For eight innings, Sunday was a terrible game for the Orioles offense. For eight innings, the hitters looked pathetic against Hiroki Kuroda (for seven) and David Robertson (for the eighth). For eight innings, there was the understood assumption that if the Yankees took a narrow lead into the ninth inning, the legendary Mariano Rivera would close out the feeble bats. In the ninth inning, Adam Jones had other plans.
To say that the Orioles' recently-minted three-time All-Star has been slumping is an understatement. Going into today, he was sporting a .499 OPS over the last 14 days, and he took an 0-3 into the ninth, a 2-10 in his career against Rivera with no extra base hits. He has struck out at pitches that bounce in front of home plate. He has struck out on pitches at his eyes. He has grounded into first-pitch double plays, made awful contact on so many things. The flaws of Jones at the plate are so apparent that sometimes you forget about his strengths.
In the ninth inning, the Orioles were down 1-0, looking like they were heading into a sweep, capping two straight series' of demoralizing offensive performance. Nick Markakis had plans of his own for creating some drama. He launched an 0-1 pitch that landed in the second deck, just foul of the Nate McLouth Memorial Right Field Foul Pole. It wasn't quite as close as McLouth's shot from the playoffs, but it wasn't much farther. Markakis lined the next pitch up the middle for a single, putting the tying run on first base with one out.
That brought up Jones. If you've watched him lately, you expected that GIDP. Rivera is one of the best pitchers of all time. Jones' weaknesses are well-known. This equation is not balanced in favor of the Orioles.
The thing about baseball that is easy to forget is that it is hard. Rivera has faced 4,988 batters in his career. He knows exactly what he needs to do, and he knows how to do it. Yet even this legend can throw a cutter that doesn't cut. Even Rivera can make a mistake against an aggressive hitter like Jones who often gets himself out. Jones took that mistake and crushed it over the fence in left-center, putting a dramatic exclamation point on a drab and dreary and depressing game. Just like that, with Jones' 16th home run of the season, everything was coming up Birdland.
If the Orioles go from this game to rip off a season-long winning streak, Jones' home run was the kind of shot that could be said to salvage a foundering season. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it is the reason the O's won today.
Sunday's game was not one that began in a promising way for the Orioles. Within two innings, starter Jason Hammel had thrown 54 pitches and given up a run. He was on the way to a short outing, a disastrous outing, with a huge deficit for the O's and long relief needed. But first and third with no one out in the Yankees second turned into only one run, on an Eduardo Nunez sacrifice fly, and Hammel scattered the other singles he allowed - six in total - while battling through five innings. This kind of outing is not good enough, but it also could have been much worse.
Hammel gave way to T.J. McFarland, who tossed two scoreless innings, including one that ended on this play by Manny Machado. Stop. You did not click the link. No one ever clicks the links. Trust me on this: click that link right now. That's our All-Star. Holy crap.
Once the Orioles bullpen entered the game, the Yankees did not record another hit. Troy Patton and Darren O'Day combined for a scoreless eighth, and Jim Johnson came on for the ninth, looking like the pitcher who saved 51 games last year rather than the pitcher who's got seven losses this year. You knew from the first pitch that it was Good Jim today: a low strike. He pitched a perfect ninth with two strikeouts and an easy grounder. As much as Jones created drama in the top half of the ninth, Johnson had none in the bottom half.
The win was not a pretty win. It counts in the standings the same as if it was a 20-0 blowout. Before the ninth inning, only two Orioles had reached base all day: Markakis and Matt Wieters, twice apiece. A bloop and a blast later and the game swings, and maybe the season swings. He is awfully frustrating at times, but as much as he is that, Adam Jones is also a good baseball player. Today's win sits on his shoulders.
O'Day was credited with the win after getting the last two outs in the eighth inning. He now has a 5-0 record. The blown save was the second of the year for Rivera, who now has a 1-2 record. Johnson got his 30th save, which puts him in sole position of the MLB saves lead once again. He also is tied for the MLB lead in blown saves. When he is bad, he is bad. By the same token, when he is good, he is good. Today was a good day.
With the win, the O's salvaged one game of the series. There are plenty of problems with the team that were not solved by one win. The offense is in a cold slump. The rotation is shaky, last year's reliable relievers now uncertain. We can worry about all of that tomorrow. For today, the Orioles have beaten Rivera. Go to war, Miss Agnes.
The Orioles return to Baltimore on Monday, opening up a four-game series against the Texas Rangers. Scott Feldman will start the 7:05 game for the Orioles, facing the team where he began his big-league career. The O's offense will be up against a tough lefty in Derek Holland.