The AL East race between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles took all 162 games to decide.
Perhaps it's only fitting then that this division series between these rivals will also go the distance.
The Yankees and Orioles have split thrilling extra-inning games the last two nights heading into Game 5 on Friday in the Bronx, where Alex Rodriguez won't be starting his team's biggest game of the year.
Manager Joe Girardi has opted to sit Rodriguez, owner of 647 career home runs, after pinch hitting for him the previous two nights. Eric Chavez will start at third base while Game 3 star Raul Ibanez will be the designated hitter.
Rodriguez is 2 for 16 with nine strikeouts in this series, including 0 for 2 off right-hander Jason Hammel (0-0, 3.18 ERA), who will start for Baltimore.
"I always tell you I look at - go home and study the pitcher, and I know our guys and I'll make the decisions tomorrow," Girardi said after Thursday's 2-1 loss in 13 innings.
Rodriguez's benching adds further intrigue to a game which already had plenty of it.
New York led the East by as many as 10 games before Baltimore forged a tie during a pulsating final month, with the Yankees finally clinching the division title on the final day of the regular season.
"Well, it's kind of what we've been used to the whole year," Girardi said. "It's been a grind. It's been a fight to stay ahead of this club the whole year. So it's pretty fitting."
These teams have alternated wins in this series, with New York taking the odd-numbered games. Now the Orioles have one final chance to move ahead of the Yankees for good.
"It's an honor to be in Game 5 with them," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said. "You knew all along that the road to where we want to try to get is going to have to pass through there and here."
Both managers said "all hands on deck" applies to this decider.
If the last two nights at Yankee Stadium are any indication, Friday's game could stretch from the early evening well into the Bronx night.
New York took a 2-1 series lead Wednesday with a 3-2, 12-inning victory. Ibanez pinch-hit for Rodriguez and came through with a dramatic tying homer off Jim Johnson in the ninth inning before going deep again to win it in the 12th.
That ended Baltimore's streak of 16 straight extra-inning victories, but the plucky Orioles recovered by outlasting the Yankees 2-1 in 13 innings Thursday in Game 4.
It's been an eventful two days for Girardi, who earned plaudits for his decision to remove Rodriguez on Wednesday. One day later, the manager disclosed that his 81-year-old father died last Saturday - the day before this series began.
Rodriguez notably failed again Thursday when he struck out against Darren O'Day with the score tied and runners on second and third with one out in the eighth inning. The Yankees never got a runner into scoring position again after that frame, and Chavez pinch-hit for Rodriguez in the 13th but lined out to end the game.
Derek Jeter will be back at shortstop after the majors' hits leader was forced to serve as the DH on Thursday. Jeter has been limping since he fouled a ball off his left foot Wednesday.
Reliever Joba Chamberlain's status is uncertain after he left with a bruised right elbow, which was struck by a piece of Matt Wieters' broken bat in the 12th.
One factor in Girardi's favor is that he will turn to ace CC Sabathia (1-0, 2.08), who came one out short of a complete game in his 7-2 victory in Game 1. Sabathia is 6-1 with a 3.29 ERA in 11 playoff starts with New York.
"It's time to go," said Sabathia, who has limited opponents to a .199 average at home this year. "You know, this is what you play for. That's a good team over there we've been battling all year, so hopefully I can go out and have a good performance, and keep us in the game and give us a chance to win."
Showalter may again use Lew Ford as Friday's DH. Ford had two hits in that role in Game 1 to make him 4 for 7 against Sabathia this year.
J.J. Hardy, who delivered a 13th-inning RBI double Thursday, is 7 for 14 with four extra-base hits against Sabathia in 2012.
"Tomorrow's going to be a lot of fun," Hardy said. "We have a tough matchup with CC so it's going to be fun."
Baltimore continues to get little out of Wieters (2 for 21) and Adam Jones (2 for 22) in the postseason. Curtis Granderson (1 for 16), Robinson Cano (2 for 18) and Nick Swisher (2 for 15) have been similarly invisible for New York.
"There's guys on the other side that are struggling, too," Girardi said. "You're seeing some really good pitching in these four games."
Hammel will again oppose Sabathia after allowing two runs over 5 2-3 innings in Game 1. Neither Ibanez (0 for 9) nor Chavez (1 for 6) has enjoyed much success against Hammel this year.
This will be the Orioles right-hander's fifth overall start against New York this year.
"It seems like we've played these guys to a one-run game every time out," Hammel said. "It's really nothing new. It's going to be a test for both sides, and honestly, it's just going to be a good ballgame."
The winner must deal with a quick turnaround to face Detroit in the AL championship series, which begins Saturday.
- Alex Rodriguez
- Joe Girardi
- Baltimore Orioles
- New York
- Jason Hammel
- Raul Ibanez