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Retro Orioles recap: Twice the walkoffs, twice the fun

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The 1970 Orioles continued their sizzling hot finish with a pair of walkoff wins in a doubleheader against the Senators.

Pirates v Orioles
Frank Robinson didn’t even start game two, and still played the hero.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

This doubleheader took place on September 29, 1970. It is being recapped today as part of Camden Chat’s retro recap series while MLB is on hold due to coronavirus.

For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be around for the 1970 Orioles season, it’s almost unfathomable how dominant this team was. No Oriole team of my lifetime has been so excellent in every facet of the game, has trounced its competition so thoroughly. Everything worked.

Even when nothing mattered, everything worked. The Birds could have coasted for at least the final two weeks of the season. When they took the Memorial Stadium field for this September 29 doubleheader, they had long since clinched the AL East, and they’d also guaranteed themselves the best record in the AL. There was absolutely nothing at stake — and in fact many of the O’s regulars sat out the nightcap — but even in a couple of glorified exhibitions, the 1970 Orioles couldn’t help but win. They were in the midst of an 11-game winning streak to end the regular season. They were just that good.

This was the last of the Orioles’ 11 doubleheaders in 1970 (a fairly typical number for that era), and not once did they get swept. They split eight of the twin bills and swept the other three, including this one. Not too shabby!

They saved the best for last, with two identically thrilling contests to topple the Senators on Sept. 29. Each game ended by a 3-2 score. Each game featured the O’s rallying in the late innings to overcome a deficit, then walking it off in extras.

Let’s start with game one, where O’s starter Mike Cuellar, in his final tune-up before the playoffs, posted one of his most dominant outings of the year. The lefty racked up strikeouts like they were going out of style, finishing with 10 whiffs, tying his season high. He also held the Senators to a mere three hits, tied for his third-lowest total of the campaign. Washington managed only five baserunners against him.

Cuellar, though, had some unfortunate cluster luck. (Yes, I said cluster luck. I don’t know what phrase you were thinking of.) Two of those baserunners came in the first inning and two came in the fifth, with the Senators scoring a run in each.

For a while, it seemed those two runs might doom Cuellar to defeat, considering how well his counterpart Joe Coleman — son of the mid-1950s O’s pitcher of the same name — was shutting down the Orioles offense. After the Birds scraped across a run on a Brooks Robinson sac fly in the second, Coleman went into lockdown mode. The Orioles didn’t even get a runner into scoring position from the third inning through the seventh.

When Cuellar was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth, the O’s still trailed, 2-1. Finally, with two outs and nobody on, Coleman made a mistake, and Don Buford deposited it to deep right for a game-tying homer. Cuellar was off the hook for a loss, though he was denied a chance to earn his 25th win of the season. He’d have to settle for a meager 24.

Reliever Moe Drabowsky sweated out a tough top of the ninth, striking out Dick Billings to strand two runners on base. Meanwhile, Senators manager Ted Williams elected to eschew his bullpen and stick with Coleman. The decision almost burned him in the ninth when the right-hander gave up a pair of singles, but Merv Rettenmund was thrown out trying to steal second, stifling a rally.

Even when the game headed to extras, Coleman remained in. This time, it didn’t work out. Coleman gave up a leadoff single to Bobby Grich and then threw a wild pitch, prompting him to intentionally walk Terry Crowley. Then he unintentionally walked Buford to find himself in a bases-loaded, no-outs pickle. And yet still he stayed in the game!

I don’t want to question the baseball acumen of a brilliant Hall of Famer like Ted Williams, but how in the world do you not go to your bullpen after your starter — pitching his 10th inning — has given up a single, two walks (one intentional), and a wild pitch? In any case, Mark Belanger lofted a fly ball deep enough to center for Grich to score, ending the game on a sac fly. It was Belanger’s second walkoff RBI in an eight-day span. O’s win, 3-2.

Poll

Who was the Most Birdland Player for September 29, 1970 (Game 1)?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Mark Belanger (2-for-4, walkoff RBI)
    (10 votes)
  • 8%
    Don Buford (game-tying HR in eighth)
    (3 votes)
  • 63%
    Mike Cuellar (8 IP, 3 H, 10 K)
    (23 votes)
36 votes total Vote Now

No time to celebrate; it’s on to game two. This time, Williams made exactly the opposite decision with his starting pitcher — taking him out after seven shutout innings to entrust the bullpen with a lead — and it, too, blew up in his face. The poor Splendid Splinter just couldn’t win for losing on this night.

The starting pitcher in question was Jackie Brown, not to be confused with the 1997 Quentin Tarantino movie. This guy looked nothing like Pam Grier. But he was a pretty good pitcher, at least on this night, as the 27-year-old rookie righty blanked the Orioles for seven innings. The lineup — which was missing Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, among other regulars — managed just four hits against Brown. Meanwhile, the Senators built a 2-0 lead with a pair of runs against O’s righty Tom Phoebus.

In the bottom of the eighth, after Brown put the first two runners aboard, Williams went to the pen, not wanting to repeat his Coleman mistake. It worked temporarily, as righty Casey Cox wriggled out of the jam in the eighth. But Cox couldn’t seal the deal in the ninth. Don Baylor and Davey Johnson led off with singles, and Curt Motton then attempted a sacrifice bunt for some reason. Cox threw wildly to first for a two-base error, plating Baylor and putting Johnson at third. Johnny Oates followed with a sac fly and the game was tied.

The Orioles’ bullpen did excellent work after Phoebus left in the sixth, as Dave Leonhard, Pete Richert, and Eddie Watt combined for five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. That set the stage for the Birds’ second extra-innings walkoff of the night. In the 11th, Curt Motton drew a leadoff walk from lefty Darold Knowles, who had broken into the majors with the Orioles five years earlier. Andy Etchebarren singled Motton to second, and up stepped Frank Robinson as a pinch-hitter, looking for the game-winning hit. It’s not often you get to bring a Hall of Famer off the bench in a big spot in extras.

Williams countered with right-hander Horacio Pina, but his outing lasted just one batter. Robinson lashed a double to right, bringing home Motton with the game-winning run. The loss was charged to Knowles, who fell to...2-14? Wait, really? How the heck does a reliever go 2-14 with a 2.04 ERA?

Walkoff number two of the night — and number 13 of the season — was in the books. The O’s would add one more walkoff on Oct. 1, the final day of the regular season.

The Birds couldn’t have been more scorching hot as they headed into the postseason. And that’s where our retro recap series will continue on Friday.

Box scores from Baseball Reference: Game 1 and Game 2

Poll

Who was the Most Birdland Player for September 29, 1970 (Game 2)?

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Frank Robinson (pinch-hit walkoff double)
    (18 votes)
  • 45%
    The Orioles bullpen (five scoreless IP)
    (15 votes)
33 votes total Vote Now