As the Orioles loaded the bases in the bottom of the 13th inning, with no one out, I could barely contain my excitement. I stood and I could not even clap or cheer. I could form no coherent thoughts. I could only bounce back and forth. The tension mounted as Robert Andino grounded into a fielder's choice against the rarely-seen five-man infield. Pinch-hitter Matt Wieters struck out, the five-man infield resolved into a normal alignment, and then last night's hero, Nate McLouth, also struck out.
How can a team come back from failing to capitalize on an opportunity like that and still find a way to win the game? I have asked myself the question many times this year, asked it many times today. The Orioles left 16 men on base in this game against the Rays. They batted 3-14 with runners in scoring position. It seemed impossible that there could be any way that they could win. And yet...
Towards the end of the five hour and fourteen minute contest, between innings - before that 13th inning that ended in disaster, in fact - the Jumbotron played a series of clips from action movies that were meant to pump up the crowd. One caught my eye, because I am a huge nerd, and it is from The Return of the King. Standing before the Black Gate of Mordor with a small army behind him, as the gate opens and innumerable hordes spill out, Aragorn rallies his troops to stand their ground.
A day may come when the extra-inning winning streak fails, when our bullpen forsakes us and breaks all bonds of victory, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered bats, when the age of Birdland comes crashing down. But it is not this day! And yet...
Tommy Hunter pitched for a second inning in the top of the 14th. Tommy Hunter, Five Runs All Earned himself, throwing key innings in a game the Orioles simply could not let slip away. Fifth infielder Reid Brignac struck out, Jeff Keppinger singled, and pinch-hitter/pitcher Chris Archer struck out attempting to bunt. However, Jose Molina struck a clean single and two men were on with Matt Joyce coming to the plate. Of course Hunter was about to blow the game!
Manager Buck Showalter summoned Randy Wolf, highest-leverage LOOGY. A day may come when the Orioles' amazing stretch of one-run game victories comes to an end. But it is not this day. Joyce struck out.
The bottom half of the 14th inning - after the crowd of 25,130, nearly all of whom had stayed to get the 14th inning stretch - began inauspiciously. J.J. Hardy and Lew Ford made quick outs. Yet Archer looked tired. He was in his fourth inning of work. Adam Jones, who was swinging to end the game on one pitch in at-bats in the 10th and 12th, showed patience and took a walk. Then Endy Chavez, pinch-runner earlier in the game who ended up getting three plate appearances, singled between third base and shortstop, putting two men on base for Manny Machado.
Ah, Manny. The crowd loves him. You have to, if you watched the likes of Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds at third base this year. He is smooth and great. The bat is not quite there yet. He was working on an 0-5 in that bottom of the 14th, as due as anything, and the crowd cheered him on: "Manny! Manny! Manny!" With every pitch I felt tension I have never felt before. Finally he made contact. A dying quail to left. Joyce gave chase. He dove. In that instant, I may have died. Did he catch it? I could hardly tell! Then I saw the ball laying harmlessly next to the prone Joyce. The umpire signaled safe, a no-catch. Joyce never bothered to get up to try to throw it. Jones, going on contact with two outs, scored easily. Game over. Orioles win.
A day may come when 20-year-old prospects abandon us in our hour of need, when the Baltimore Orioles will return to 14 years of losing. But it is not this day. This day is Birdland.
The extra-inning drama is almost enough to make you forget that there were other parts to the game, which were no less important in its ultimate resolution. Wei-Yin Chen had himself a heck of a day. Maybe that extra day of rest is what he needed to go at full strength. He went 7.1 innings today, allowing eight hits, maybe two of which were actual well-struck balls. He gave up two earned runs but only walked one and struck out seven. When he left in the 8th inning it was to a well-deserved standing ovation, though he had given up a run to tie the game - thanks in part due to a Taylor Teagarden passed ball - at a 2-2 score.
Chen was helped out in the 4th inning by Jones making a great play in center field. Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria were on base, first-and-third, from singles when Jeff Keppinger drove a ball to center. I thought for sure it was going to drop in. Jones laid out flat to make the catch. Zobrist scored on what was scored a sac fly, but Jones really saved the team's bacon right there.
The Orioles bullpen did its thing today. Darren O'Day closed out the 8th with no further damage. Jim Johnson pitched a scoreless 9th - though with some drama - in the hopes that the O's might score in the bottom half of the inning. No dice. Luis Ayala pitched 2.1 innings and since there were no inherited runners, none scored. Brian Matusz closed out the 12th. This stuff matters.
Scorecards must have been a mess. Joe Maddon made any and every move. Some of them worked, like forfeiting the DH to put Longoria on the field for the bottom of the 9th inning, where he made a play on a Teagarden liner that probably only he (or Manny!) could have made. Buck, on the other hand, moved pieces judiciously and mostly trusted his regulars. Finally, in the 14th, it all worked out.
It might not have been a win like they drew it up - as if they ever are, with this team - but even if the team charter took off a couple of hours late because of the long game, that plane will be full of winners.
I like to think they are chasing the setting sun as we speak, riding off into the sunset, at least for tonight. For the day may come when the Orioles relinquish first place in the American League East - but it is not this day. This day, they are victorious. This day, with their 81st win of the year, fourteen straight losing seasons have come to an end.