All season long, as part of Camden Chat's series on the 1997 Orioles, I've been running through the list of the 10 best games of that historic, wire-to-wire season. Nine memorable games have been recapped to this point. As for the grand finale? Well, back in March when I picked the 10 games that would be part of this series, #10 on my list was one that would be considered "most significant" rather than "best"-- the Orioles' infamous loss to the Indians in Game 6 of the ALCS. You know, the one with the Birds' 0-for-12 performance with runners in scoring position and Tony Fernandez's game-winning homer off Armando Benitez in the 11th, the game that ended the Orioles' season and shattered their World Series dreams.
But you know what? I don't feel like writing about that game anymore. Not after our present-day Orioles just got bounced from the playoffs themselves three short days ago. This is no time to be reliving old postseason failures. Instead, it's time to put the 1997 series to bed once and for all. We no longer need to delve 15 years into the past to find an awesome Orioles team-- this magical 2012 season has brought us enough wonderful, memorable thrills to last a lifetime. So let's take things in a whole new direction and look back on the 10 Best Games of 2012.
Narrowing the list down to just 10 games, as you might imagine, is no easy feat. When a team racks up 93 wins, gets to the playoffs, and enjoy record-breaking success in one-run and extra-inning games, there's certainly no shortage of dramatic performances. This list is so stacked that Manny Machado's two-homer heroics in his second major-league game didn't even make the final cut. Neither did Jason Hammel's near-no-no in Atlanta. Or Chris Tillman taking a shutout into the ninth in his first start of the year, then destroying Chris Sale in August. Also missing the cut: Brian Roberts's 3-for-4 season debut after missing over a year with a concussion. And the Orioles' franchise-record-tying seven-homer explosion. And Miguel Gonzalez's emotional first major-league start, beating the Angels while wearing the glove of his late friend and teammate, Nick Adenhart. Great games, all. But a few were even greater.
Let's get to it: here, in chronological order, are the Orioles' best games of 2012:
1: Chris Davis, winning pitcher (May 6)
This gets my vote as the most ridiculous game I've ever seen, and I mean that in the best way imaginable. Even five months later, I'm still having trouble processing how this game could've possibly played out the way it did. The Orioles entered the game with a nice 18-9 record, but it wasn't until this jaw-dropping game-- this incredible six hours and seven minutes of baseball in Fenway-- that I first truly believed the O's might have a special season on their hands.
The first nine innings featured two J.J. Hardy homeruns and Tommy Hunter blowing a five-run lead, but that's not the part that O's fans will be telling their grandkids about. No, it was only once the game got to extra innings that the truly ludicrous stuff began. As the game dragged on and on without a conclusion, Buck Showalter used every available reliever. And so in the bottom of the 16th, designated hitter Chris Davis strolled to the mound, only the seventh position player ever to pitch in a game for the Orioles-- and certainly the first to do so in a tie game. Davis's relief appearance brought wide eyes and chuckles from his teammates, but the O's were resigned to the fact that they were essentially conceding the game.
But something amazing happened: Chris Davis turned out to be the best pitcher the O's never knew they had. He somehow dominated a befuddled Red Sox lineup that had expected to rip him to shreds and walk off with the win in short order. Davis struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia on three pitches in the 16th, and the O's provided game-saving defense later in the inning when the Adam Jones-Hardy tandem unleashed a perfect relay home from the center-field wall, where Matt Wieters caught the ball on a bounce and tagged out the potential winning run, Marlon Byrd.
Seeing Davis get through a scoreless inning, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine tried to catch similar lightning in a bottle by putting outfielder Darnell McDonald on the mound-- which proved disastrous when Jones crushed a go-ahead three-run homer over the Green Monster. Incredibly, Chris Davis had a chance to become the winning pitcher...and more incredibly, he sealed the deal himself with another scoreless inning in the 17th. That frame featured a classic three-pitch strikeout of Sox cleanup hitter Adrian Gonzalez and a game-ending double-play grounder by McDonald. A designated hitter (who was 0-for-8 at bat) had just earned a win for the Birds with two shutout innings. Orioles Magic was in full force, and it wasn't going away anytime soon.
2: Walkoff extra-inning wins against the Phillies (June 9 and 10)
OK, I'm cheating here by combining two games into one entry. But these games were so alike, and ended in such similarly dramatic ways, that it's hard to separate the two. In the first of the two, the O's and Phillies traded barbs for eight solid innings, with Philadelphia pounding out three homeruns (including one by Jim Thome, who would become an Oriole by month's end) to knot the game every time the Birds took the lead. The Phils had a huge chance to jump on top in the eighth, loading the bases with one out, but J.J. Hardy deftly fielded ex-Oriole Ty Wigginton's bad-hop grounder to short for an inning-ending double play. The game remained deadlocked until the bottom of the 12th, when Adam Jones clobbered a walkoff two-run homer into the bullpen.
The next day, the O's did it again. This time the Orioles were the ones playing catchup early. They fell into a 4-1 hole against stalwart Phillies lefty Cliff Lee. But as the old saying goes, every game there's a different star. On this day it was unheralded utility infielder Steve Tolleson, who smacked a game-tying, three-run homer in the fourth, one of just two roundtrippers on the season for Tolleson. That 4-4 tie held firm until the 10th, when Jones reached on an error and scored on Matt Wieters's double off the right-field scoreboard, bringing the Orioles pouring out of the dugout and celebrating walkoff hysteria for the second straight game.
The wins were especially sweet because the Orioles stuffed it in the face of the many obnoxious Phillies fans who had made the trip down to Camden Yards for the weekend. Nothing's better than when annoying out-of-town fans try to take over Baltimore with the visiting teams' colors and instead are left defeated, crying into their beers. (Does that make me a jerk? I don't think so.)
3: The Taylor Teagarden legend begins (July 14)
When mid-July rolled around, the O's were badly slumping. They went into the All-Star break by dropping 9 of their last 13 games, and then started the second half with another rough loss that saw their ace, Jason Hammel, suffer a knee injury that would keep him out for over a month. So the Birds desperately needed a win to slow their skid and keep their head above water.
The O's felt pretty good about their chances of doing that against the Tigers on July 14, taking an early lead and carrying a 4-1 edge into the ninth for near-automatic closer Jim Johnson. But to the Birds' horror, Johnson let the entire lead slip away (with help from a costly Ryan Flaherty error) for just his second blown save. The news got worse in the 11th when Alex Avila's RBI single put the Tigers on top. The Birds were once again fighting for their lives, their season teetering on the brink of slipping away from them. But they didn't go down without a fight. Adam Jones blooped a game-tying RBI single with two outs in the bottom of the 11th to tie it back up.
Again, the Tigers took the lead with a run in the top of the 13th. It's a lot to ask of a team to continually rally back when they're down to their last three outs...but the O's were up to the challenge once more. The horrifically struggling J.J. Hardy picked a great time to contribute, smacking a game-tying solo homer in the bottom of the 13th to knot the score again.
That's when the unlikeliest of heroes stepped up. Backup catcher Taylor Teagarden, who had been activated before the game after spending the first three months on the DL, stepped to the plate later in the 13th for just his second at-bat of the year. He certainly made it count. Teagarden lofted a high fly ball to right field that snuck into the bleachers just to the left of the out-of-town scoreboard. Walkoff homer. Ballgame. And another surprising name etched into Orioles lore.
4: Five-run comebacks FTW (July 31 and August 19)
I'm bending the rules again with another two-game entry. Both these games were against contending teams that are currently playing in the ALCS (the Yankees on July 31, the Tigers on August 19). In both games, the Orioles gave up 5 runs in the first inning on the opponent's home field to fall into a huge early hole. In past years, at least one of these games-- and probably both-- would've seen the O's limp through the remaining innings and take a blowout loss. The 2012 Orioles, by contrast, pulled off amazing comeback wins in both.
In the Yankee game, an ill Chris Tillman slogged through an interminable first inning that saw him give up six hits and commit a costly error. In the Tiger game, starter Wei-Yin Chen was torched by two homeruns and an RBI double in the opening frame. Both pitchers were down 5-0 and neither looked like he would stick around much longer.
But Tillman and Chen both had remarkable recoveries and kept their opponent off the board from that point forward, exiting after the fifth. Meanwhile, the Orioles' offense erased the entire deficit almost immediately in both games; at Yankee Stadium, the O's crushed Ivan Nova for seven runs in the second inning, punctuated by Chris Davis's grand slam to dead center, and eventually went on to win, 11-5. At Comerica Park, the O's rallied for four in the second inning-- with a Davis homer again playing a key role-- and three more in the fourth to take the lead, which they held onto thanks to sterling relief work by Darren O'Day in particular. The two games sent a resounding message to the rest of the American League: we don't care who you are, where you're playing, or what kind of lead you have. The Orioles won't back down to anybody.
At the end of that August 19th game in Detroit, the O's had a 66-55 record and were right in the thick of the playoff race. It had already been an exciting, special season...and the best was yet to come. In part two, coming tomorrow, we'll take a look at the final six entries on our 10 Best Games of 2012 list.