September 28, 2011 - Part 3

For no reason in particular, I took off from work on Monday, September 26, 2011.  At around 3:30 in the afternoon, I threw on one of my many Orioles give-away t-shirts and headed down to the Inner Harbor for a run.  The Harbor area was relatively void of people, as one might expect at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon.  It seemed that the only people outside and not working were Red Sox fans.  Everywhere I turned on my run, there was another person right in front of me casually passing the late afternoon hours in a Red Sox t-shirt, hat, or jersey.   I tensed up a little more with every Red Sox fan I passed.  In just a few hours I would be in a stadium full of these enemy fans.  I was excited, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t  a bit nervous of the potential outcome.  The Red Sox held a one-game lead over the Rays in the American League Wild Card race heading into Monday.  For the Rays to win the AL Wild card outright, either the Orioles or the Rays would have to win all three of their final games.  The other team would have to win at least two out of three.  The Rays could tie the Red Sox and force a one game playoff if both the Orioles and Rays each went 2-1 during their respective series.  The odds certainly weren’t in the Rays corner and us O’s fans faced the very real possibility of having to watch the Red Sox players and fans celebrate a playoff berth in Camden Yards.  We dreaded that possibility and knew that getting off on the right foot in the first game of the series was of the upmost importance. 

Given the magnitude of the game and series, the announced attendance of 21,769 for Game 1 was less than I might have anticipated.  However, there was certainly an elevated excitement in the air – not quite playoff atmosphere, but as close to it as it has gotten at Camden Yards in the past 14 seasons.  We had been concerned that Orioles fans, our season already over in terms of playoff hopes, would stay home and the stadium would be filled with nothing but Red Sox supporters (the fact that I saw nothing but Red Sox fans during my afternoon run didn’t help to quell that feeling).  However, the actual split was much more tolerable; at worse the stadium was 50/50 in their rooting interests, but if I had to guess I’d say the support tilted in the O’s favor. 

The first inning of the game was filled with missed opportunities for both teams.  The Red Sox loaded the bases following the first of many intentional walks to Adrian Gonzalez in this series, but O’s starter Tommy Hunter was able to get out of the jam.  Matt Angle leadoff with a single and stole second for the Orioles in the bottom half, but Josh Beckett retired the next three batters to quell any potential rally. 

The two teams traded runs in the second, with the O’s scoring off of a Matt Wieters’ solo homerun.  Hunter let up another run in fourth, this one coming on a solo homerun off the bat of Jed Lowrie, to put the Red Sox up a run.  More disconcerting than the run was the fact that Hunter’s pitch count was climbing fast.  After getting through the fifth inning without letting up any more runs, it was clear that Hunter’s night was over as he was already nearing 100 pitches.  In their half of the 5th, the O’s tied the game at two and had runners at first and second with nobody out.  Rather than play for the big inning, Robert Andino was called onto move the runners over, which he successfully did.  However, the next two batters failed to drive in either run, leaving the game tied up at two.

On paper, the O’s situation heading into the sixth inning – starting pitcher already out, just failed to capitalize on a run-scoring opportunity, game tied at two against a high-power offense – doesn’t seem too promising.  I distinctly remember not being concerned, however.  Maybe it was the fact that relative to some games against the Red Sox, being tied at two in the 6th seemed  like a victory in itself.  Maybe it was that the Orioles’ bullpen, aided by expanded September rosters, had been very good recently.  Maybe it was simply a feeling that the flow of the game was favoring the O’s and the would get their runs eventually.  Whatever the reason, I was far more confident than I probably should have been given the situation. 

Troy Patton increased that confidence by throwing a perfect 6th inning.  In the bottom of the 6th, Vladimir Guerrero lead off with a single stole second, saw Mark Reynolds patiently draw a walk behind him, and then stood around as Josh Beckett settled in to retire the next two batters.  It looked as if the O’s were going to waste another scoring opportunity and they really could not afford to.  Josh Beckett was getting close to 100 pitches and the 6th inning was looking like it might be his last.  The Orioles needed to do something with Beckett still in the game rather than face a strong, though tired, back-end of the Boston bullpen.  Chris Davis made sure they wouldn’t leave empty-handed by continuing his strong night with a double to score Vlad.  It was a huge run and the O’s had their first lead of the game, but most fans in the stadium understood that one run probably wasn’t going to be enough here. 

With his father in attendance and looking on, Robert Andino came to the plate.  Just a week after beating the Red Sox with a 3-run triple in the 8th inning of a game at Fenway, Andino swung at a 1-0 fastball and drove it to deep CF.  From our seats in lower LF, the ball didn’t look that well hit off that bat.  By the time it reached the outfield however, it became clear that the ball was really carrying and might get out of the park.  Jacoby Elbusry raced backwards and as the ball descended, it seemed as if the entire stadium, Red Sox and Orioles fans alike, took a collective inhale.  The ball hit Ellsbury’s glove and appeared to be caught.  Just as I was started to curse the O’s bad luck, the ball bounced out of Ellsbury’s glove and fell to the grass below.  The crowd erupted upon seeing the ball fall and the buzz grew louder as everyone realized that Andino was being waived home by Willy Randolph.  The relay throw skipped past the Boston catcher, giving Andino a three-run inside the park homerun and the Orioles a much more comfortable 6-2 lead. 

From that moment on, any anxiety we felt earlier in the game was gone.  Helping elevate the mood even more was the fact that the Rays were handling the Yankees in St. Petersburg.  Once that game went final, score-board-watching O’s fans cheered loudly and Red Sox fans shook their heads sideways in a mixture of disgust/disappointment – it was a great sight to see.  In the 9th, the Red Sox fans that had been relatively subdued since Andino’s homerun, made one last ditch effort to rally their team.  It seemed to work as Jim Johnson went 0-2 on Ellsbury before hitting him with a pitch.  A balk moved Ellsbury to second and a single drove him in.  There was certainly a feeling amongst some at OPACY that night of “here we go again” at this point.  I can’t blame that feeling – the O’s had been in this position before and the way the inning started (with a hit batter on an 0-2 count) it certainly did appear to be the start of another dramatic, snake-bitten collapse by the Orioles.

Our optimism was still relatively high.  Jim Johnson was as dependable of a reliever anywhere in the American League during the season and did a good job keep in the ball in the park.  The odds were still in his favor for getting out of the jam.  He did just that, keeping Boston to just that one run and ending the game with a strikeout to Lowrie.  The O’s fans in attendance erupted with the final out.  I think most of us there were all too excited to rub the win, and the loss of the Red Sox wild card lead, in the faces of the Boston fans.  Tim and I retreated to the tunnels, awaiting my Dad who had been watching the game with a group elsewhere in the stadium.  We playfully rubbed it into the Red Sox as they passed and exchanged high-fives with a couple of Rays fans.  Yes – it was obnoxious but not entirely called for if you ever sat through a Red Sox-Orioles game where the result of the game was the opposite.

On a grander scale, the night couldn’t have gone any better for those hoping to see the Red Sox miss the playoffs.  Any advantage the Red Sox once had was now gone. The Red Sox entered the night with a 60% chance of being the AL Wild Card team outright, 20% chance of playing a one game playoff, and a 20% chance of losing the Wild Card to the Rays outright.  After the game, those odds had shifted dramatically.  With the Rays and Red Sox deadlocked at the top of the Wild Card standings, the odds of all three of those scenarios happening was 33% each.  The O’s and Rays each winning their respective series openers was huge in swingning the odds – and the momentum – away from the Red Sox.