It's the bottom of the 9th inning at a sold-out Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles are losing 6-5 but have the bases loaded: Manny Machado saunters around the third-base bag, Pedro Alvarez stretches his legs at second base, and Adam Jones chats with Wayne Kirby at first base.
The crowd stands and roars loudly as out from the Orioles dugout walks Chris Davis, the $161 million man, to face three-time All Star closer Glen Perkins with the game on the line. Fans watching on TV shift forward towards the edges of their seats.
This could happen on Opening Day 2016.
Some folks say that baseball is boring. I prefer to think of the sport as moments of normalcy punctuated by moments of extreme tension and excitement. That's why for my contribution to Opening Day 2016, I looked at the three most exciting Opening Day games in Orioles history.
How do you measure excitement of games that are 50+ years old? You do it with Leverage Index, which measures the importance of a plate appearance given the inning, number of outs, which runners are on which bases (if any), and the current score. You can average the LI of all plate appearances in the game and come up with a number that describes the tension present in the average plate appearance.
The most exciting Opening Day games in Orioles history all have an average LI over 2.0, meaning on average each plate appearance in these games were twice as important as an average plate appearance. The high value is because the games were close the whole time and all of them went extra innings. On multiple occasions, runners reached base but failed to score, heightening the tension.
If you stick around for the end, there’s a bases-loaded balk in it for you.
3. March 31st, 2003 vs. Cleveland Indians
Average Leverage Index: 2.031
Result: Orioles win 6-5
The third-most exciting Opening Day game in Orioles history occurred recently enough that two of its participants are still playing. A young C.C. Sabathia started this game for the Indians, with rookie Brandon Phillips behind him at second base. Sabathia pitched well in the first inning but surrendered a run in the second when catcher Geronimo Gil singled home Jay Gibbons.
On the hill for the Orioles was Rodrigo Lopez, which helps explain how the Indians quickly re-took the lead in the top of the 3rd. With one out, Milton Bradley walked and then moved to second when Omar Vizquel singled. Matt Lawton then reached on an error by first baseman Jeff Conine, who was attempting to throw Vizuqel out at second. Vizquel ended up safe and Bradley made it all the way around to score, tying the game. Ellis burks then singled to score Vizquel and Karim Garcia brought home Lawton with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-1 Indians.
In the top of the 6th Garcia pushed the Indians’ lead to 4-1 with a solo homer, and Gibbons singled home Conine in the bottom half to make the score 4-2. There things stayed until the bottom of the 8th when things got a bit crazy.
David Riske relieved Sabathia and retired Conine and Gibbons to start the inning. But Tony Batista doubled down the right field line, which brought up Marty Cordova. Cordova was in his last year as a player and indeed would appear in only nine games in 2003. But he could hit a bit and did so here, rocketing a two-run shot that tied the game late. The Indians’ lead had vanished.
As with their game against the Red Sox, the Orioles looked like they could win it in the bottom of the 9th when Jerry Hairston singled to lead things off. But Gary Matthews, B.J. Surhoff, and Conine couldn’t bring him home, and the game continued.
On and on the teams played, until the top of the 12th. Every hit, every pitch mattered at this point. Finally the Indians appeared to put things away. In the top of the 12th, facing Kerry Ligtenberg, Milton Bradley doubled and then scored on a single by Vizquel. With the Indians now leading 5-4, they needed only three outs to win. But in the bottom half, Matthews singled and Surhoff sacrifice bunted him to second base. Matthews moved to third on a groundout by Conine.
With two outs and a runner on third, the fans who’d remained no doubt clenched their teeth. But they no doubt let out a yell when Indians catcher Josh Bard couldn’t handle a pitch from Danys Baez. Matthews raced home and the game was tied! Although batter Jay Gibbons flied out to end it, there was still hope for the Orioles.
And they delivered. After B.J. Ryan kept the Indians off the board in the top of the 13th, Jake Westbrook replaced Baez in the bottom half. He immediately gave up a single to Jose Leon, who’d entered in the bottom of the 10th as a pinch runner. Cordova struck out and Gil reached on an error, putting runners at first and second with one out. Deivi Cruz hit a grounder that forced Gil at second, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Westbrook then hit Hairston with a pitch to load the bases.
I imagine remaining fans began screaming and yelling yet again for their team to deliver, and Gary Matthews did just that with a single that brought the walk-off win home.
2. April 8th, 1969 vs. Boston Red Sox
Average Leverage Index: 2.128
Result: Orioles lose 4-5
This game got off to a poor start. Starter Dave McNally walked the first batter of the game, Reggie Smith, before allowing a single to Mike Andrews and a double to Carl Yastzemski that put the Orioles in a 1-0 hole. The Red Sox were held to just a single in the second, but in the third they broke through with another run to go up 2-0. For the Orioles’ part, light-hitting Mark Belanger socked a solo home run in the bottom of the 3rd to make the score 2-1.
Then began a long battle of wills. Neither side could break through in the 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th innings. Each team managed just a couple of hits apiece but no one crossed the plate. Thus things stood in the bottom of the 8th, with the situation looking like a surefire Opening Day loss for the Orioles as they faced Lee Stange on the mound. Catcher Andy Etchebarren flew out to start the inning, but then Belanger rapped out a single. Elrod Hendricks pinch-hit for pitcher Dick Hall and also singled, moving the speedy Belanger to third base. All it took was for Don Buford to hit a sacrifice fly and the game was tied, just like that. Although Paul Blair walked, Frank Robinson popped out. But at least the game was now tied at 2-2.
In the top of the 9th, Orioles reliever Eddie Watt almost gave the game away. He whiffed Red Sox catcher Russ Gibson but then ran into a bout of wildness. He walked the opposing pitcher Stange before letting two wild pitches fly to Reggie Smith, putting the go-ahead run on third base with one out. Smith fouled out but then Mike Andrews walked, putting another runner on base and bringing Yaz to the plate. By this point Weaver had had enough; you can just imagine him in the dugout red-faced and screaming. He pulled Watt in favor of Pete Richert, who got Yaz to pop out weakly to third base, ending the threat.
Stange headed back out to the mound to pitch the bottom half and, after nearly factoring in a win, almost factored in a loss. He walked Boog Powell to start the inning, at which point Weaver pinch-ran Merv Rettenmund for Powell. Rettenmund moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Brooks Robinson, whereupon current Red Sox manager Dick Williams ordered future Orioles manager Davey Johnson intentionally walked. The strategy nearly backfired when Etchebarren reached on an error by the second baseman, loading the bases with one out for Mark Belanger. Fans were holding their breath in anticipation of a walk-off victory. But Williams yanked Stange to bring in Sparky Lyle, who got Belanger to hit into an inning-ending double play.
The very next inning, Tony Conigliaro hit a two-run jack off Richert, putting the Red Sox up 4-2. But it wasn’t over yet. Not to be outdone, Frank Robinson answered with his own two-run jack in the bottom half, scoring Buford and re-tying the game at 4. The game finally ended when the Red Sox scored two innings later in the top of the 12th, with pinch hitter Dalton Jones driving in Conigliaro with a sacrifice fly. This Red Sox lead stayed intact as the Orioles went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 12th.
Despite the loss, the Orioles got the last laugh as they won the American League pennant this year.
1. April 12th, 1966 vs. Boston Red Sox
Average Leverage Index: 2.161
Result: Orioles win 5-4
The most exciting Opening Day game in Orioles history occurred three years before that 1969 barn-burner, and funnily enough, it was between the same two teams. Unlike that game, the 1966 version started off well for the Orioles as Brooks Robinson walloped a two-run homer off Earl Wilson in the very first inning. However, the Red Sox pulled ahead 3-2 in the bottom of the 3rd when Orioles starter Steve Barber looked shaky. After Rico Petrocelli to flew out to the catcher, the Sox hit back-to-back-to-back singles to load the bases with one out. Gorman Thomas then cranked a single of his own, tying the game at 2. Yaz flew out, but Conigliaro walked to re-load the bases. George Scott then also walked, forcing in a run and giving the Sox a 3-2 lead.
The Orioles didn’t make any noise in the 4th but in the 5th, Frank Robinson smacked a home run to tie the game at 3. Paul Blair made things interesting the very next inning, when he singled to lead off the inning. He stole second base and then third base, putting the go-ahead run on third with no one out. That situation very often results in a run; unfortunately for the Orioles, this one did not as both Etchebarren and Barber struck out and Luis Aparicio grounded out.
The tie game sped along for another inning before the Red Sox struck again. Against Orioles reliever Moe Drabowsky, Conigliaro struck out looking before George Scott tripled to center field. Tony Horton grounded out, but Petrocelli walked to keep the inning alive. With Sox fans likely on their feet and cheering, catcher Mike Ryan doubled to right field, scoring Scott. Petrocelli also would have scored if not for great throws home by right fielder Frank Robinson and second baseman Davey Johnson.
Those throws mattered because Petrocelli was out, keeping the score at 4-3 Red Sox. This allowed the Orioles to re-tie the game in the top of the 9th. Charlie Lau and pinch hitter Woodie Held opened with back-to-back singles. Russ Snyder was brought in to pinch run for Lau. Aparicio tried to bunt them over but popped it up to the pitcher; he was out, but thankfully pitcher Dick Radatz threw the ball away trying to get the runners, so Snyder and Held advanced anyway.
Curt Blefary walked to load the bases with just one out, meaning it was Robinson time. Unfortunately Frank struck out … but fortunately, Brooks came through with a single that scored Snyder and made the score 4-4. Held tried to be the go-ahead run but was out on a great throw from Yaz in left field.
The score remained tied through the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th innings, during which the teams combined for only two baserunners. But in the top of the 13th, Bob Johnson singled against Red Sox reliever Jim Lonborg, who was beginning his second inning of work. The other Johnson (Davey) then sacrifice bunted him to second base. Paul Blair then lifted a deep fly ball to center field; it was caught for the inning’s second out, but Johnson (Bob, remember) moved up to third base.
Red Sox manager Billy Herman intentionally walked the catcher, Vic Roznovsky, to get to the pitcher Stu Miller. Orioles manager Hank Bauer countered by pinch-hitting Jerry Adair for Miller, which proved to be a wise move as Adair walked, loading the bases for Luis Aparicio.
With the crowd holding its breath, waiting for either the crack of the bat or a swing and a miss, Lonborg balked.
Yeah, he balked.
With the bases loaded.
And the game tied.
That forced in the go-ahead run and suddenly the Orioles were up 5-4. Aparicio ended up grounding out to end the inning, and reliever Eddie Watt (remember him?) held on for the win.
Rounding Out the Top 10
The remaining seven Opening Day games in the top 10 were exciting in their own right.
- Number 10: vs. Boston Red Sox, April 2nd 2001. Orioles win 2-1
- Number 9: vs. Washington Senators, April 15th 1957. Orioles win 7-6
- Number 8: vs. New York Yankees, April 10th 1962. Orioles lose 7-6
- Number 7: vs. Chicago White Sox, April 13th 1965. Orioles lose 5-3
- Number 6: vs. Texas Rangers, April 6th 1998. Orioles win 2-1
- Number 5: vs. Texas Rangers, April 7th 1977. Orioles lose 2-1
- Number 4: vs. Boston Red Sox, April 3rd 1989. Orioles win 5-4
Finally, for good measure, the least exciting Opening Day game was against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 6th 1973. The Orioles hung ten runs on the board, four in the first inning, to cruise to a lopsided 10-0 victory.
All data from Baseball Reference.