For the Orioles now, there are no games that won’t be called “BIG”. Every one of them is huge. Every moment of every game is potentially make-or-break. Indeed, each pitch has potentially severe implications. On Wednesday night, the birds were involved in what may have been their biggest game of the year. They came in tied with the Yankees atop the AL East, and 2 games up on their opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays. A win, and the surprising Orioles would, at the least, remain tied for first, and add a third game to the cushion between them and Tampa. With a loss, they could, at worst, slide a game behind New York, and just a game up on the Rays. It’s the difference between a good night’s rest on memory foam, as opposed to sleeping on a bench in Patterson Park.
Not enough pressure? How about this: The Rays leadoff man, the red-hot B.J. Upton, smacked O’s starter Miguel Gonzalez’s second pitch into the left field stands, for a 1-0 Rays lead. Unfazed, the Orioles would answer in their half of the first, and then some.
New Orioles leadoff man Nate McLouth started what would be an enormous night with a single to Upton in center. Tuesday night’s hero, JJ Hardy, singled to left. Then Adam Jones smashed a liner to left center. Upton made a nice leaping catch on it, for one out. Then Matt Wieters hit a soft liner to left to score McLouth, tying the score. On Rays’ starter Alex Cobb’s very next pitch, Wilson Betemit doubled to the gap in right center, and it was 2-1 Orioles. When Chris Davis walked one out later, the Orioles had Cobb on the ropes, but with two away.
But Cobb was able to get O’s rookie Manny Machado to bounce to short to end the inning. It would be the first of a few opportunities the Orioles would not be able to cash in on, but Machado would get his revenge.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez was not having an easy time of it himself. He issued a walk and gave up a single in the second, but was bailed out when Jose Molina bounced into a 5-4-3 double play. In the third, Gonzalez gave up a couple of softly hit singles. Ben Francisco then ripped a double to left, and we were tied at two.
Gonzalez would settle down after that hit, retiring seven in a row. Into the sixth with the score still knotted at two, Francisco hit a one-out single. Gonzalez walked Carlos Pena, then balked the runners up to second and third, with just one out. Gonzalez, with his start, and more importantly, another BIG game on the line, got nasty.
He got Ryan Roberts looking at strike three. He intentionally walked Matt Joyce to load the bases. Due up next was Molina, hitting just .201. With the the likes of Luke Scott (who, granted, was hitting just .217) on the bench, Rays manager Joe Maddon decided to let Molina hit. With the 26,076 in attendance all on their feet, Gonzalez got Molina on a grounder to Mark Reynolds at first. It was Gonzalez’s last pitch of the night, and wrapped up a gutty effort that saw him shut the door on Tampa more often than not, even without his best stuff, even with no margin for error.
The O’s offense, however, was struggling to gain any traction whatsoever. Jake McGee replaced Cobb with two outs and two on in the fifth. The hard throwing lefty struck out all four Orioles he faced. Into the top of the seventh, and the ever-steady Darren O’Day came on for Gonzalez. O’Day walked Upton leading off. Opton then swiped his 30th base of the year, and with no one out, the go ahead run was in scoring position. Gut-check time for O’Day. And he, like Gonzalez before him, was up to the challenge.
He got Jeff Keppinger to pop out to first. Then, Ben Zobrist—hitting .667 lifetime against O’Day—popped to second. With the 2/3 Francisco on deck, O’Day intentionally walked Evan Longoria. But he was able to get Francisco swinging. We were STILL tied at two.
It stayed that way through the bottom of the seventh. Pedro Strop came on in the eighth, gave up one hit, but no walks or runs. In the bottom of the eighth, Wieters ripped a one-out double down the right field line, but ended up staying right there. And it was on to the ninth, still tied at two.
In every season, good or bad, there are defining moments. These are the moments that we’ll look back on and point to a representative of the essential qualities of these 2012 Baltimore Orioles. The late inning heroics of a new leadoff man named Nolan Reimold back in April. The other new leadoff guy named Nick Markakis providing a spark after returning from injury, despite being inserted to a spot in the lineup he’d never before filled. A win for pitcher…yes, PITCHER Chris Davis in a 17 inning game at Fenway. The walkoff heroics of guys like Adam Jones and Wilson Betemit and, yes, Taylor Teagarden. There have been numerous, wonderful defining moments from these Orioles. In the ninth inning Wednesday night, they provided another.
Closer Jim Johnson (W, 2-1) entered, and got Upton on a grounder to short. Keppinger, though, singled back through the middle. Long time veteran minor leaguer Rich Thompson, called up to provide speed off the bench for the Rays, came in to pinch run. Next up, Ben Zobrist flew out, for out number two. Longoria stepped in. Thompson stole second on a very close play that Buck Showalter actually came out to briefly argue over.
On a 3-2 pitch, Longoria nubbed a dribbler down the third base line. Young Manny Machado, playing just his 30th major league ballgame at 20 years old, and—it’s easy to forget—learning a new position at the major league level, raced in. He made a nice barehanded pickup, but had no chance to get Longoria at first. But with Thompson racing toward third, Machado did his best Joe Flacco pump fake of the throw to first. He spun back toward third, where he immediately noticed two people: ONE-Thompson, who’d rounded third, and TWO-JJ Hardy, who trailed Thompson to the bag, and was there waiting for the quick toss from Machado. Hardy got that toss, ran Thompson toward Wieters at the plate, who then tagged him out. It was a remarkable, instinctual-yet-heady play by a kid who really cannot possibly fathom what he has meant to this team defensively.
Speaking of that kid, he led off the ninth, now facing veteran Kyle Farnsworth, and he did so with a single off the end of his bat into left field. Next, Robert Andino executed a perfect sacrifice bunt, moving Manny to second. Up stepped Nate McLouth.
On Farnsworth’s second pitch to him, McLouth hammered a liner down the right field line. The question, immediately off the bat, was “Fair or Foul?” The liner hit about two-thirds of the way up the out of town scoreboard in right, just inches to the fair side of the line, for a game-winning, walk-off single. Machado trotted home with the winning run, and the O’s sealed another one-run victory, at 3-2.
The O’s and Rays get right back to it Thursday afternoon. Wei-Yin Chen (12-9, 4.06) battles Jeramy Hellickson (8-10, 3.33). First pitch is 12:35.
- Just how big is this win? The Orioles a guaranteed the series win. More importantly, they are now 3 games up on Tampa. They will leave Baltimore for the west coast road trip no worse than 2 up on the Rays, and possibly up 4. And, by they way, next up for Tampa is a trip to New York to take on the Yankees. Yes, this was a HUGE win.
- How can you NOT love Miguel Gonzalez? A great effort in this one from the 28-year old rookie: 6IP, 2ER, 6H, 5BB, 4K, 1HR.
- O’s bullpen combo of O’Day, Strop, and Johnson: 3IP, 0R, 3H, 1K, 2BB
- Every O’s starter had a hit except Mark Reynolds. McLouth (2/5, 1R, game winning hit) and Wieters (2/3, 1RBI, 1BB) had multi-hit efforts.
- 9 runners left on.
- Reynolds: 0/3, 3K, 1BB, 2LOB.