[The following was written for a general baseball audience and will hopefully serve as a faithful primer on the Boston Red Sox' historic Wild Card collapse in the last month of the 2011 regular season, as seen from a Baltimore Orioles fan's perspective. Apologies in advance for any errors, factual, grammatical, or otherwise.]
Since the last round of expansion in 1998, the thirty teams of Major League Baseball play a regular season of two thousand, four hundred and thirty games across just over six months; roughly thirteen of them a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. Each of these games in turn lasts nine innings -- some go longer, but for simplicity, let's say nine innings. That's twenty-one thousand, eight hundred seventy innings, bare minimum, each year. Each team plays one hundred and sixty two of these games, twenty-six or twenty-seven of them a month, a day off here or there. One thousand, four hundred fifty-eight innings. The regular season is unkind. It is long and grueling and it bleeds together until the games left behind are just moments of madness strung together by double plays, warning track fly balls, blown saves and fat old men behind home plate. And in the end, the difference between an elite team and a hopeless one is...forty. A one hundred win team is going direct to the playoffs -- a one hundred loss team is going direct the other way.
The Baltimore Orioles won ninety-eight games in the 1997 Regular Season. Between then and last Monday, the team played two thousand and ninety-six games of regulation baseball. In a few years they will pass that two thousand four hundred and thirty number. When you dream of Hell, pray you dream of lakes of fire and men with farm tools, not of twenty-some thousand innings of the Baltimore Orioles playing the Baltimore Orioles, thirteen hours a day, every day, all the way down. If you do, pray you wake up. If you don't, pay attention to Daniel Cabrera's year; it's possible this is the change of scenery he needed.
But that moment is still some terrible basement-dwelling seasons away. Last Monday, the number stood at two thousand and ninety-six. Our story begins before the first of those, however; it begins with one last great fight between Could Have Been and Never Was.
It has been fourteen years since the Baltimore Orioles lost four games to the Cleveland Indians.
That they lost is, in and of itself, not remarkable; the Baltimore Orioles lose baseball games all the time. But they lose them in March, and May, and July, and yes, even September. These four games, however, were played in October -- in the middle of the month, over the course of one week, from the second Wednesday to the third. These losses are special because they are the last losses the Baltimore Orioles recorded in postseason play. They may be the last losses the Orioles ever record in postseason play. They certainly will be for the foreseeable future.
It's odd; to hear Orioles fans tell it now, the Good Years ended one postseason prior at the hands of Derek Jeter, Jeffrey Maier, and Rich Garcia -- the Hall of Fame shortstop, the infamous fan, and the all-but-forgotten umpire. But the 1997 American League Championship Series is a more fitting goodbye to all that; a meaningless footnote of a series between the two nearly-great also-rans of the American League in the Nineties, the high-water mark for both the Cleveland and Baltimore franchises before their waves rolled back. The Orioles went wire-to-wire in the American League East and had the second-highest payroll in baseball behind the Yankees; the Indians went to the World Series, only to be humiliated by an expansion team. The Indians would lose the ALCS to the Yankees next year; they would not be back for another decade. Both rosters had multiple Hall of Fame-caliber players -- Ripken, Jr., Palmiero, and Mussina for Baltimore, Thome and Ramirez for Cleveland. By the end of 2001, only Thome remained. By the end of 2002, none did.
Cleveland, however, has had hope -- in part because of better ownership, in part because of weaker competition, in part because of luck. This year, they were contenders. The last time the Orioles were contenders was 2005, when they and their new neighbors, the Washington Nationals, were the best teams in their leagues going into the All-Star Break. Both teams would humiliate themselves with mirror-image, awe-inspiring second-half collapses, losing 48 and 45 games of their last 75 respectively.
Of course, those collapses happened for a reason: those teams just weren't that good. They were playing over their heads. They were relying on pitchers like Rodrigo Lopez and Ryan Drese and Bruce Chen.
Bruce Chen. Remember that name. We'll get back to him.
For the Orioles, 2005 broke them. Rafael Palmiero's second stint as an Oriole ended in a fireball of steroids recriminations and public embarrassment, his behaivor likely costing him an eventual place in Cooperstown; he would have gone as an Oriole. To his credit, Sidney Ponson spread his over the course of the next few years and had the good grace to do most of his worst shit in Aruba. Meanwhile, in New York, Mike Mussina was becoming a fan favorite.
The next few years are best signified with names. Allow your imagination to roam terrible and free:
Brandon Fahey, Juan Castro, Alex Cintron, Luis Hernandez, and Freddie Bynum, Jr.
There are too many -- Jamie Walker -- to properly name them all -- Danys Baez -- and give each special little retarded star amongst them -- Garrett Atkins -- his due time to shine. Corey Patterson.
They paint a picture of a franchise so bad it was accused of intentionally hurting the on-field product to prevent Washington from getting the Expos; of an owner who strives in vain, year in and year out, to become the tinpot Steinbrenner of the Mid-Atlantic; of a breathtaking series of clueless, inane and downright bizarre front-office hires. At one point, the franchise had two General Managers. On purpose.
Four in Massachusetts; three in Maryland. Sixty-three innings.
Only in the insane mathematics of emotion can sixty-three make seven greater than two thousand and ninety-six.
The Boston Red Sox walked a considerably different road to reach Fenway last Monday.
They are the team that needs no introduction, the dirt dogs, the lovable losers, the -- let's stop there lest we vomit. The Boston Red Sox are a billion dollar organization with a strong, national brand. Once John Henry showed up, they started acting like it.
They were World Series Champions in 2004 and 2007. Consistently top three in payroll. An excellent organization in all aspects, from drafting to scouting to major league roster acquisition, through trade or free agency. And no, no one wants to hear "But Crawford" or "But Lackey." If Red Sox Nation is dissatisfied with the operating costs of Theo Epstein's tenure, then they're more than welcome to have Daniel Duquette and a bullet for free.
But last Monday, they came to Fenway...off.
The year began poorly for the Boston team. They were swept out of the park by the Texas Rangers, then again by the Cleveland Indians. Their fanbase had built themselves into a war frenzy over Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the offseason's two primary acquisitions; somehow it failed to register that Adrian Beltre was gone to Texas and Victor Martinez had left for the Detroit Tigers. This was, on the face of it, a push. Adrian Beltre is elite in every facet of the game and Victor Martinez is on the short list of current catchers whose bat is not a bonus, but a force. On the other hand, Adrian Gonzalez is an elite first baseman and one of the top ten hitters currently playing the game, and Carl Crawford is...fast.
So the Boston media set about gleefully ratcheting expectations up through the roof. And while they weren't looking, Boston's pitching staff completely fell apart.
Jon Lester is a Cy Young candidate. That is the best thing that can be said about about the Boston staff that straggled into the home clubhouse that Monday. Josh Beckett had been fantastic, but the fans insisted he looked old and inconsistent. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield actually was; he had limped to his two-hundredth Major League win a scant few days earlier against the Toronto Blue Jays on attempt number six, after giving up twenty two runs in his last twenty-six innings (he would give up five runs in six against the Jays, but got run support from his offense, something that was becoming increasingly rare as the season waned). Daisuke Matzusaka had vanished in June after thirty-seven horrendous innings for either Tommy John surgery or the Witness Protection Program. John Lackey was, to put it tactfully, distracted by off-the-field issues -- and also a horseshit pitcher. The Sox had acquired Erik Bedard, the ex-Oriole starter, from the Seattle Mariners to shore up their rotation; Erik's shoulder and hips and everything weren't what they once were, and the Mariners had finally come to terms with that. The expanded September rosters also allowed them to bring up some of their Pawtucket starters and seeing if they were ready. They weren't.
The Red Sox, though, had been one of the hottest teams in baseball for the entire four month middle of the season. At the beginning of September they sat on a commanding nine game Wild Card lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, an enigma wrapped in a mystery bunted over to second, and the Tampa Bay Rays, who were in something of a rebuilding year: lots of young guys. Lots of cost-controlled young guys. Both teams had something the Red Sox dearly needed: elite starting pitching. Neither team had their bats.
Last Monday, they led by two. They had collapsed utterly in a four game series against Tampa that had just ended the previous night in an 8-5 loss. But all was not lost: the Rays didn't have another game against them for the rest of the season. The Angels were on the verge of elimination by the Rangers. And over the last eleven days of September, due to a combination of intentional scheduling and make-up games from the rain-soaked earlier months of the season, both they and the Rays played one divisional opponent seven times. The Rays played the Yankees. The Red Sox played the Orioles. It is only a slight simplification to say that all the Red Sox had to do to make the playoffs was win more games against the Orioles than the Rays did against the Yankees.
Phrased another way: the Baltimore Orioles were now the only thing that stood between the Boston Red Sox and the Wild Card.
That is how the day-night doubleheader on September 19th, 2011 began in Boston.
The first game is a solid Baltimore win, but there's no feeling of destiny to it. The Orioles start Jeremy Guthrie, a nice guy and formerly decent starter that they got serious about trading two years too late. The Red Sox start one Kyle Weiland. Weiland finished the season with three starts and an ERA a hair over seven and a half. The Red Sox are not yet panicking.
Weiland lasts four and two-thirds innings and gives up six runs, five earned. Looking back, there are rumblings on the horizon, hints of things to come. In this safer, more innocent time, very few Red Sox fans have any real conception of who or what a Robert Andino is. They've probably seen him around before, sure, lurking at shortstop or second base in June and July, getting a single here or there, but no fan of another team really pays attention to the utility infielder on the Baltimore Orioles. Anyone who says he does is a liar.
On September 19th, Robert Andino hits a home run off Weiland. Fans of both teams safely write this off as a freak occurance and make mental notes to send Weiland cards expressing how sorry they were when they heard the bad news about his career. It's only Andino's fourth of the year.
More Red Sox fans have heard of Nolan Reimold, even if they have no idea what he looks like. They've seen him around in the box scores, sure, but no one really puts forth the effort to connect the name to the tall Baltimore left fielder with the blank stare and the creepy, hypnotic batting stance until he does something important. Something such as, say,homering off Weiland a few minutes before Andino. It's his twelfth of the year. But again -- Kyle Weiland. Isolated incident. The Orioles win 6-5.
And Game Two is downright heartening for Red Sox fans, as they get to watch Brian Matusz chained to the mound, the Red Sox hitters like vultures tearing the tendons from his throwing elbow and lower back. Both Reimold and Andino have nice enough games, but even Reimold's 3 RBI aren't likely to raise red flags when the Sox are dropping Brady numbers on poor Brian. The Sox win 18-9.
Meanwhile, the Rays watch and wait; September 19th is their final day off before the end of the regular season.
Tuesday is the first sign that something is about to go perversely wrong.
Not in the sense of Boston's entire season; everyone is well aware that the Red Sox are backing into the playoffs. September 20th, however, is the first night in this last stretch that the Orioles and Sox play concurrently with the Yankees and Rays; it is the first time the eyes of a player in the dugout can drift over to the Monster in Fenway or the scoreboard on Camden's short porch and see time running out, updated every at-bat.
This does not help their defense.
Red Sox fans will, when the killing is over and all that's left of their season is pointing fingers, blame conditioning for their troubles down the stretch. This is mainly due to Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Erik Bedard reminding them uncomfortably of, well, themselves. Each of these thirty-something white men has visibly put on weight over the course of the season (or, in Bedard's case, since the last time Boston fans saw him in an Orioles jersey three years ago), and they just do not look like how modern professional sports have taught us athletes should look. That's fine if they're pitching well. They're not.
But in fairness to Bedard his waistline has nothing to do with Sox right fielder Josh Reddick failing to make a routine catch on a liner that hits him in the glove. Maybe he's distracted. Maybe it breaks in or down or out on him weird. It still hits him in the glove, it's still the third out, and he still drops it. The Orioles, with one run already on the board, tack on three more.
The Orioles, however, are still the Orioles. And that specifically means their starting pitcher is someone who had no business standing on a Major League mound; in fact, he has so little business being there that he was only brought up when rosters expanded, even though the Orioles have desperately needed stopgaps in their rotation for months. His name is Rich VandenHurk, and he busily goes about giving the lead right back to the Sox. He allows five runs in less than four innings of work and is quickly spirited away for, of all men and beasts that roam the earth, reliever Jo-Jo Reyes, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Red Sox do not score off him. Nor off willie Eyre, who hasn't pitched in the majors for two years before the Orioles called him up midway through the season. Nor Pedro Strop, a throw-in reliever from the Texas Rangers farm system in a minor league trade.
So the Sox go to the top of the eighth inning with a lead protected by Josh Bard, the man Boston dreams their new closer, and he is able to strike out Adam Jones with a breaking ball that's -- ha ha -- low and away. But he's unable to keep Matt Wieters or Mark Reynolds off the bases, and so Sox manager Terry Francona brings in the Boston closer of Baseball Present: Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon manages to strike out Chris Davis on a breaking ball at the letters, because, well, umpires.
Nolan Reimold singles to left with Carl Crawford playing shallow in left due to the Monster -- bases loaded.
At so it is that with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Red Sox leading 5-4, Jonathan Papelbon stares sixty feet down towards home as Robert Andino steps into the batter's box.
The at-bat lasts six pitches.
The Orioles win 7-5.
There's a funny little moment Tuesday night when Nolan Reimold is coming in to score on Andino's double. Papelbon is standing two-thirds of the way down the line as Reddick scratches around the dirt in right field for the ball. The Red Sox closer is staring at the Orioles left fielder as Willie Randoplh, former Mets manager and currently Buck Showalter's third base coach, waves Reimold towards the plate. Papelbon watches him come down the line -- Reynolds has already scored easily -- and then steps up and throws his chest up at the runner, feinting a body check. Reimold doesn't flinch. For his part, Papelbon looks almost like he hits an invisible wall running up from the third base foul line -- he bounces off of it, almost; deflates; steps back and turns to see where Robert Andino ended up.
There is, perhaps, no better metaphor for how Papelbon will do business over the next week or so. From now until the final, bitter end on the night of the 28th, he will throw his fastball almost exclusively. Papelbon -- famous for, among other things, the development of the "slutter" (you see, it is both a slider and a cutter) -- will revert into what ludicrously well-paid morons call a thrower, instead of a pitcher. This is not necessarily out of mental weakness, mind; it is out of fatigue. Terry Francona will call on Papelbon numerous times against the Orioles in these last few games, and every time, he will labor to get through.
It is a good thing, then, that the only thing more viscerally pleasing than Jonathan Papelbon struggling to get through an inning is Mariano Rivera doing so. The latter happens just this side of never. The Orioles manage to induce the former three times in ten days.
If there's a saving grace to Tuesday night -- and really, there isn't, because Willie Eyre just won a game against the Boston Red Sox in September -- but if we grant them that small measure of solace, it's that the Rays lost to the New York Yankees 5-0. The race remains just as it was before; the Angels gain a game, but the Texas Rangers will put paid to their Wild Card dreams in short measure.
Wednesday, now; the final game of the final series of the year in Fenway Park.
Things do not go as planned.
Josh Beckett has had a good year, for what little good it does him now. He's already being darkly lumped into this unconditioned group which only really started coming to the forefront when that fat shithead John Lackey showed up. Perhaps they grumble about him being unable to beat Adam Jones to first when he grounds out weakly to second in the seventh inning; the Orioles centerfielder manages to escape a double play while Matt Wieters is forced out as second. But then, the Sox still lead 4-2.
Mark Reynolds has already hit one home run over the Green Monster off of Beckett, and as Jones stands on first with one away, they pitch to him. Why wouldn't you pitch to Mark Reynolds? As nice as it sounds when you say that a player literally does nothing but hit home runs, there's a reason Wily Mo Pena doesn't stick in the majors. Reynolds, horrific defensive issues aside, is a very likely candidate to -- oh good Christ, that ball is gone and the game is tied.
The fans...deflate. That's the nice thing about Fenway; it's so cozy, you can see it the faces fall as it clears that mountainous abortion of a left field wall. Perhaps if they had a real stadium, they'd be in the playoffs, but they don't and you have to hear about it forever and a day, so enjoy it when it turns two deep flyball outs into knives in the ribs. The game is tied.
The Red Sox fail to score off the Orioles bullpen in the seventh. Remember this. It's a recurring theme.
And now the top of the eighth. Robert Andino leads off. He pops it up to first. The thing to remember about Robert Andino is this: he is not actually a great hitter. He is a good fielder; better than his defensive metrics show, probably. He is decent with the bat. But he is not JJ Hardy, the castoff Brewer and Twin who has just singled to left field even though he was late on a Beckett fastball. JJ Hardy's year has been nothing short of fantastic. He ends with thirty homeruns and only twenty-some games missed to injury, both career highs. The Twins could use him back, but the Twins deserve nothing except every single thing they get.
Nick Markakis hits a ground rule double on fan interference; the umpire places JJ Hardy on third base. Markakis has become a modest, disappointing player, especially since he's making $11 million a year. But who fucking cares. He's Nick Markakis. He's the closest thing this team has to a franchise player. He's a good player and hey, maybe his power returns. And he just chased Josh Beckett, who Terry Francona pulls for Alfredo Aceves.
Vladimir Guerrero, second half champion, immediately bullshits a single back up the middle. Two runs score.
Jim Johnson comes in. He has six saves in the last fifteen calender days. Three outs later, he has seven.
Orioles win 6-4.
Now a brief pause here as the Orioles play three games against Detroit, the Red Sox play three against the Yankees, and the Rays play three against the Jays. The Yankees take two of three from the Sox; the Rays take two of three from the Jays. Notable is the second Rays win, where the Jays seemingly give up in the field and allow the Tampa Bay club to comfortably extend their lead to three runs. With two wins to Boston's one, the Rays gain another game. As the Red Sox travel down I-95 towards Baltimore, the noose again tightens.
There's still just enough time, however, to discuss this disaster of a season for the Orioles franchise from a developmental standpoint. There was a time -- geologically speaking, it wasn't even that long ago -- when the Baltimore Orioles were a respectable baseball franchise. They finished in the top three of the old American League East on a regular basis, and in the top two often enough that making the playoffs was a reasonable goal every spring. They developed pitching well and had possibly the best manager in the history of the sport, Earl Weaver, winning with a strategy best summarized as "pitching and three run dingers."
This year was supposed to be the year that pitching prospects Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton started dragging the franchise back down the road towards respectability.
It is late September. None of these pitchers will post an ERA under 5 for the year. Arrieta is shut down with bone spurs and will undergo surgery to try and repair his throwing elbow. When all is said and done, he is the best hope the Orioles have from the four of these young men.
Chris Tillman cannot go more than five innings without giving up that many runs. Zach Britton pitches so poorly he is demoted to Double A, where he immediately puts up an HR/9 of 2.5 over 16 innings. He's brought back to the majors, where he finds and then loses the strike zone three times every fifteen minutes of play.
Brian Matusz pulls a muscle in his lower back and immediately ceases to be a Major League pitcher. His fastball loses six miles per hour; his slider stops sliding; his curve stops curving; his changeup, well, it stays exactly the same. When Brian Matusz returns from his lower back injury, everything out of his hand is 86 miles per hour and straight as an arrow. Scouts stare at his game tape and say he looks like a journeyman minor league pitcher. The Orioles bring him back to the bigs anyway. He starts ten games and promptly breaks Roy Halladay's single season ERA record. No, not the good. Matusz throws 49.1 innings of 10.69 ERA ball before the Orioles brass finally, mercifully, put his season down.
He was supposed to be the staff ace. He was supposed to start Opening Day.
In the midst of a fight for their playoff lives, the Boston Red Sox have just dropped three of four games to this team.
On September 26th the two teams reconvene at Fenway South, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, to send this season screaming back to Hell. Tommy Hunter starts for the Orioles; Josh Beckett, again, for the Sox. Each man allows two runs through five innings pitched; then Hunter pulls his groin. He makes it through the fifth but is pulled for former Houston Astro Troy Patton; both Patton and Red Sox reliever Matt Albers came to Baltimore in the trade that sent Miguel Tejada to Houston; Albers was allowed to leave in free agency after the previous season. Patton was an intriguing starting prospect for the Orioles -- until he tore his labrum twice. Now he's the most middling of middling relievers. Nevertheless, he gets out of the top of the sixth without allowing a run. He has, in fact, looked almost impressive over the past few weeks.
Beckett takes the mound in the bottom of the sixth and the game spirals delightfully out of control.
Vladimir Guerrero takes the first pitch up the middle for, yes, another bullshit single; this one is important because it allows him to pass Julio Franco on the all-time hits list for Dominican born players. More importantly, it stops him being able to pop up later in the inning and ground into a double play. On the very next pitch, Wieters actually tries to bunt for a base hit as the Red Sox put on the shift; it barely goes foul. Jim Palmer shakes his head -- you can almost hear him doing it -- as the Red Sox stand pat and don't adjust their defensive formation.
Wieters drills a ball to center. Ellsbury is there.
Jacoby Ellsbury is an MVP candidate; he's had a homeless man's Brady Anderson year. Thirty home runs, most of them liners and just-barelys. Vlad Guerrero "steals" second; the ball is in time, but Jarrod Saltalamacchia throws the ball hard towards the first base side of the bag and Pedroia is unable to catch it and tag him. Jim Palmer snickers at the little balding shit and says, "Short arms. ... You can see Pedroia try to catch it and drop the glove; good throw gets him by a mile, but again, you can see just off the base and then, well, if you were a little taller, you would have a little longer arms to tag him."
Somehow, Guerrero is now 2 for 4 in stolen bases.
Now is a good time to mention that Robert Andino is, indeed, in the starting lineup, and his father is in attendance at Camden Yards. There's no real reason to discuss Andino's personal life here, as little about it that is known, but Andino has been quoted as saying that playing for the Orioles and Buck Showalter was the first time he felt like he got an opportunity in life and didn't immediately fuck it up. Andino is in the starting lineup, and his father is in attendance, and this is the first time that he has seen his son play a game of professional baseball. They cut to him once or twice; he looks happy and overwhelemed. Then the bottom of the sixth happens.
Adam Jones, who has otherwise actually had a very nice season both at the plate and in centerfield, strikes out. Guess where the pitch is.
Mark Reynolds comes to the plate. Jim Palmer about the Orioles: "Do they walk enough? No. Do they strike out too much? Yes. On base percentage? Lower than you'd like. But they do attack the baseball." Reynolds exemplifies his outcomes and walks.
Chris Davis appears, and bullshits something down the right field line; it's a one-handed double into the right-field corner, and Reynolds holds up at third. The Orioles take the lead, 3-2, and the Orioles have men on second and third with two outs.
And now, Robert Andino.
Jacoby Ellsbury is an MVP candidate. He's had a good, if unsustainable, bat. However, a lot of his value has come from his defense. In previous years, that defense was, gently put, overrated. Ellsbury took bad routes to balls on the fly, but was able to make up for it with his speed. This year, he actually somewhat resembles a good centerfielder; it complements his scary power surge quite well.
That makes what happens on the second pitch of Robert Andino's at-bat in the sixth so amazing. The diminutive Oriole second baseman burns a deep fly to center. Ellsbury retreats on it on a dead heat, and Ellsbury is fast. He reaches it. He gloves it. He hits the wall.
He drops it.
Jacoby Ellsbury is flailing about under his ass for the ball when Robert Andino rounds second. He finds it, picks it up and throws it back in. Andino is heading home. Drew's throw is a beauty -- but it short hops Saltalamacchia. Andino is dead to rights. He doesn't even slide; he's four steps from the plate when the ball arrives. But it skips past the catcher and on to the backstop, and Robert Andino becomes the first Oriole to hit an inside the park home run in Camden Yards in front of his father, who is seeing him play professional ball for the first time in either man's life.
The Sox score a run in the ninth. No one cares. The Orioles win 6-3.
The Wild Card race is now tied. As the second to last game of the season approaches, the talk in Boston is about what to do for Game 163 -- the play in. When two teams are tied for the single Wild Card berth in either of the leagues, they play an all or nothing, sudden death loser-goes-home game. They've been happening a lot recently; so much so that the league is making them an official part of postseason play. Boston is fretting because they do not have someone to start this game. Jon Lester, their ace, will be pitching the last game of the season on three days' rest; Josh Beckett just lost last night. Who do you throw, then, in an elimination game? John Lackey? Tim Wakefield?
The early answer is "Chris Capuano." Word comes out Tuesday morning that the Sox are looking into acquiring him from the Mets, as he's cleared waivers. Nothing develops by game time, and the Sox go to war with the rotation they have, not the rotation they want. Erik Bedard starts against Zach Britton.
The Sox win this game 8-7. They even keep the dreaded Robert Andino off base. The problem is that their two best relievers, Alfredo Aceves and Jonathan Papelbon, have to throw a combined four and two-thirds innings to do so. Papelbon only gets the final out when Adam Jones grounds out to Jed Lowrie at third with runners at the corners and two away...after Papelbon's thirtieth pitch. The assumption, then, would be that both men are unavailable for the final game of the season.
The Tampa Bay Rays win their game against the Yankees as well. The Wild Card race remains tied. Everything, every last dollar and moment, will be decided Wednesday, September 28th, 2011. The games start at 7:05 PM.
Robert Andino was acquired in 2009 from the Florida Marlins for a Double A pitcher named Hayden Penn who has not seen the majors since. He is a smallish man, as far as baseball players go -- he is listed at six feet, but there's no real chance he's taller than 5'10". He has extensive tattoos on both arms and more than one amazing MLB profile picture. He wears his hat flat-brimmed and cocked just off to the side, and hits above replacement level, but not by much. He bounced between the majors and minors for a season while the middle infield situation with Cesar Izturis and Brian Roberts sorted itself out.
He's now the starting second baseman, since Roberts literally cannot stop concussing himself. He and JJ Hardy are a good tandem up the middle, but there's no one in the world that was scared of his bat before now. And even now, they shouldn't be.
Robert Andino's greatest gift to baseball is allowing the Red Sox to beat themselves.
Remember Bruce Chen? If not, that's fine. He was mentioned earlier as an Orioles starter, back from the Bad Old Days.
Right now, in 2011, he's a starter for the Kansas City Royals. Somehow, he's not even bad, even though his fastball reminds one a lot of Brian Matusz's: 86mph and straight. But unlike Matusz's only remaining pitch, this confounding leftball is dragging the Royals' "ace" to a marginally respectable record. The Chicago White Sox can't hit him at all.
Boston is trying to trade for him all throughout the day; nothing comes of it. They only have so long to get him on the team. As first pitch approaches and a deal can't be made, the Sox resign themselves: if they force a Game 163, the starter will be from their organization. God help them all.
Wednesday night starts poorly for the Orioles and the Rays. The Orioles are down 3-2 by the time that the game goes into a rain delay due to a storm system coming down from the north; the Rays, meanwhile, manage to spot the Yankees seven runs in three innings, thanks to Mark Teixiera being, well, the guy the New York club signed him to be.
The Baltimore/Boston game resumes almost just as the New York/Tampa game enters the ninth inning. This narrative is not particularly concerned with the triumphs of the Tampa Bay Rays; this is mostly to prevent it from going over seven thousand words. The Rays pull off what would be one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history, dropping six runs on the Yankees in the eighth and then tying the game in the ninth -- if you didn't get the distinct feeling that the best Yankee pitchers were simply just not available. And why would they be? What would the Yankees gain from throwing Rivera into the game instead of Cory Wade?
That game goes into extra innings, and back in Baltimore, the tarp comes off the field. Things proceed almost normally for a time.
Then Jonathan Papelbon takes the mound. It's the ninth inning. It's after midnight eastern. The Rays and Yankees have entered the twelfth. Adam Jones leads off. Does he strike out on a pitch low and away? Why yes, he does. At least it's a fastball.
This is an omen -- Papelbon does not trust anything other than his fastball here. There's a reason Robert Andino hits him so well; Andino isn't a great hitter, but he can work with fastballs. And Papelbon is not Rivera. If you throw it at him long enough, he'll time it. But right now, the Red Sox are outhitting the Orioles eleven to four, and Red Sox pitching has retired the last six Orioles in a row. Worry? Me?
Mark Reynolds looks like a homeless Scandanavian with his mind set on murder. He strikes out. No one is shocked. Remy sounds like a smug, retarded fat man.
Two out with Chris Davis at the plate. Chris Davis.
Remember Davis's bullshit double into the right field corner a couple games ago off of Beckett? Davis does. He's on second now with two away.
Nolan Reimold steps to the plate. He rocks like a serpent, eyes unblinking. He lays off the bullshit pitches.
The count is 2-1 when Orsillo mentions that Robert Andino is on deck. But it's alright -- the Orioles are down to their last strike. Nolan Reimold just swung and missed on the eightieth Papelbon fastball in a row.
Papelbon blows the save.
There's an ad in the right field gap for AT&T; Ellsbury and Drew run twenty feet towards it and watch the ball go. Davis scores from second.
Robert Andino steps into his batters' box.
The theme of this series is that Andino is not actually a good hitter; tonight has borne that out so far. He has two ground outs and two strike outs. He steps in anyway. Nolan Reimold isn't a good hitter either, but there he is, standing at second.
Papelbon throws a ball, then a strike. The Baltimore utilityman steps out, walks around a bit.
Andino adjusts his helmet on 1-1 and steps back in.
Next year, the Baltimore Orioles will not have an ace. They will not have a legitimate #2. They will have nothing but Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and a prayer book. Kevin Gregg and his fucking goggles will abide.
Jim Johnson, their only good reliever, will remain in that capacity. They should make him a starter, but they're afraid of what will happen to the bullpen if they do.
And really, no one knows who "they" is going to be. It's not going to be Andy MacPhail. It's not going to be Brian Cashman. It might be Buck Showalter himself, if he decides the dugout isn't where he wants to be. Showalter holds more power in the Orioles organization than any manager since and including Earl Weaver. It's as bizarre as it sounds. He gets to pick his own General Manager, if it's not him; the chances of that choice being someone worth half a fuck are slim approaching none.
Jones and Wieters will be one year closer to free agency. The bullpen will be staffed by Rangers' minor leaguers. The Orioles will still have no actual third basemen.
Yes, somewhere down the line, the Baltimore Orioles could play baseball in October. It is not against the rules. The possibility endures, however theoretical, absurd, and eternally five years away.
Back in the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon's 1-1 pitch hangs. Robert Andino swings. He hits it sharply; pulls it to left.
Carl Crawford charges in from medium deep-left and falls into a slide.