The Orioles got their first taste of MLB’s 2020 extra innings rules on Saturday. Things got weird. After they got weird, and directly because they got weird, the Orioles picked up an unlikely walkoff victory to grab their second series win in their first three series and pull themselves back up above .500. It’s always fun when the Orioles win.
The hero on Saturday night was utility player Pat Valaika, a player who you may have forgotten was even on the Orioles. He was down to an 0-2 count with two outs in the eleventh inning and he needed a base hit to bring the winning run home from third base. I expected a strikeout. Instead, Valaika made contact off the end of the bat and hit a little flare that landed just out of the reach of the Rays second baseman.
This triggered a socially distanced walkoff celebration that may well be the greatest thing to come out of the 2020 Orioles season:
ORIOLES (socially distanced) WALK-OFF!!!! pic.twitter.com/BJhg9wgKHP— Orioles on MASN (@masnOrioles) August 2, 2020
This was a game that could have easily ended with Orioles fans feeling grumpy. They had a 4-1 lead as late as the top of the eighth inning, only to see a series of Orioles relievers show why they’re Orioles relievers. Even in extra innings, Tanner Scott tried his best to give the game away by being unable to throw strikes after getting two outs in the tenth.
In the eighth, Evan Phillips, starting his second full inning, gave up a leadoff single and was lifted. He was followed by Shawn Armstrong, who got a comebacker to the mound that he threw into center field while attempting to start a probable double play. Armstrong struck out one batter, walked the bases loaded, then gave up a run-scoring single.
This was enough for Brandon Hyde, who brought in Miguel Castro. No, really, he brought Castro INTO a situation where the bases were loaded already. I know! Castro got a ground ball that was just too slow-developing to turn into a double play. The O’s got an out at second base as a third Rays run scored on the fielder’s choice. He had to face pinch hitter Kevin Kiermaier and then gave up another single to tie up the game.
The Orioles were the first team to score in the game, taking a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. Renato Nunez lit up Rays starter Tyler Glasnow by blasting a pitch into the left field seats to put the O’s on the board. They scratched out the second run as Dwight Smith Jr. singled, stole second, then tagged to get to third base. That allowed him to score on a Rio Ruiz single.
Tampa got a run back in the sixth as Rays first baseman Mike Brosseau led off with a solo home run. Brosseau has seven home runs in his MLB career and six of them have come against the Orioles. However, that ended up being the only damage allowed by O’s starter Wade LeBlanc, who came out of the game after 5.1 innings with just one run allowed on four hits and a walk. That’ll work.
The score didn’t stay that way for long. The O’s answered right back in the bottom of the inning. Nunez led off with a walk and ended up on third base after getting a good read on a single hit by Smith. Pedro Severino brought home Nunez with a single, and Ruiz scored Smith with a sacrifice fly. The four runs did not prove to be enough to keep the game from going into extra innings.
If you don’t know by now, MLB is using a rule for extra innings that has been in place in the minor leagues for a little while. The rule is that every team begins with a free runner on second base in each half inning. The runner is the last batter from the last inning.
As it turned out, the Orioles made history in their first ever extra innings game with a free runner. The top of the tenth inning began with Rays left fielder Yoshi Tsutsugo hitting a fly ball to the warning track in left field, where Cedric Mullins waited. The Rays free runner, Choi, made the bizarre decision to tag up from second to third base, where he was thrown out handily by Mullins.
In other words, the Orioles got a leadoff double play. That’s never happened in an MLB game before, as manager Brandon Hyde proudly told reporters after the game. The rule has only existed for nine days and the few games with extra innings did not have any runners make such poor decisions. Chalk up one good bit of history for the 2020 Orioles.
Perhaps feeling bad for Choi, the Orioles own free runner, Hanser Alberto, ran into an out in almost as idiotic of a fashion in the bottom of the tenth inning. After advancing to third base on a ground ball, Alberto tried to come home as Nunez hit a ground ball right at the drawn-in shortstop. He, too, was out by a mile. Pinch hitter Jose Iglesias, who was out of the starting lineup due to a sore quad, popped out to end the inning.
Thanks to a game-long series of pinch hitting decisions and defensive moves, the O’s began the top of the eleventh inning with Ruiz in left field, Nunez at third base, and catcher Bryan Holaday, who had just been called up today to take Richard Bleier’s roster spot, playing first base. The two other Orioles catchers, Severino and Sisco, were already in the lineup as the designated hitter and catcher, respectively. Three catchers in the lineup at the same time!
Orioles reliever Travis Lakins, who Hyde said after the game was only meant to be used in an “emergency,” entered in front of this peculiar alignment. Lakins struck out the first batter he saw. Manuel Margot hit a laser of a line drive to the right side. Holaday - again, a catcher at first base - spryly reacted, leapt and grabbed the liner before it could get past him. He threw to second base to get an easy double play, the runner having no chance to get back.
After making that great defensive play, Holaday was the O’s free runner in the bottom of the 11th. It’s a new spin on the old “The guy who makes a great play leads off the next inning” formula. Severino bunted Holaday to third base, which prompted the Rays to intentionally walk Ruiz and set up a double play. Sisco struck out for the second out, leading the Rays to change pitchers from former Oriole Oliver Drake to former Oriole Chaz Roe. This set up Valaika’s clutch hit and the O’s eventual victory.
It is August 2 and the Orioles are in second place in the American League East, two games out of first place. A lot of strange things have happened to make that a true statement. Some of them happened tonight, with the Orioles benefiting from most of them when all was said and done. This season will probably stop being fun eventually but there is nothing wrong with enjoying everything that is fun about it for as long as it’s there.
The O’s have a chance to go for a sweep on Sunday afternoon as the series concludes. Yonny Chirinos and Tommy Milone are the scheduled starting pitchers for a 1:05 game.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for August 1, 2020?
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Pat Valaika (walkoff hit)
Bryan Holaday (caught that line drive)
Rio Ruiz (drove in two of the Orioles runs)