Game of the Year: #2 at Boston Red Sox - May 6

If there is one singular game that captured the 2012 Orioles season, it was the afternoon in Boston on May the 6th.

The Orioles were a month into their surprising season, sporting a record of 18-9 before play began that day.  Nobody expected Baltimore to be nine games above .500 – even it was only early May.  The Red Sox were 11-15 before Sunday’s game.  Nobody expected Boston to be 4 games under .500 – even if it was only early May.  Oriole fans hoped that this was the start of a new direction for both teams.  Red Sox fans – and MLB fans in general – believed that the early season results were a mirage and the baseball universe would soon right itself.  For a Sunday afternoon game in May, the theoretical implications were as high as they get.

As the game began to unfold, it did so in such a way that it appeared to be a microcosm of the back-and-forth on whether the team’s early season results were indicative of the true quality of their teams..  The O’s jumped out to a 5-0 lead on a pair of homeruns off the bat of J.J. Hardy and a 3-run shot from Red Sox-killer Bob Andino.  It gave the Orioles a commanding lead as they went for the 3-game sweep of their AL East rivals.  Thus the back-and-forth of this particular game began.

Maybe the Orioles are for real.  Maybe the Red Sox are on their way to a bad season.

In the 4th, the Red Sox cut Baltimore’s lead to 4.  In the 5th inning, Tommy Hunter loaded the bases for Red Sox rookie Will Middlebrooks.  The Boston crowd – who had been taken out of the game – began to stir.  When Middlebrooks lifted the first pitch he saw over the Green Monster in left field for a grand slam, the Boston fans exploded.  Just like that, the game was all tied at 5.

There is it – same old Orioles.  It was only a matter of time before they blew it.  They cannot really hang with the Red Sox long term.

Then as if to draw out the question a little further, both teams’ bats went silent for the next 18 outs.  In the 8th, the Orioles took the lead on a Mark Reynolds’ double.  The Orioles are for real!  In the bottom half of the inning, reliever Pedro Strop promptly surrendered the lead on a double and sacrifice fly.  Never mind – here come the Red Sox!

You have to understand that fans of both teams had gotten quite used to the usual narrative by this point.  The Orioles would sometimes take the lead on the Red Sox – sometimes they would even win a few games – but in the end, the Red Sox would always get the better of the situation.  If the Red Sox lost one game, they would win the next game.  If they fell behind, they would come back and win it later on.  This is how things went for the Orioles and Red Sox for the better part of the last decade.  By virtue of having 13 games on Boston in the win column and taking the first two games in the teams’ first two meetings of 2012, there was a glimmer of hope for Orioles fan that this narrative might change for the 2012 season.  With every lead the Orioles took and every lead they lost, the hope that everything was different (and the feat that everything was the same), swung back and forth.

To add to the drama was that after the 8th, neither team seemed willing to surrender.  It was as if the Red Sox refused to be swept by the “lowly” Orioles and the Orioles were hell bent on proving that things were now different.  Neither team allowed a run – or for the “glass half full crowd”, neither team could score a run – and the game moved onto the 9th, then to the 10th and 11th tied up at 6-all.  The Orioles bullpen – which Red Sox fans had always seen as the team’s big weakness – did not allow Boston even a glimmer of hope as they had done all season to that point.  The Red Sox pitchers also hung tough and the innings began to tick away – the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th.  On the game went with no questions any closer to being answered.

Jim Johnson got through the 15th inning – his second inning of work – with the game still deadlocked.  Once a game reaches the 12th or 13th inning, the attention turns to how many relief pitchers both teams have left.  In the Orioles case, the answer was now “zero”.  Not just “we would rather not pitch this guy” zero but “there is nothing but tumbleweeds left blowing in the bullpen” zero.  Actually, that is not entirely true.  The next day’s starter – Brian Matusz – appeared in the bullpen around the 15 thinning and looked like the logical choice to enter the game for the Orioles.  When the television cameras return for the bottom of the 15th, they immediately focused on action in the O’s bullpen.  It wasn’t Matusz throwing, however – it was designated hitter Chris Davis.

Davis seemed like an odd choice to pitch – even among the position player candidates – to pitch in this game.  Nick Markakis was scouted as a pitcher.  Matt Wieters served as the closer for Georgia Tech.  Davis?  Nobody was even aware that he had any prior pitching experience.

Davis entered the game and . . . he was actually good.  Not “good for a pitcher good” but “wow, this guy has some good stuff” good.  Davis threw two 90 MPH fastballs to Jarrod Saltalamachia before pulling the string on an 82 MPH split finger change up for strike three.  Middlebrooks flew out.  Maybe the Orioles will really win this.  Then Wilson Betemit booted an easy groundball at 3B and Mike Avilles hit a gaper to left-center.  Well, it was nice while it lasted.  Game over, Red Sox win, the Orioles begin their tumble to the cellar and Boston uses the dramatic victory to propel their season upwards, right?

Not quite.  Marlon Byrd rounded third looking destined to score, but a strong relay from Adam Jones to J.J. Hardy to Matt Wieters had the ball in Wieters’ glove as Byrd arrived.  The reserve outfielder lowered his shoulder and barreled into the O’s catcher in a last ditch effort to knock the ball lose.  No such luck.  Wieters held on and the game continued.

Bobby Valentine brought in a position player of his own – Darnell McDonald – to pitch the 17th.  Wilson Betemit reached base and then was promptly thrown out attempting to steal second.  For anyone looking for signs that the Orioles were going to lose this game, they just got one another one at that moment.  The next two Baltimore batters reached, however, and Adam Jones tomahawked a 1-1 fastball over the Green Monster and out the park.  For the first time in eight innings, I think I took a full breath (thank God this game was on the road . . . )

Chris Davis pitched the 17th.  In a nice sub-plot, Davis was 0-8 at the plate and already struck out 5 times before entering the game as a pitcher in the 16th.  The Red Sox fans rode him hard – chanting “We Want Davis” when he was on the on-deck circle late in the game.  Now Davis was three outs away from being the winning pitcher.  Teasing Orioles fans that the game was going to slip away once again, Davis allowed the first two batters to reach base.  Adrian Gonzalez – Boston’s best hitter – was next up.  Two fastballs and a change up later, Gonzalez headed back to the dugout a strikeout victim.  Davis then won the pitcher vs. pitcher batter against Darnell McDonald by getting him to ground out for a game-ending double play. After 17 innings and close to six hours, the game was finally over – Baltimore 9, Boston 6.  It marked Baltimore’s first 3-game sweep against Boston in Fenway in several decades.

Of course, no questions were really answered on that day.  The O’s still went through the entire summer with everyone around baseball waiting for them to fail.  The Red Sox floated around .500 for most of the season, before pulling the plug and trading away several star players late in the season.  Nonetheless, May 6th was – in retrospect – just as pivotal of a moment of the 2012 Orioles as it seemed at the time.  It was game that in prior years, they simply did not win all that often.  It finished off a sweep of Boston – a complete rarity for Baltimore over the past ten seasons.  It continued the Orioles’ positive momentum and contributed – however little – to Boston’s growing frustrations.  It was also a game that was fun, exciting, and so improbable – just as the entire 2012 Orioles season would end up being.  If there is one game I would show someone to give them a feel of the 2012 Orioles, there is no doubt it would be May 6th.