Yesterday's 9-6 win over the Red Sox was an experience. I sat here for a few minutes trying to come up with a good adjective or phrase to describe the game, but I think that’s the best I could come up with to accurately describe it – it was an experience.
The O's took an early 5-0 lead and looked to be on their way to their second relatively easy victory in as many days. I was downright giddy on Saturday watching the O’s storm out to an 8-0 lead. On Sunday, the 5-0 lead seemed almost too good to be true, though perhaps not all that unexpected the way the O’s have been playing. Clay Buccholz was arguing on the mound as Bobby Valentine removed him from the ball game and the fickle Fenway fans were laying in with the boos. It doesn't get much better than that.
The Red Sox fought back and tied the game at 5 in the 5th. A funny thing is happening that I can only hope continues - when the O's are in close games, I am no longer dreading the worst. It is never a good idea to blow a 5 run lead against a good hitting team like the Red Sox, but the game felt like it was still well within reach. The O's bullpen was solid as usual, having just one blip in the 8th inning when allowing the tying run after Mary Reynolds had given the Birds the lead in the top half of the frame. The game went to extras and kept going and going and going. It was fun, nail-biting, exciting, and hard to watch all at the same time.
This was far from a pretty game. The O's were officially charged with two errors, but made several more sloppy plays on defense. The Orioles’ leadoff batter reached 4 straight times in extra innings at one point and each time the O’s failed to get the runner to second base. This was largely the result of SIX(!) double plays the team hit into throughout the course of the game.
When a game starts to get deep into extra innings – say, around the 14th inning – the same question is on everyone’s minds: who is left to pitch for both teams? Its less of a real question at that point and more of a simple counting exercise. When Orioles' closer Jim Johnson ran out to the mound in relief of Matt Lindstrom in the 14th, that count reached zero. The Orioles were officially out of options. Well, not entirely out of options, but when throwing tomorrow's starter (Brian Matusz) or using a position player to pitch on the road are your two “choices”, for all intents and purposes the team is out of options. This is when watching a baseball game really becomes fun. You pace around the room, going through all the various options. Partially out of nervousness and partially out of a real attempt to figure out what might happen, you start tossing out any scenario that seems even semi-plausible. Tim and I went back and forth tossing around ideas, most of which would have sounded downright crazy a few hours earlier but now appeared to not only be realistic, but smart in many cases. These are conversations that only seem normal in the heat of the moment.
"What position players have pitching experience?"
"Nick [Markakis] pitched in JuCo and was scouted as a pitcher. Wieters was the closer for Georgia Tech . . ."
"Yea, but do you really want Wieters pitching after catching for 15 innings?"
"You're right, that would be too crazy. I’ll Google to see if Luis Exposito ever pitched in high school . . ."
Exposito, the only player left on the O's bench by the 16th inning, actually warmed up at one point. He was joined in the bullpen by Brian Matusz, who was seemingly sent out there as a decoy but seemed like a logical option. Matusz is scheduled to start tonight’s game but theoretically could have had his start moved back a day or two. Thursday’s off day would have allowed Jake Arrieta to pitch on 5 day’s rest on Monday, allowing Matusz to be pushed back.
When the O’s failed to score in the top of the 16th, the options dwindled even more. We had discussed the merits of having Jim Johnson pitch the 16th if the O’s got the lead, but knew that it made little sense to throw him out there for a third inning of work without a lead. The O’s don’t need their closer coming up injured after throwing 3-innings in a 16+ inning game. Never mind the fact that Johnson could have thrown the 16th and the O’s would still need someone to close the game in the 17th if they got the lead. It just didn’t make sense. Likewise, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to bring Matusz into the game when it was still tied. Wasting a starting pitcher in that situation, where a win is still a 50/50 proposition, wouldn’t be a good idea.
The MASN cameras showed the O’s bullpen as the team batted in the top of the 16th. Out there, getting warm, was Orioles’ DH Chris Davis. Davis, who had five strikeouts as a better already and was 0-6 on the day, was warming up. I think my initial comment to Tim was, "Does Davis even have any pitching experience?" As if that really mattered at this point. Minutes earlier we were discussing the merits of Luis Exposito as a pitcher while wandering if Matusz could throw an inning of a relief and still make a start on Tuesday or Wednesday. Now I was worried about Chris Davis’ pitching resume. In a game like this, every option seems reasonable and yet insane at the same time.
Davis entered the game and to the shock of everyone, he was . . . good. Like actually, really, legit good . . . or at the very least very competent. Facing Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Davis threw an 89 MPH fastball, a 90 MPH, and finished him off with an 83 MPH pitch that appeared to be a change-up (Davis later indicated it was a split-fingered fastball). Davis retired the next batter and seemed just too good to be true. For a moment, it appeared that it was too good to be true. Wilson Betemit booted a routine ground ball at third and the next batter lined a double into the gap. With my face nearly already buried in my hands, I glanced up as Adam Jones relayed the ball to JJ Hardy. Just as we have seen many times before, Hardy took the perfect throw from Jones and made a perfect throw of his own to Wieters, who stood his ground as Marlon Byrd practically threw a forearm at him while sliding into home plate. Wieters held on, Byrd was out and somehow, miraculously, the game continued on.
My dad called in between innings. Like everyone else, he was shocked at just how well Davis threw and how unbelievable it was that the game was still tied. I relayed to him the pitching strategy Tim and I had finally landed on – if the O’s get the lead, Matusz comes in for the save. You can’t come this far and lose this game. If they get the lead, they have to pitch Matusz and deal with restructuring the pitching staff tomorrow. Dad agreed. I excitedly announced that “we have a chance!” when I saw Darnell McDonald enter the game as pitcher for the Red Sox. This was right before I practically hung up on my him, as I had been on the phone with my mom when the Red Sox hit the game-tying grand slam earlier and we didn’t need another jinx like that.
McDonald was no Chris Davis and walked Wilson Betimet to lead things off. The annoying Red Sox fans booed as McDonald went 3-0 on Betemit. I don’t know if they were booing McDonald or the ump, but both options make less sense than putting Chris Davis in to pitch. Later, those some fans chanted something, that Tim interpreted as a “Please Don’t Balk” chant. I am sure the Red Sox fans thought they were being clever (they weren’t) but I am not sure it is a wise idea to heckle your pinch runner turned DH turned relief pitcher when he is trying his damnedest to throw strikes.
As soon as Betemit got to first, he inexplicably tried to steal second base and was thrown out by a mile. The decision to steal there defies logic. McDonald had yet to throw a strike and Betemit practically gave the opposition a free out. Tim and I were stunned silent. Jim Palmer, who has never been stunned silent in his life, ranted on the idiotic decision. It looked like the final boneheaded move that was finally going to cost the O’s the game.
JJ Hardy picked Betemit up by doubling to right for his 5th hit of the game. Nick Markakis worked a walk and the O’s were back in business. I lamented that Adam Jones was the last guy we wanted up here. All we needed were two more walks to take the lead and Jones was perhaps the last guy on the team I expected to be patient in this situation. I worried that he would swing at a pitch out of the strike zone and give the Red Sox another easy out or double play. I was right – Jones swung at a pitch well over his head. I was also happily wrong – the ball sailed over the Green Monster for a 3-run homerun.
We erupted in celebration (I am pretty sure Tim’s scream rattled the entire building). The celebration was only momentary, however. Who exactly was going to pitch the bottom of the inning? Tim started rethinking the Matusz idea. He didn’t want to risk shattering Matusz’s newfound confidence by putting him in a tough and unfamiliar relief situation. Chris Davis was the pitcher of record and he was worried about hurting the confidence of a Major League starter by using him in relief. Although, once again, it didn’t seem that crazy of a notion at the time. Nothing did. When the MASN cameras failed to show anyone warming up in the bullpen, it became clear that this was Davis’ game to win or lose.
Dad called again in between innings. For the record, he was against the decision not to use Matusz. His reasoning – that you have to win this game now – was perfectly sound. I really couldn’t disagree. Matusz gave the team the best odds of doing that. Certainly better odds than rolling the dice on your DH being able to pitch a second scoreless inning.
Davis wasn’t as sharp to start his second inning of work. He walked the leadoff batter and did the same to Dustin Pedroia. Mark Reynolds ran in from first to talk things over. Davis’ velocity was down from the 16th inning and it appeared his luck was running out. Not so fast – Davis got ahead of Adrian Gonzalez, threw his splitter again, and got the slugging first baseman to strike out swinging. Chris Davis striking out Adrian Gonzalez is so incredibly unlikely that you can’t help but to see it and believe that it is not only possible that the O’s are going to win, but that it is a sure thing. I don’t want to say I thought the game was in the bag at that point, but . . . I thought it was in the bag.
Darnell McDonald came up to try and help his own cause. Davis threw him a fastball that he grounded towards Hardy at short. Gary Thorne’s voice rose in anticipation as the double play unfolded to finally, mercifully, end the game.
In six hours and seven minutes, the Orioles had beaten the Red Sox and completed a three game sweep at Fenway for the first time since 1994. And your winning pitcher – “The Deputy” Chris Davis. As many have said in the hours since, it might be the first time in history that a team’s DH has gone 0-7 with 5 strikeouts and been the hero of the game.
As a standalone game, it was one of the most exciting and unique games I’ve ever watched live. It will go down as one of the more memorable games ever played by an Orioles’ team and I am sure will be talked about for quite some time.
In the bigger picture, I am not sure what the game will ultimately mean. There are those that watch a win like this and believe that it is a sign that the stars are aligned for the O’s to have a magical season. There are those that believe it is just another game. A good win, yes, but ultimately no different than any other win. Then there are those that immediately worry about the consequences such a long game could have on the bullpen and pitching staff long term. I fall somewhere in between those three reactions, I think. At this point, I really don’t want to analyze it too much. It was a great game and another win. The O’s will replenish the bullpen today and hopefully minimize the potential long-term effects of the marathon game. I tend to believe that one game is just that – one game. It was a great win – an all-time memorable win – but what effect, if any, it will have on the rest of the season remains to be seen.
Regardless, it was a little more Orioles Magic in a season that has had quite a few of those moments thus far. I hope there is a good turnout tonight at OPACY as the O’s return home to begin a nine-game home stand. These nine games will be another challenge for the Birds in a seemingly never-ending series of them. The team has played very, very well thus far and the players deserve all the support they get.