BALTIMORE -- The Yankees, of course, are supposed to be here.
If they weren't, organizational changes very well might have been made, perhaps starting with the manager.
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But they wound up with the best record in the American League. And so, on the eve of this American League Division Series, most of the questions didn't revolve around the Yankees, their franchise-record 245 home runs or their Game 1 starter, CC Sabathia.
Instead, the Orioles -- making their first postseason appearance since 1997 after a decade-plus of lean years -- took center stage.
Former Yankees manager Buck Showalter -- one of many intriguing subplots to this series himself -- put it this way:
"I don't think anybody is surprised that we're standing here looking at THEM," he said. "I understand the surprise might be a little bit WHO'S looking at them."
The Yankees are not surprised. Not after going 9-9 against the Orioles this season and having had to hold on for dear life in September after a 10-game division lead eventually fizzled to none. But it is worth noting that although the Orioles pulled even with the Yankees a handful of times, they never did pass them.
How even were the teams? In the 18 games, the Orioles outscored the Yankees by all of two runs, 92-90.
"They're very good," Alex Rodriguez said. "They're here for a reason. The one thing about baseball is no one gets here by coincidence. We know them very well, they know us very well."
The teams' familiarity with each other was a common theme.
"We know what to expect from them, they know what to expect from us," said Derek Jeter, whose controversial home run in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles -- aka "The Jeffrey Maier Game" -- is another series subplot, albeit a very minor one. "The series was even throughout the year. We'll see who the best team is over the next five days. But I don't think any team has any advantage . . . We've been pretty evenly matched throughout the year."
Sabathia against Baltimore was anything but even, though. After dominating the Orioles for much of his career, the lefthander went 0-2 with a 6.38 ERA in three starts against them this season, allowing four home runs.
"It's a good team," Sabathia said. "Adam Jones has gotten a lot better, obviously; Mark Reynolds has gotten adjusted to the American League and is swinging the bat well. [Matt] Wieters has gotten better over the years, so they've just gotten a bunch of talented guys that have gotten a lot better and they've made it tough on me. Hopefully [Sunday night], like I said, I can go out and command the baseball like I want to and make pitches and be successful."
The Orioles were successful, again surprising many, in Friday night's one-game wild-card playoff game, dispatching the Rangers, 5-1.
"I'm as curious as everyone else," said Showalter, whose team features one of the best bullpens in the game. "Watching how guys reacted to certain situations last night, obviously a lot of good, so it bodes well. I know our guys aren't going to be fearful of the competition but very respectful of the people we're playing."
Friday night in Arlington, Texas, was the continuation of a September in which the Orioles went 19-9, accomplishing that without Nick Markakis, whose left hand was broken by a Sabathia pitch here Sept. 8.
"It's been a playoff race pretty much for the past month," said Nick Swisher, whose past postseason failure in a Yankees uniform has him under the microscope. "It's only fitting that two teams like this go up against each other. It's going to be a blast. We've both put ourselves in great positions, and we're both hot right now, which makes the games even more interesting."
Joe Girardi guided the Yankees to a 17-11 record in September. They entered the final series of the season tied with Baltimore but swept Boston while the Orioles lost two of three to Tampa Bay.
"We had to work for this one," Swisher said of the division title, which wasn't clinched until game No. 162. "We didn't just get in here just walking in. We didn't rest our guys. We had to play through the whole thing.
"There's no secrets about either one of these teams. We played each other a lot. So you're taking two good teams. Baltimore's really believing in themselves. But we can't worry about that. Right now I feel we're at the top of our game and we just want to continue that roll.''