9. Baltimore Orioles vs. Chicago White Sox (Wednesday, June 25 - 7:05 pm - 5-4)
There are no perfect baseball teams, only imperfect ones with relative strengths and weaknesses. The goal in constructing a team is to have the strengths ultimately outweigh or cover up for those weaknesses.
One noticeable weakness of the 2014 Orioles was an offense that in general lacked a patient hitting approach. Oriole hitters were not shy in swinging at first pitches, swinging when ahead in the count, or taking hacks at balls off of the plate. The downside of such an approach is it not only makes it easier on the opposing pitcher in that he doesn’t necessarily need to throw strikes to record outs, but it also allows a pitcher to get deeper into a game with a low pitch count.
On this night, the Orioles' “hack first, ask questions later” approach was on full display.
Through the first six innings, O’s batters collected five hits. However, all five hits were singles and Chicago’s starter Hector Noesi threw a mere 60 pitches in recording 18 outs. When the hitters got ahead in the count, they swung aggressively and only made Noesi work deep into counts in a few instances.
In the 7th inning, the risk/reward of the Orioles ultra-aggressive plate approach was fully on display. Chris Davis led off the inning by taking the first pitch he saw into right field for a single. Noesi had been pitching the Orioles tough all night (regardless of the count) so the idea seemed to be to jump on whatever looked good. That worked for Davis, but not for Nelson Cruz who hit the first pitch he saw in the 7th to short for a double play. The ball was hit well, but that did little to pacify those who had no interest in seeing another batter make an out early in the count. J.J. Hardy would single later in the inning, as would Manny Machado, but the O’s could not push a run across. Noesi entered the 8th inning with 78 pitches to his name and a complete game in his sights.
Meanwhile, embattled starter Ubaldo Jimenez pitched okay but had still allowed four runs to the White Sox offense. Entering the bottom of the 8th inning, a win seemed improbable to put it optimistically.
The 2014 club often talked about understanding their strengths and who they are as team. They weren’t going to become something they weren’t. They weren’t going to attempt to fix one area at the expense of another (or as Buck is fond of saying “we aren’t going to rob Peter to pay Paul.”). In this particular situation, that meant they were going to keep on hacking the only way they knew how – ridiculously low pitch count be damned.
Before a pitch had been thrown in the bottom of the 8th inning, the Orioles had approximately a 4% chance of winning the game.
To start the inning, the O’s aggressiveness seemed to start paying out. Nick Hundley singled on a 1-1 pitch and Nick Markakis followed up by doing the same. Despite doing little extra to drive Noesi’s pitch count up, the O’s had knocked him out of the game with two singles. The Dominican right-hander exited the game with runners on 1st and 2nd and nobody out in the 8th, after throwing just 84 pitches.
Robin Ventura’s conservatism seemed to pay off as the next two batters – Steve Pearce and Adam Jones – each harmlessly flew out against reliever Zach Putnam. Ventura exchanged lefty Scott Downs for Putnam with Davis coming to the plate. The O’s are not a patient bunch but that does not mean they are incapable of working the count. Although Davis swung at the first three pitches he saw (foul, swinging strike, foul), he managed to even the count at 2-2 before fouling off a third pitch. The 7th pitch off the bat was another ball which Davis laid off of, followed by another foul off.
Finally, on the 9th pitch of the at bat, the O’s first baseman took ball four and headed to first. With the bases loaded, the stage was now set for frequent 2014 hero, Nelson Cruz. Even with the bases loaded situation, Baltimore’s odds of winning the game were still a rather tiny 7%.
Cruz worked the count against new Chicago pitcher Javy Guerra in his favor 2-0, before swinging through a 96 MPH fastball. While the continued aggressive approach probably caused many groans amongst Oriole fans, the swing & miss gave Cruz some needed information. Rather than try to catch up to Guerra’s fastball, Cruz seemingly made the decision to wait back and take the ball where it was pitched. The 2-1 offering was a bit on the outside part of the plate. Cruz went with the pitch ball, driving it towards the right field fence. With the slimmest of margins, the ball cleared Avasail Garcia’s glove before landing in the seats. Cruz had himself an 8th inning Grand Slam and just like that, the game was tied at four apiece.
The Orioles odds of winning the game rocketed to 52%. The team had not displayed much patience through the first eight innings but there league-leading power abilities had put them in a late inning, tied-game situation just the same.
Zach Britton, Ryan Webb, and Brian Matusz got the O’s to the bottom of the 12th inning with the scored still knotted at four.
Somewhat poetically, the eventual game winning run for the Birds reached base on a walk. Nick Hundley opened the bottom of the 12th by drawing a five pitch walk. He was immediately subbed out for pinch runner David Lough, who took third base on Markakis’ fourth single of the game. Runners on the corner and nobody out shifted the odds of winning the game extremely in the favor of the Orioles (roughly 16 to 1).
Steve Pearce stepped to the plate with a chance to win it for his team, but he never even got the opportunity to take the bat off of his shoulder. A wild pitch on the very first offering brought home Lough and gave the Birds a rare wild pitch, walk-off victory.
The Orioles turning a less than 10 in 1 chance of winning with two outs in the 8th inning into an extra-inning walk off win made this a memorable game. Having the big momentum swing come on a grand slam sealed the deal, making this June contest versus the White Sox the 9th best game of 2014.