Final Game Is Win And Go Home For Orioles
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This is what it's come down to for the Orioles:
Win and go home. It sounds delicious.
Not win OR go home. Win AND go home.
Not like 2011, when it was win or lose, pack your bags, make tee times and go home (preferably after delivering the same message to the Red Sox).
After 161 games, the Orioles have turned 93 losses into 93 wins (I mean, really, think about it). And if they can win No. 94 on the season's final night, the O's will assure more baseball in Baltimore this year. I mean, really, think about it.
There would be a meaningful game for the home team in Oriole Park at Camden Yards in October for the first time since 1997. One more win against the Rays could mean a tie-breaking game against the Yankees on Thursday, a wild-card play-in game against either the A's or Rangers on Friday, or possibly (perish the thought) both.
In order to get to this point, mind you, the Orioles had to win one of the best-pitched games of the year. And, as good as the Orioles' starter was, Miguel Gonzalez wasn't the one who pitched it. But it was the Orioles' right fielder, Chris Davis, who accounted for the game's only run with a mammoth home run that even losing pitcher James Shields had to admire.
"Probably the longest I've given up in my career," Shields said after a complete-game, two-hit, 15-strikeout masterpiece that resulted in his 10th loss instead of his 16th win. The guy who beat him, Gonzalez, was full of "wows" while describing what he had witnessed. That's what he said when asked about Shields' dominant performance, which allowed only one Oriole -- Davis -- to advance beyond first base.
It's also how Gonzalez and Jim Johnson, who notched his club-record 51st save, reacted to Davis' home run, which left center fielder B.J. Upton in his tracks, giving only a cursory glance over his shoulder as the blast carried a good 30 feet above the 404-feet sign and landed on the canopy protecting a restaurant so far away people probably didn't need a ticket to make a reservation. It was the sixth straight game in which Davis has homered, tying the club record Reggie Jackson set in 1976 (and, yes, I was there too). It's got to be the first time those two left-handed hitters have been mentioned in the same breath.
The Orioles, hardly known for their pitching prowess, let alone depth, have now played two gut-wrenching games against the Rays and allowed the grand total of two earned runs. And with the 1-0 win in the books, they were on the verge of yet another tie with the Yankees, who have held at least a share of first place since before the NBA finals started last June. (Think about that one, too, because the NBA has been in training camp for a week, and the Orioles haven't been more than a game out of first place since before the Democratic National Convention.)
When it was over last night, MASN announcer Gary Thorne opened his postgame interview with manager Buck Showalter by saying, "From a fan's standpoint, it was a great game to watch."
Showalter, who comes to these gatherings with the demeanor of somebody who's just received an unexpected invitation, didn't bat a syllable. "It was at the end," he said, "for Baltimore fans."
One of these days Thorne, or somebody else in the ever-growing media, will get a question or comment past Showalter that will take more than a few seconds to comprehend, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. He continually reminds people that he's just fortunate enough to "have a great seat and be along for the ride," but his stamp is all over this team, which grinds out wins and does the unpredictable seemingly every night.
And that includes the last out of last night's game, which came with the tying run on first base via a rare Johnson walk. One night after making an error that cost one run, and led to two more (but it would be presumptuous to say it cost the game), third baseman Manny Machado fielded a sharply hit grounder and rifled a throw to second for the game-ending force out. It might have been the toughest play facing Machado at the time, but if anybody had any qualms about how the error the night before would bother him (and you can bet there were more than a few), that throw dispelled them.
As for the Oct. 2 game, if it was the last Shields pitches in Tampa Bay (he has a $9 million option for next year and will probably be trade bait as the Rays open a spot for yet another gifted pitcher), it may have been the best of his career -- despite the outcome.
"What you saw tonight," one Rays executive said, "was our season in a nutshell. We just haven't scored runs."
For his part, Gonzalez was impressive for the Orioles, just as Wei-Yin Chen was the night before, despite absorbing a 5-3 loss. For a team with suspect pitching and defense, the Orioles are giving a good impression of a team that deserves to be exactly where it is.
Of the pitchers in the team's Opening Day starting rotation, 80 percent have either spend time in the minor leagues or on the disabled list. In a game that, as Showalter continues to insist, is about the pitching, the Orioles have found a way to mix and match. The Orioles' most successful starting pitcher, it seems, has been TBA, the designation Major League Baseball uses in its daily reports whenever there is indecision about who will take the mound.
The Orioles are not quite the East Coast version of the A's, who are writing their own incredible story on the West Coast, where Oct. 3 they will send a rookie starting pitcher out for the 101st time -- with the American League West Division title on the line. But the O's have their own stories to tell. Gonzalez, for instance, was released from the Red Sox organization last offseason (about the same time things started to go south big time in the nation), pitched in Mexico and didn't know until March where his next job would be.
He never made a big league appearance during spring training (and believe me, with the numbers that were run through, that says something), stayed behind for extended spring training, broke in as a short reliever at Triple-A Norfolk, was extended to long-man status and worked his way into the big league rotation.
"He's handled everything we've thrown at him," Showalter said.
And last night, he had to handle a guy who probably pitched the best game Gonzalez ever witnessed. But Shields (they don't call him 'Big Game James' for nothing) gave up a run. Gonzalez and three friends (Brian Matusz, Darren O'Day and Johnson) didn't give up any.
That's why it's win and go home tonight for the Orioles.
Posted Oct. 3, 2012