Top 20 Games of 2014: Game #1

1.  Baltimore Orioles vs. Detroit Tigers (Friday, October 3rd - 12:00 PM - 7-6)
Box Score

Baseball is predictable only in as much as it is almost always unpredictable.  What we believe is likely to happen rarely ever does.  Baseball is a sport whose outcomes are based just as much on random variables as pure skill.  As much as any of us – including players, coaches, and analysts – think we know how a certain game, season, or series will play out, the end result rarely matches our preconceived notions.

It could therefore be stated that baseball is truly unpredictable only when the predictable occurs.  It is rare that a game will go exactly according to the script.  When that happens, that is when baseball is truly unpredictable.

There were several self-evident truths heading into the second game of the 2014 American League Division Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Detroit Tigers.  These were the key factors that – based on historical evidence – would seem most likely to impact the outcome of the game.

For one, Wei-Yin Chen was supposed to match up horribly against the Tigers’ right-handed heavy lineup.

Detroit carried exactly ONE everyday, left-handed hitter on its roster (catcher Alex Avila). It was not just that Detroit was right-handed heavy – their offense destroyed left-handed pitching during the regular season to the tune of a .285/.339/.451 slash line.  The Orioles were aware of this fact, which is why left-handed specialist Brian Matusz was left off of the division roster in favor of additional right-handed relievers and bench players.  For his part, Chen had largely struggled versus the Tigers during his career.  It was a painfully obvious mismatch on paper so much so that many openly questioned Buck Showalter’s decision to start Chen over the right-handed Kevin Gausman.

Sure enough, an obvious mismatch on paper was an obvious mismatch in reality.  After breezing through the first three frames, Detroit’s right-handed army slaughtered Chen in the 4th.  The Taiwanese southpaw allowed hits to the first five Tiger batters he faced that inning.  The onslaught was punctuated by back-to-back homeruns for right-handed hitters J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos.  Chen didn’t make it out of the inning alive.  The Tigers lefty-killing lineup more than lived up to its reputation.

Many of those that predicted Chen would be at a grave disadvantage also wondered aloud why Showalter did not turn to Gausman – his talented right-handed rookie – instead for the starting assignment.  Gausman entered the game with two outs in the 4th inning.  He left with one out in the 8th inning having given up a mere three hits and a single earned run.  Gausman was simply outstanding.  He handled Detroit hitters with a confident and persistent attack that defied his age.  Fans of the O’s learned late in the 2013 season just how valuable of a weapon Gausman could be out of the pen, where his already impressive arsenal played up even more.  It was not much of a surprise then when Kevin struck out five Detroit hitters and kept Baltimore in the game without forcing Buck to burn through his bullpen.

One area where the Orioles were said to have an advantage over the Tigers was on defense.  For two years running, the O’s had been one of the top defensive teams in either league.  It was a defense that routinely helped its pitchers out of jams and contributed significantly to the team’s overall success.  Detroit’s defense – on the other hand – was considered far less dependable.

In the 5th inning – Gausman’s first full inning of work – he faced the incomparable Miguel Cabrera with a runner on first base and nobody out.  The former American League Triple Crown winner grounded a ball towards the hole between third base and shortstop.  The hard hit grounder looked like a surefire single.  Third baseman Ryan Flaherty dove to his left while J.J. Hardy – backing up on the play – dove to his right.  Hardy’s dive proved pointless as Flaherty gloved the ball himself.  From his knees, the O’s super utility man fired a throw to second to record the out there.  The play had unraveled slowly enough that the out at second appeared to be all the O’s would get.  Not content with just one out, however, Jonathan Schoop pivoted off of the second base bag and fired a bullet towards Steve Pearce at first base.  The ball arrived a split second before Cabrera’s foot hit the bag.  The Orioles turned what had appeared just seconds earlier to be an impossible double play.

A few innings later – in the 8th – Gausman began to tire just a bit.  He allowed a walk and a single to start the inning, before Victor Martinez drilled a double off of the centerfield wall.  Torii Hunter scored easily from first base.  Cabrera was waived home all the way from first.  The Birds All-Star centerfielder Adam Jones made a perfect throw to Schoop at second base.  For the second time that afternoon, Schoop showed off his cannon of an arm by making a perfect relay throw to home plate to gun Cabrera trying to score.  The play proved crucial as Brad Brach retired the next two Detroit hitters to keep the score at 6-3.

The Orioles had the defensive edge on paper and in game #2 of the series that advantage was on full display.

If Baltimore’s Achilles heel entering the game was Chen, than Detroit’s was undoubtedly their perennially shaky bullpen.  Despite being one of the powerhouses of the American League for nearly a decade, a World Series championship has eluded the team from Motown in large part because of their uncanny inability to construct a quality bullpen.  Year after year Detroit watched as their bullpen failed them.  The 2014 regular season had been no different.  The Tiger’s 4.29 bullpen ERA was bad enough for 27th out of 30 teams in Major League Baseball during the regular season.

If the first game of the ALDS was any indication, their pen wasn’t going to be any better in the playoffs. The O’s offense tagged Detroit relievers for eight runs in the eighth inning just one night before.  The bullpen was not just their Achilles’ heel – it was a big old bullseye and everyone knew it.

Everyone knew it, including first year manager Brad Ausmus.  The former catcher removed Justin Verlander after five innings of work and summoned Anibal Sanchez to be his replacement.  Sanchez, of course, is a starting pitcher who was only in the bullpen because a mid-season injury and the trade deadline acquisition of David Price dictated so.  Sanchez was Detroit’s hopeful solution to their bullpen woes.  The way the bullpen was bloodied the night before, everyone – fans, reporters, Ausmus himself – knew that Sanchez was the key.  If the Tigers held a lead late in the game – or even if they didn’t – Sanchez needed to be the first man out of the centerfield gate for Detroit.

He was and as expected, he performed extremely well.  Sanchez rolled through two innings of work.  He saved Ausmus from dipping into his bullpen before the 8th inning.  At 30 pitches, Sanchez likely could have come out for another inning of work.  However, he hadn’t thrown much more than 30 pitches in any outing since being reinstated from the disabled list towards the end of the regular season.  Not wanting to overuse what might be his most effective bullpen weapon if the Tigers were to go deep into the playoffs, Ausmus opted to remove Sanchez in favor of his regular late-inning arms.

To show just how confident people were that the Tigers’ bullpen would ultimately fail, the 48,000 fans at Camden Yards gave Joba Chamberlain a standing ovation as he entered the game.  That sort of mock-praise from a crowd often leads to instant negative karma.  Not this game, however.  Not on this rare baseball afternoon where everything we thought we knew turned out to be true.

Joba retired the first hitter he faced.  With one strike on Jones, the former Yankee let a ball get away and Jones reached on a hit-by-pitch.  Dennis Eckersley – doing color commentary for TBS – was as aware as anyone that the Detroit bullpen was likely to slip up.  Eck bluntly called the hit-by-pitcher “stupid”.  It was as if he knew that one minor mistake and it would all come crashing down for Detroit.

Nelson Cruz followed with a single and Steve Pearce did the same to cut the deficit to 6-4.  Ausmus had seen enough from Chamberlain.  He yanked him in favor of Joakim Soria.  Soria – who along with Joba had played a role in the prior night’s bullpen debacle – got this outing off to a fitting start by immediately walking Hardy to load the bases.  In an instant, the feeling of the game had changed.  On cue, the Tiger’s bullpen was blowing it.

Three years and five days earlier, Tim and I were leaving Camden Yards about 40 minutes after midnight on September 29th. We were both on a sports-induced high – the kind of elation every sport’s fan hopes for but rarely gets – by what we had just witnessed.  The Orioles’ unexpected walk-off victory that knocked the Boston Red Sox out of the playoffs had left us both on cloud nine.

“Nothing will ever get better than that,” Tim said, with the same grin he had worn on his face since Nolan Reimold crossed home plate sometime earlier.  “I can’t imagine an Orioles moment that will ever top this.  It won’t get better than this.”

“Sure it can,” I responded.  “Just wait until we reach the playoffs.”

Tim scoffed.  At that moment, it was impossible to imagine a moment greater than the one he just had the good fortune to experience.

Fast-forward a little more than one year.  On October 5, 2012, Tim and I once again had the good fortune of bearing witness to a monumental moment in Baltimore baseball history.  After fourteen seasons without a playoff game, we watched in almost stunned awe as Nate McLouth gloved a fly ball off of the bat of Daniel Murphy in Arlington, Texas, to send the Orioles from the first American League wild card came into the American League Division Series.  It was a moment I described on this site later as “cathartic”.

Three days later – back in Baltimore and back at Camden Yards – we stood on our feet for almost an entire 3-hour game as the Orioles took on the Yankees in the crucial second game of a five game playoff series.  The crowd at the first game of the series had been sedated somewhat by the constant rainfall and the fact that the O’s only once briefly held the lead in that game.  Game #2 was a different story from a crowd reaction standpoint.  The Baltimore fans were loud – deafening, really – for the entire game.  The crowd game unglued when Jim Johnson stuck out Alex Rodriguez to give the Birds their first home playoff victory in 14 years.

Not surprisingly, the 2012 Wild Card game and 2012 ALDS Game #2 finished first and third, respectively, in our 2012 “Game of the Year” feature.  We didn’t have a game of the year feature for 2011, but the final game of the season would have won in a landslide if we did.  These were great games that will long be remembered by fans of Baltimore baseball.  They are amongst the greatest games I have ever had the privilege of seeing live.

After careful consideration however, none of those games stand out as truly the greatest live event I've seen.  And that is all because of one singular moment.

Delmon Young finished the regular season with a .500/.565/.800 slash line over 20 plate apperances as a pinch hitter.  His success in that role was comparable only to John Mayberry, Jr, during the 2014 regular season.  Therefore, it came as no surprise when Buck summoned Delmon from the bench to pinch-hit with bases loaded in the 8th inning of a 6-4 ball game.

Delmon was on the team for this exact kind of situation.

As Young settled into the batter’s box, the TBS broadcast reminded the television audience: “everyone knows he [Young] is ready to fire on the first one.”  This was in reference to Delmon’s knack for hacking at the first strike he saw during an at bat.

To clarify, what we had here was a poor bullpen on the ropes facing one of the game’s best pinch hitters and a guy who is known to swing hard at the first decent pitch he gets.  If a movie script painted that same scenario, then had it play out with Young getting the game winning hit on the first pitch he saw, the scene would be derided for being too fanciful and farfetched.  Perfect outcomes like that only happen on the big screen.  This was real life we were dealing with.

Except this time, real life was a whole lot like a movie script.

Delmon swung hard at the first pitch he got – a slider – and hit the ball on a line into the left-field corner of the park.  When the ball hit the ground and the crowd collectively realized what that potentially meant, it was as if someone had set off an alarm.  The already-buzzing crowd went from loud to eardrum shattering in a split second.

Nelson Cruz scored from third without breaking a sweat.  Steve Pearce was right behind him.  J.J. Hardy – not the fleetest of foot, but a very good base runner – came chugging around third.  The ball left the relay-man’s hand and headed towards the plate.  Given the drama of the moment, Hardy may or may not have seen his teammates, Cruz and Pearce, emphatically giving him the universal “get down/slide” signal from their view just behind home plate.  The throw was just slightly to the right side of the plate.  Avila reached for the ball and when he did, Hardy slid to the outside of the plate.  All of Hardy’s body – expect for the all-important left hand – veered away from the plate while his left hand grazed it.

The home plate umpire flung his arms out to the side.  Pearce leapt to his feet.  Cruz tumbled backwards like an excited little kid.  Hardy was safe.  The Orioles led 7-6.  Delmon Young had become an instantaneous Oriole legend.

In the stands, people went nuts.  In the games mentioned above as well as in other games, I’ve seen people get excited.  I’ve seen strangers high-five one another and fans jump up and down.  I’ve heard Camden Yards get very loud and I’ve heard people scream at the top of their lungs.  I’ve never seen or heard anything like I did in that moment.

If someone was physically capable of jumping up and down, they likely were.  There was no chanting or even much normal cheering – just a lot of folks yelling in a purely emotional way.  I saw strangers hugging strangers, including my Mom getting a big ole bear hug from the guy she was seated next to.  It was the reaction you get when 48,000 people all want one thing to happen and then miraculously it does.  It was pure, unadulterated euphoria.

Simply put, it was the greatest single live sports moment we had ever experienced.

After the noise had somewhat settled, Zach Britton ran in from the bullpen to finish out what was suddenly a 7-6 game in favor of the home team.  As fortune would have it, Zach was scheduled to enter the game regardless since he had worked just 1/3 of an inning the night before.  He was warmed up and ready to go, even before his appearance had morphed into a save situation.

Adding salt to the Tiger’s fresh new wounds, Britton showed just what a shutdown relief performance looks like.  The Birds’ closer sandwiched a strikeout in between two groundouts for the ultra-easy three out save.  Britton’s appearance in the game came after the fireworks for over and for that reason, his contributions to the win will largely be overlooked.  It felt like there was no way the Orioles could lose the game after the dramatics of the 8th inning.  The truth is, it was still just a one-run game that easily could have slipped away.  Britton avoided any unnecessary drama as he shut the door on the game that gave the O’s into a dominant 2-0 series lead.

After the game had finished and the players left the field, we literally sat in our seats until the usher told us it was time to clear out.  What we had just seen was stunning in so many ways.  How often in baseball does a game – particularly one of this magnitude – play out just the way the pundits expected it to and the way diehard fans hoped it would?  The storylines contained within this singular game were about as good as it gets.

Beyond that, how many games contain as heart-pounding and exciting of a moment as Delmon Young’s 8th inning 3-run double?

Game #2 of the 2014 American League Division Series coupled a storybook plot with an unforgettable moment.  For that reason, it is the Orioles Observer number one game of 2014 and quite possibly the best live sporting event experience of my life.