Welcome to part two of the 10 Best Games of 2012. In yesterday's part one, we took a look back at four of the Orioles' most memorable games of the season. Now we'll pick things up with the final six, again running through the list in chronological order.
5: Mark Reynolds destroys the Yankees (August 31 and September 2)
Once again I'm combining two games into one entry. As we established last time, I'm not above that. The Birds continued to steamroll through their competition in the late months, and suddenly a goal once thought unreachable-- the AL East crown-- was within the Orioles' grasp. The O's had whittled the Yankees' once 10-game lead to just two, setting the stage for a weekend showdown between the two clubs at Yankee Stadium. It was a chance to do some real damage.
The Orioles did exactly that, thanks almost single-handedly to Mark Reynolds. The slugger hadn't been living up to his homer-happy reputation thus far in 2012, with just 13 blasts in four months, but that all changed once he got a hold of Yankee pitching. Reynolds set the tone in the first game of the series by smashing a two-run homer off Hiroki Kuroda in the second, and another blast against Derek Lowe in the ninth. The O's never trailed in the game, and thanks to one of Miguel Gonzalez's patented Yankee Stadium masterpieces, the Birds cruised to a 6-1 win.
Two days later, after an ugly loss in game two, the O's found themselves trailing 3-1 in the sixth, in danger of dropping the series and falling further back. Reynolds again hoisted the team on his back and said, "Don't worry, guys. I got this." He crushed a go-ahead three-run homer-- his second of the game-- to lift the Orioles to a dramatic 8-3 victory. All told, Reynolds parked four blasts in the three-game series, which whittled the Yankees' division lead to just one game.
6: An emotional roller-coaster on Cal Ripken Statue Night (September 6)
...and that brings us to the next shootout between the Orioles and Yankees, a four-game set in Baltimore that had to be considered the most important series at Camden Yards in 15 years. The O's were still one game back when the series began, and a raucous, sellout crowd of 46,298 packed the yard to watch the O's move into first place (and also to witness the unveiling of Cal Ripken's statue, the fifth of six nights in the Orioles Legends series).
The Orioles' bats came out red hot, riding homers by Matt Wieters, Robert Andino and-- you guessed it-- Mark Reynolds to take a seemingly comfortable 6-1 advantage into the eighth. But that's when things went horribly wrong. The Yankees erupted for a five-run rally, mostly against Pedro Strop (who had just started his month-long bout of awfulness) to tie the game and shock the capacity crowd into stunned silence. The Orioles, for one horrific inning, looked like the lowly team that regularly got stomped by the Yankees in the 14 years prior.
One pitch later, that feeling of dread evaporated. Adam Jones led off the bottom of the eighth with a resounding, heart-pumping, go-ahead homer into the left-field seats, bringing an overwhelming explosion of cheers and chants from the home crowd, louder than anything heard in recent memory. The decibel level grew even higher when the slugging Birds bats bashed two more homers in the inning-- one by Chris Davis and yet another by Reynolds, marking his third multi-homer game against the Yankees in a week. The O's went on to win, moving into a first-place tie and firmly establishing themselves as a contender to the very end.
7: Manny Machado saves the day (September 12)
The Yankees weren't the only AL East competitor with whom the Orioles had their hands full. The pesky Tampa Bay Rays, the team that allowed the fewest runs in the AL, were hanging tough in the division and wild-card race as well. Which made their three-games series in Baltimore in mid-September crucially important.
After the O's won the opener, game two was a back-and-forth nailbiter. Tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth, the Rays were threatening to score, with Rich Thompson at second base and Evan Longoria at the plate. That's when Manny Machado pulled off perhaps the best defensive play of the year for the Birds. On Longoria's slow roller to third, Machado rushed in to field, then faked a throw to first base that he had no intention of making. The deke fooled Thompson perfectly, and the rookie rounded third base too far as Machado spun and fired to J.J. Hardy covering the bag. Thompson was tagged out to end the inning, a huge momentum shifter in the game.
Machado then led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and scored the game-winning run on Nate McLouth's walkoff double down the right-field line, yet another dramatic O's victory in a season full of them. The Orioles completed a huge three-game sweep the next day.
8. Sleepless in Seattle (September 18)
This game started innocently enough. Actually, it was pretty boring most of the way through. The Orioles' offense was completely stymied by Mariners rookie righty Erasmo Ramirez, who carried a 2-0 shutout into the top of the ninth. It was one of those nights you could usually chalk up as a "tip your cap, go get ‘em next time" type of loss. But the O's were interested in no such thing. Chris Davis's two-run single in the ninth inning tied the score...and that's when stuff got fun.
On and on and on the game continued. Both teams squandered numerous scoring chances. Both teams emptied their bullpens, with eight pitchers working for each team. But finally, in the top of the 18th, Taylor Teagarden delivered an RBI bloop single that put the O's on top-- just Taylor's seventh hit of the year but already his third game-winning extra-inning knock. The Birds sealed the win soon afterward, ending their longest game of the season (5 hours and 44 minutes) and notching their 14th consecutive extra-inning victory.
What makes this one of the top 10 games of 2012, for me, is the truly remarkable number of O's fans who stayed up until 3:54 in the morning Eastern Time, living and dying on every last pitch even though they knew they'd be a useless blob at work the next day. Orioles fans, man. We're a passionate bunch. And maybe just a little bit crazy.
9. A playoff win 15 years in the making (October 5)
This 2012 Orioles club accomplished some truly amazing things. Picked preseason by most pundits to finish in last place in the division, the O's shocked the world by not only posting their first above-.500 season in 15 years, but also storming to a 93-win season and securing one of the two AL wild card berths. All of that, by itself, would've been an incredible story even if the Birds had advanced no further. But they did advance further, thanks to a one-game wild-card duel in Texas that we'll be talking about for ages.
You remember the story. The odds seemed heavily stacked against the Orioles. They were playing in the home park of a slugging Rangers team that had played in the last two World Series. They were facing imported free-agent ace Yu Darvish, for whom the Rangers paid more than $100 million to acquire over the winter, while the O's countered with Joe Saunders of the lifetime 9+ ERA in Texas. The Orioles weren't supposed to win...so of course they did.
Saunders pitched a fantastic 5 ⅔ innings, the O's scraped across the go-ahead runs against Darvish and padded their lead against the Rangers' bullpen, and in the bottom of the ninth, Jim Johnson escaped a bases-loaded jam. As Nate McLouth squeezed the final out of the ballgame, Orioles fans everywhere erupted with joy in front of their TVs, radios, GameCasts, and whatever else, while the Birds themselves converged in the middle of the diamond for an exuberant dogpile before heading back to the clubhouse for a champagne-drenched celebration. A fifteen-year weight was lifted off their shoulders: the Orioles had won a playoff game and were headed to the ALCS. And you know what that means...
10. Postseason baseball returns to Camden Yards (October 8)
If ever a city was more ready for the return of October baseball than Baltimore, I'm certainly not aware of it. Orioles fans turned out in full force to greet their hometown heroes, filling Camden Yards with pumped-up, sellout crowds for both games of the ALDS. Now that's how you pack a stadium, instead of embarrassing yourself by playing postseason games in front of bored fans and half-empty seats (*cough* Yankees). The atmosphere at Camden was simply electric, even after both games started late because of rain.
The Orioles got to send their fans home happy with a win in Game 2. Wei-Yin Chen, who had struggled through much of September, was outstanding in his first postseason start in the majors. He scattered eight hits but held the Yankees to just two runs, one of which scored on an acrobatic (and controversial) dive by Ichiro Suzuki to elude the tag of Matt Wieters in the first. The Birds' offense managed to eke out three runs (which, sadly, would be their highest run total of the series) on RBI singles by Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds. Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz each worked scoreless stints to set the table for Jim Johnson in the ninth. This ended up being a rough series for JJ, but not on this night; the O's closer retired the Yankees 1-2-3 to shut down the game and tie the series at 1, while the crowd roared its head off in triumph.
The O's, unfortunately, never did make it back to Camden Yards after that game, losing the series in the Bronx. But as one of the many who was in the stands for both games, I'll never forget the otherworldly atmosphere in Baltimore on those nights. I'll never forget this 2012 Orioles team, either. Thank you, guys, for being the most fun ballclub I've ever had the pleasure of following, and for reminding a rabid fan base of what Orioles Magic is all about.