determine the only wild card, with the winner hitting the road to open the division series.With the new format, it was a postseason game after an extra day -- when Washington gave his team off after being swept in Oakland and losing the AL West crown on the regular season's final day.The new rules also eliminated the prohibition against teams from the same division meeting in the ALDS, setting up the Orioles and Yankees.For the Rangers, they're headed into their longest offseason in three years.NOTES:Orioles 1B Mark Reynolds got hit on his right hand by a pitch in the second. He then stole second, matching his stolen base total from the regular season before getting stranded there. ... The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by 86-year-old Sister Frances Evans, a longtime Rangers fan who was escorted by Nolan Ryan to a spot a few feet in front of the plate. She wound up and threw to former Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

celtics-al-horford.jpg

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

celtics-isaiah-thomas.jpg

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.