This game took place on September 21, 1970. It is being recapped today as part of Camden Chat’s retro recap series while the 2020 season is delayed due to coronavirus.
Every season as the postseason approaches, an eternal sports debate is argued anew. Is it better for a team that’s already clinched to give their players some rest, or is it better for them to keep their foot on the gas and play hard to the end? You can find a plethora of cautionary tales and success stories to support either proposition, though in all likelihood a team winning or losing probably has more to do with something else.
The 1970 Orioles stand as an example in favor of playing to win all the way to the end. The team closed out the season with a 12-1 run after they had already clinched the AL East, including wins in their final eleven games. Is that why they plowed through and swept the Twins in the ALCS and then won the World Series against the Reds in five games? Maybe not, but it can’t have hurt.
Not that anyone knew any of that was going to happen as the O’s took the field against the Tigers for their 153rd game of the season, a strange 8:02 start time. 8 o’clock on a Monday in late September? No wonder the paid crowd was a mere 5,470. The winning streak and the postseason success were all still to come.
As games go, it didn’t even have a lot of excitement, with the O’s and Tigers combining for 13 hits in 12 innings. Of course, baseball is always boring until it’s suddenly exciting, and that’s part of what makes it so great, especially when the exciting part is an unlikely Mark Belanger walkoff. It only took 3:20 to get to that point - not too bad by today’s game pace standards.
The O’s kicked off the scoring almost as soon as they had a chance. Leadoff batter Don Buford started the home half of the first inning with a walk. He stole second while Boog Powell was batting, then Powell made the stolen base moot by crushing his 35th home run of the season. That was RBIs number 111 and 112 for Powell, and one last piece of his eventual MVP-winning puzzle. The O’s led, 2-0, after the blast.
One of the remarkable things about the 1970 O’s was the constancy of the starting rotation. The trio of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally started 119 games. When adding in Jim Hardin and Tom Phoebus, that’s a quintet that started 159 out of 162 games.
This one was one of the three other games. Swingman Marcelino Lopez, a Cuban-born lefty who’d served the same role for the 1969 O’s, was put in for the start. Lopez was no slouch for the ‘70 O’s, at least as long as you only look at his ERA: 2.08 in 60.2 innings over 25 games. He pitched 6.2 innings here, dancing around six walks to give up just two runs.
Lopez had to do a bit of a tightrope act just to get through two innings. After a 1-2-3 top of the first, Lopez proceeded to walk the first three batters he saw in the second inning. Detroit’s catcher, Tim Hosley, brought one run across with a sacrifice fly, then Lopez made his escape as light-hitting shortstop Cesar Gutierrez grounded into a double play, with Brooks Robinson stepping on third before throwing to first.
In the third inning, a walk came around to bite Lopez again. He put second baseman Ike Brown (no known relation) on base with a free pass with two outs and was promptly punished by Baltimore-born future Hall of Famer Al Kaline tying the game with a double. No shame in getting burnt by a guy who would be giving a speech in Cooperstown a decade later.
After that, the Tigers didn’t get any further hits against Lopez. By the time he was lifted from the game in the seventh inning - naturally after walking the opposing pitcher, Joe Niekro, with two outs - he had a lead.
The O’s scored their third run to leave Lopez in line for the win after Frank Robinson led off the bottom of the sixth with a double. Robinson advanced to third on Don Baylor’s groundout. Niekro walked Brooks Robinson before Davey Johnson hit a sacrifice fly. The ball was enough to score Frank, though Brooks seems to have made a poor baserunning decision on the way as he was thrown out, 9-3-4, on the play. Whoops.
In case you’re curious, Niekro is the younger brother of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. The younger brother was towards the beginning of his eventual 22-year, 29.7 WAR career in 1970. Holding this offense to two runs in eight innings was a pretty good day for him.
Tigers manager Mayo Smith threw the kitchen sink at the Orioles as his team came into the ninth inning trailing, 3-2. Reliever Dick Hall, the oldest man in the American League, was on the mound. More importantly, Hall was a righty, and Detroit’s September bench was stuffed with lefties.
Smith sent out lefty pinch hitters for four consecutive batters. Two of the three picked up singles. When the Tigers announced the fourth straight lefty pinch-hitter, Earl Weaver had seen enough, bringing in his own lefty, Pete Richert. Smith then responded by pinch-hitting righty Jim Price for lefty pinch-hitter Kevin Collins. Collins does not appear to have seen a pitch.
Price drew a walk against Richert, loading the bases and turning over the Tigers order. Center fielder Mickey Stanley tied the game up with a sacrifice fly. After everyone’s scorecards thoroughly scribbled all over, the O’s went down in order in the ninth and the game headed into extras.
Detroit had chances in each of the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings. The leadoff hitter in the 11th hit a single and was bunted over to second on a sacrifice. One might question the wisdom of the bunt when the next batter after that was reliever Tom Timmermann, who ended up taking his 16th and final at-bat of the season since the Tigers had already emptied the bench.
Timmermann struck out; he was 0-16, though he did get eight hits total before the designated hitter rule came along. He held the O’s scoreless for three innings before his luck ran out.
The bottom of the 12th started off with the catcher, future O’s manager Johnny Oates, picking up a triple. How do you let the catcher get a triple? Well, it happens sometimes. This was the first extra-base hit of Oates’s young career. He was playing in only his third game.
When the winning run is 90 feet away with no one out, there are few good options. The Tigers manager Smith must have decided his best choice was to issue a pair of intentional walks to Terry Crowley and Buford to give his team the chance for a forceout at home plate.
It wasn’t a horrible plan, in the sense that the two intentional passes ended up lining up Belanger and then the pitcher’s spot, with an earlier double switch taking Boog out of the game. If Timmermann only could have gotten to two outs, he would have then had to try to get Frank Robinson to make an out anywhere to extend the game. But it never got that far. Belanger hit a single to left field and that was the ballgame.
This was something of a weird one. The Tigers used a total of 20 players - and only two of them were pitchers. It helped them get into extra innings before their luck ran out. Hardin picked up his fifth win after two scoreless innings of relief. Timmermann as 6-7 after taking the loss.
The Orioles did not lose a game from here until Game 4 of the World Series.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for September 21, 1970?
This poll is closed
Mark Belanger (walkoff hit)
Boog Powell (35th homer, two walks)
Marcelino Lopez (6.2 IP, 2 ER, walked twice as hitter)