Folks, these aren't your older brother's Orioles.
It's mid-August, the O's are 11 games over .500, and they just took two out of three on the road against a high-priced, high-powered team that's battling them for a wild-card spot.
And they did it by clawing out of a 5-0 first-inning hole, stunning the Tigers with seven unanswered runs to secure the huge series victory.
We've suffered through 14 years of just terrible, unsightly baseball from this team. Usually by this time of year the Birds are long since out of contention, flailing their way to another lost season.
Not this year. Not this team. We don't yet know how this season will ultimately play out, but this is the most fun we fans have had watching an Orioles ballclub in a decade and a half. Today's great comeback was another triumph for an O's team looking to achieve something that seemed impossible four months ago: a seat at the postseason table.
When you win a game despite your most reliable starting pitcher getting torched for five runs in the first inning, that's saying something. For whatever reason, Wei-Yin Chen has a case of the Mondays in the opening frame; coming into this game, he'd allowed 14 runs (including four homers) in the first inning this season. Those stats took another huge hit today. Just two batters into the game, Chen coughed up a solo homer to Omar Infante. Then-- like most pitchers-- he couldn't get through the Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder tandem unscathed, allowing them both to reach on a walk and a single, respectively. Before I could comment, "Well, at least he didn't let those two hit any homeruns!", the next batter did the honors, with Jhonny Peralta clubbing a three-run shot to right-center field. Just five batters into the game, it was 4-0 Tigers.
It marked the second time in his last three starts that Chen allowed both a solo homer and a three-run shot in the first inning (the Royals did it to him two outings ago). But the Tigers weren't done. Delmon Young singled and then scored on a Jeff Baker RBI double to the gap. It was now a five-run game, Chen looked completely lost, and long reliever Steve Johnson was warming up fast in the bullpen. Wei-Yin ultimately got the final two outs, but not before he'd faced all nine Tigers batters and struggled through a whopping 41 pitches.
Well, that'll do it. A 5-0 deficit for the Orioles against Tigers starter Doug Fister, a pitcher who'd rattled off seven straight quality starts and always throws well against the Birds? That's it, this game is over. Drive home safely and enjoy the rest of your Sunday afternoon.
Not so fast, everyone. That's when things got good.
The Orioles immediately pounded their way back into the game. The comeback began when Chris Davis led off the second with another opposite-field homerun, his 20th of the year. Mark Reynolds followed with a duck-snort single to center field, though Fister retired the next two hitters and only needed to put away the sub-.100-hitting Taylor Teagarden to finish the frame. He didn't. Teagarden extended the inning with a walk, turning the lineup over for Nick Markakis, who lashed a double to left-center to plate Reynolds.
Up next was J.J. Hardy, who celebrated his 30th birthday by ripping a two-run double into the left-field corner, shaving the Tigers' lead to 5-4. You can't keep a good Orioles team down, folks! Fister got the last out of the inning with the lead still intact, but it only lasted two more innings.
The Birds completed their comeback with a two-out rally in the fourth. After Fister fanned the first two batters, Markakis drew a walk. Then, Fister dropped a beautiful 3-2 curveball on Hardy that-- frankly-- looked like a clear strike three. But umpire Vic Carapazza ruled it ball four, earning an "Are you [bleeping] kidding me" stare from Fister. I'd like to think it was a makeup call from Carapazza after he and his fellow umps so thoroughly botched the first game of the series.
The O's still had life, and Nate McLouth took advantage, driving an 0-2 pitch all the way to the wall in right-center field. Markakis scored the tying run, Hardy scored the go-ahead run, and McLouth cruised to third with a standup triple. Ladies and gentlemen, the O's now have the lead.
Adam Jones made it a 7-5 game with an RBI single to right, which chased Fister from the game. In just 3 ⅔ innings, he was tagged for seven runs. With 12 runs on the board between the two teams in just three-and-a-half innings of play, this game was shaping up to be a slugfest. Yet, as it turned out, not a single run was scored for the rest of the game.
For that, we can credit an impressive recovery by Chen. Even after he ended that disastrous first inning, he wasn't out of the woods-- he struggled again in the second, with the Tigers putting two men on base for the dangerous Fielder. With Johnson warming up again, it's very possible that Wei-Yin wouldn't have lasted another batter if he allowed Prince to reach. It's good news, then, that Chen got Fielder to bounce into a double play, quashing the rally and giving Wei-Yin new life.
Chen ultimately gutted it out through the fifth, and his final three innings were the smoothest; he allowed only one baserunner in that span. Though his final numbers aren't pretty-- five runs and seven hits in five innings, with 101 pitches-- he bounced back very nicely after one atrocious frame. And he left with a lead, putting him in line to become the Orioles' first 12-game winner since 2007...assuming the O's relievers could hold the two-run advantage.
Of course they could, because they are awesome. After Luis Ayala worked a scoreless sixth, Darren O'Day pulled off the greatest escape of the day in the seventh. Austin Jackson led off with a single. Infante followed with a grounder to short; Hardy flipped to second for what should've been a forceout, but Omar Quintanilla somehow dropped the ball. Literally and figuratively. The error put two runners aboard with nobody out...and coming up next were Cabrera and Fielder. Agh! This is where it all falls apart! We're doomed!
Relax. Darren's got this. First, he absolutely dominated Cabrera. First pitch: slider, called strike. Second pitch: slider, called strike. Third pitch: slider, called strike. Wow! A three-pitch strikeout, with Miguel staring helplessly at all three. You never see that from Cabrera. It's a thing of beauty. Buck Showalter elected to let O'Day face Fielder instead of bringing in lefty specialist J.C. Romero, who coughed up the game-losing homer to Prince on Friday. Buck made an excellent choice here, because O'Day got Fielder to bounce to second, where Quintanilla started an inning-ending, jam-escaping double play. Pitching 101!
Showalter was impressed enough by O'Day that he let him start the eighth inning instead of turning to setup man Pedro Strop. Darren got the first out but was pulled after plunking Young, and Strop took over from there with a fly to right and a strikeout to strand the runner.
The O's were three outs away from one of their most impressive victories of the year, and Jim Johnson made things quick in the ninth, retiring the Tigers 1-2-3 to leave Cabrera stranded on deck. Game: won. Series: won. And the Birds pulled a game ahead of Detroit for a wild-card slot.