BALTIMORE -- The bullpen has been the strength of the upstart Baltimore Orioles. And of all the arms that formed one of the best relief units in the American League, the one belonging to closer Jim Johnson might have been the most venerable.
But Sunday night, he proved to be the most vulnerable.
Entering with the score tied in the ninth, Johnson allowed a leadoff homer by Russell Martin, who triggered the five-run rally that pushed the Yankees past the Orioles, 7-2, in the opening game of their Division Series.
"We've battled all year,'' Johnson said. "Why would we make it easy now?''
During the regular season, the Orioles' bullpen posted a 3.00 ERA that ranked third best in the league. Johnson anchored the back end, recording a 2.49 ERA and racking up 51 saves.
When the Orioles failed to deliver on an eighth-inning rally Sunday night, manager Buck Showalter banked on Johnson to hold the line. Instead, he failed to finish the inning.
"There's not much margin for error,'' Showalter said. "Jimmy has been great for us all year and will be again. Tonight just wasn't his night.''
Martin's homer merely opened the floodgates. Ichiro Suzuki had an RBI infield single and Robinson Cano doubled home two runs against Johnson and Nick Swisher delivered a sacrifice fly off Tommy Hunter to blow open what had been a tight game.
Johnson was charged with five runs (four earned), sending the crowd slinking toward the exits.
"That's what happens,'' Johnson said. "It's a momentum thing. I've had some of those this year. You just kind of make your adjustments from your bad ones.''
Until the ninth, the Orioles offered little evidence of being intimidated by the bigger, badder Yankees.
A crush of orange descended upon Oriole Park at Camden Yards hours before the first pitch was thrown. The fans cheered when a highlight reel on the video board showed snippets of their storied history. They roared when the grounds crew ripped the tarp off the field after a delay of two hours. They exploded when the Orioles jogged onto the field for their first home playoff game in 15 years.
Righthander Jason Hammel, pitching in his first game in nearly a month, allowed two runs while gutting through 52/3 innings.
Hammel's breakout season was derailed in July by a right knee injury that required surgery. He returned last month, pitched in two games, then re-injured the knee on Sept. 11.
At the time, the pain felt no different from when he originally hurt his knee. Even in his own mind, Hammel had doubts about a return. Asked Saturday if he believed he would make it back, he answered: "Honestly, no.''
Yet in this improbable season in Baltimore, Hammel defied his own expectations. The righthander pitched into the sixth inning and threw 112 pitches, his most in a game since July 7.
He benefited from Gold Glove defense -- some of it from unlikely places.
First baseman Mark Reynolds snared a pair of bullets that came his way. Chris Davis ran down Curtis Granderson's foul drive into the rightfield corner and also threw out Mark Teixeira in the fourth when he tried to stretch his RBI single.
Catcher Matt Wieters uncorked a perfect throw in the first inning to catch Ichiro trying to steal third base. In the seventh, Wieters picked a throw out of the dirt to tag Martin, cutting down the potential go-ahead run at the plate.
But Yankees ace CC Sabathia wound up dominating into the ninth inning. That left the Orioles with little choice but to hang on in hopes that their bats might break through.
With the score tied at 2, sidearmer Darren O'Day stifled a Yankees rally in the seventh inning. Starter-turned-reliever Brian Matusz followed by surviving a two-out walk in the eighth. Then, after the Orioles failed to capitalize on a leadoff double in the eighth, Showalter summoned Johnson for the ninth.
"I had a good feeling about the ninth,'' Teixeira said. "I don't know what it was. I just had a really good feeling about the ninth. It's one of those [where] Johnson's been so great all year, eventually you've got to get to him, right? And tonight was that night.''