Top 20 Games of 2014: Game #6

6.  Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees (Sunday, September 14 - 8:00 PM)

Box Score

If there was a single game from the 2014 season that encapsulated how much recent progress has been made by the Orioles organization, it was this one.

For starters, the Sunday evening game was aired on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.  The O’s presence on ESPN’s flagship baseball broadcast was virtually non-existent during the team’s long losing streak.  Even rarer during this time period was the home Sunday Night Baseball game.  In the past two seasons, however, the O’s have had three home Sunday Night Baseball home games including two in 2014.  Sure, the Yankees were the O’s opponents all three times but the team’s increased presence on Sunday nights surely can be traced in part to their recent on-field success.

It is at this juncture that a pessimist might point out that the game on September 14th received the primetime television slot largely thanks to Derek Jeter’s season-long retirement tour.  The game marked Jeter’s last appearance in Baltimore.  As has oddly become the custom for legendary retiring players, Jeter was showered with gifts from the home team all season long whenever he made his final appearance in a particular city.  The O’s had a pre-game ceremony to honor Jeter and gifts were bestowed (sadly, the club didn’t follow through on Buck’s “I am only half kidding” suggestion to give Jeter a framed picture of the infamous Jeffery Maier “catch”), while thousands of transplanted New Yorkers cheered on their past-his-prime hero for the final time.

Under other circumstances, the entire scene would have annoyed me to no end.  It still annoyed me, just not as much as it would have in prior seasons.  It was comforting and calming to know that the Yankees would be at home come October and the Orioles would be in the playoffs.  What a change that was from even a couple of seasons ago!

I long ago came to grips with Yankee/Orioles games in September not meaning anything for the Birds.  While that used to be the result of the O’s being 25 games back in the loss column come September, this time the game was meaningless for a different reason.  The game ultimately meant little because the Yankees were virtually out of the playoff race having entered the day 11.5 GB of the Orioles and 4.5 GB of the second wild card spot (with three teams ahead of them).  Meanwhile, the Birds were 10.5 games ahead of second place Toronto in the AL East and were all but ensured the East Division title.  A win or loss did not matter much for either team.  The O’s were playoff bound regardless provided they didn’t have a historic collapse and the Yankees were home in October barring a miracle.  This was the good kind of meaningless game.

So when Martin Prado hit a solo homerun to start the second inning for the visitors, my stomach didn’t knot up at the sight of Yankee fans celebrating in our home park.  Five years ago, that would have eaten me up.  Not anymore.  It simply didn’t matter.

The Orioles eventually evened the score at one thanks to an Adam Jones RBI double.  Andrew Miller relieved Tillman – who yet again, pitched a fabulous game save for one “mistake” – and was as overpowering as usual.  Miller struck out 3 of the 4 Yankees he faced including Jeter.  Jeter received a standing ovation with each at bat but that mattered little when each of his four at bats ended outs.   The Derek Jeter that would seemingly come up big against the O’s in important situations whenever he wanted was – at least on this night – a thing of the past.

Even this game – which was a great reminder of how the Yankees were no longer the class of the AL East and the Orioles were no longer the bottom feeders – was not void of some old fashioned Yankee heroics.  Darren O’Day relieved Miller in the 9th inning.  After striking out Martin Prado, O’Day let up an opposite field home run to catcher Brian McCann.  The awkwardly struck ball just cleared the right field fence.  Just like that the Yankees were on top.  Just like that, the outcome of the game no longer felt as meaningless as it had earlier.

Losing to the Yankees at home never feels good, no matter what the standings are.

O’Day avoided any further damage, moving the game along to the bottom of the 9th with the home team down by a single run.  The O’s had their 4-5-6 hitters up which gave them better than a puncher’s chase of tying the game with one swing.

Nelson Cruz almost did that when he drilled a 3-1 pitch from New York’s closer David Robertson into the left-field corner.  Nellie settled for a loud leadoff double instead.  Pinch runner Quinten Berry ran for Cruz to give the team a better chance of scoring if Steve Pearce were to hit a single.  The pinch runner ended up not mattering.  Pearce took a 2-2 pitch from Robertson into left field for a double.  The speedy Berry could have walked home.  As quickly as New York took the lead, the Orioles had taken it right back.  The ninth inning rally to tie the score served as yet another reminder that the 2014 Orioles had little in common with their 1998 – 2011 predecessors.

A J.J. Hardy fly out brought one of the newest Orioles, Kelly Johnson, to the plate.  A game is never over until is over, but this one felt over before Johnson stepped into the batter’s box.   The journeymen was one his 5th AL East team in three years and was the perfect guy to take advantage of Robertson whose tank was clearly empty after pitching so much over the prior week.  Johnson knew he was getting a fastball and likely one over the plate.  He wasted no time in depositing the ball into the right-center gap for the 3rd Orioles double of the inning.  This one platted Pearce and gave the O’s a dramatic come from behind walk-off victory.

Had this exact scenario occurred during the 2008 season for example, the walk-off would have likely sent us into hysterics.  Those sort of things just didn’t happen back then for the Orioles against the Yankees.   They do in 2014 so the walk-off victory was celebrated with more a tad more subtlety.  High-fives were exchanged before we quietly exited the ballpark.  September 14th was a thrilling when it its own right – as all dramatic walk-offs are – but what made it so special was just how well it spotlighted how much has changed in such a relatively short period of time for Baltimore’s baseball team.