Saunders, the veteran lefty fresh off a Wild Card-round clincher, is the Orioles' starter for Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
O's manager Buck Showalter didn't name his pitcher for what's now a must-win game until after the Yankees walked off winners in Game 3 on Wednesday night, 3-2, in 12 innings. Ibanez hit the game-tying and game-winning home runs, putting Baltimore down 2-1 in the the best-of-five series.
Right-hander Chris Tillman, seven years younger than Saunders at 24 and still awaiting his first career postseason appearance, was the other option. He was one of the hottest pitchers in the American League in the last month and a half.
But Showalter has already seen what Saunders can do in a save-the-season game. He threw 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in a 5-1 win over the Rangers on Friday, sending the O's into the ALDS.
"We feel good about both of them," Showalter said. "Joe obviously coming off a real good start in a pressure situation, a game that we had to win, and he'll find himself back in that spot again. Joe is a guy that gives you a chance to win, and he'll compete, and he knows -- we feel good with him out there."
The O's kept the matter such a mystery that Yankees manager Joe Girardi still hadn't been told who would be starting against his team the next day when he walked into the Yankee Stadium interview room Wednesday night. That was directly after Showalter's session.
Tale of the Tape: Game 4
|2012 regular season|
|Overall: 28 GS, 9-13, 4.07 ERA, 39 BB, 112 K||Overall: 32 GS, 16-13, 4.23 ERA, 46 BB, 165 K|
|Key stat: Held lefties to a .199 average and .451 OPS in the regular season without allowing a home run.||Key stat: Tied for team lead in wins with 16.|
|At Yankee Stadium|
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 3.00 ERA (old Yankee Stadium)
| 2012: 16 GS, 11-4, 3.74 ERA
Career: 68 G, 44 GS, 27-11, 4.40 ERA (new Yankee Stadium only)
|Against this opponent|
|2012: 1 GS, 1-0, 3.38 ERA
Career: 6 GS, 3-1, 5.82 ERA
|2012: 4 GS, 2-2, 4.76 ERA
Career: 17 G, 14 GS, 6-4, 5.10 ERA
|Loves to face: Mark Teixeira, 3-for-18 (.167), 0 RBIs
Hates to face: Alex Rodriguez, 6-for-17 (.353), 2 HRs, 5 RBIs, 4 XBHs, 1.382 OPS
|Loves to face: Chris Davis, 3-for-16 (.188), 1 HR, 6 Ks
Hates to face: Mark Reynolds, 3-for-12, 2 HRs, 1 DBs, 5 RBIs
|Why he'll win: Has been sharp, winning his last two starts, including Wild Card game against Texas.||Why he'll win: Has pitched better at home this season; beat Orioles last time he faced them in September.|
|Pitcher beware: New York's 272 runs scored and 72 homers against lefties in the regular season were tops in the Majors.||Pitcher beware: Surrendered 35 home runs this season, tied for the second most in the Majors. Only the Yankees hit more homers than Baltimore's 214.|
|Bottom line: O's need Saunders to come up big again to keep season alive.||Bottom line: Must keep the ball in the park.|
"I don't even know who we're facing [Thursday]," Girardi said when asked if Alex Rodriguez would hit third on Thursday. Told by reporters Saunders had been tapped, Girardi still didn't shed any light on the lineup Saunders would face.
Showalter hinted before the game that he had a plan all along, despite having both Saunders and Tillman come to the podium before Game 3. Saunders is on five days' rest, just one more than normal, while Tillman would have been on seven.
"[Pitching coach Rick Adair] and I have Plan A and Plan A-1," Showalter said beforehand.
In Saunders' six career regular-season starts against New York, he has a 5.82 ERA. Saunders faced the Yanks just once this season, on Sept. 8. The O's won that game, 5-4, and Saunders took the win with a 5 1/3-innings, two-run performance.
"You have to approach it like it's just another game," Saunders said Wednesday, when he was publicly just a potential starter. "If you try to do too much, put too much pressure on yourself, you're going to run into problems and things are going to snowball on you. For me, it's just a matter of what I've learned over I don't know how many [playoff] starts I have, three, four, five starts maybe, and just keeping your nerves in check and trusting your stuff and going out there and doing your thing."
But Saunders, unlike Tillman, has October experience, and in particular, October experience against the Yankees. He made two starts with the Angels against New York in the 2009 American League Championship Series, both in Yankee Stadium, the first in Game 2, the second in Game 6. Those are the only starts he's made against the Bombers in New York since they've moved to their new building.
That first outing should be encouraging for the Orioles. The Angels lost the game in 13 innings, 4-3, but Saunders went seven innings and let up two runs on six hits, five strikeouts and one walk.
The second go-around wasn't as positive. The Yankees, World Series champions that season, clinched the AL pennant in that game, after Saunders was pulled with just 10 outs recorded. He gave up three runs in the 5-2 loss, walking five in his short stint.
"It was a battle with command," Saunders said that October night. "I fell behind a lot of guys, and they found a hole or two. Three inches to the right or left and we're out of jams."
The Yanks, probably the best hitting team in the Majors, don't shrink against lefties. They finished the regular season with a .339 on-base percentage against them, second best in the Majors, and 78 home runs -- the top mark.
Including the Wild Card winner, in which Saunders benefited from three double plays, Thursday's start would be just his ninth in his Orioles uniform. But the win-or-go-home atmosphere with this club settled in quick.
"Every day is the biggest game of the year, and then we move on to the next day and then that day is the biggest game of the year," Saunders said. "That's how I've come to find out how they approach it and what their philosophy is."