There was a time when “Jonathan Villar slides home with winning run” would have been cause for celebration in Birdland.
On Tuesday, however, it was the final note on what became a heartbreaking night.
Villar scored the winning run on Patrick Mazeika’s groundout, and Cesar Valdez blew a save as the Orioles saw the Mets score twice in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 win.
Oof. This one hurt. John Means, making his first start since his no-hitter, was superb again. The Baltimore lineup, held in check by Mets starter Marcus Stroman for much of the night, rallied for what felt like the only runs the O’s would need. The bullpen made the pitches it needed to escape late jams and keep the score right where it was.
And yet, one half inning was enough to undo it all.
The rally actually began in the eighth, when the Mets, trailing 2-0, got a single from Miguel Conforto that scored Tomas Nido and moved Francisco Lindor to second. The threat seemed to be nothing more than a blip, however, when Tanner Scott got Pete Alonso to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
Disaster seemed to be averted, but in this case, it was only delayed. Valdez came in for the save and was immediately in trouble, sidestepping a game-tying home run from Kevin Pillar when the ball sailed foul by the slimmest of margins, but nevertheless putting himself in the heart of a jam when Pillar got a single and Villar (where was Kevin Millar in all of this?) followed with another to put runners on first and second with no outs.
Valdez got James McCann to strike out, but the Mets weren’t going to end up ruing this lost opportunity. Dominic Smith hit a soft single to center that easily scored Pillar and moved Villar to third, and the former Oriole fan favorite burned his former team when he charged home on Mazeika’s grounder to Trey Mancini and beat the throw to the plate.
Hopes were high coming in with Means on the mound (the O’s had been 5-2 in his starts), and the lefty continued his signature style of pounding the zone, changing speeds and keeping hitters off balance. He wasn’t as sharp as he was last week (who is?), but he was plenty good enough. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed six hits and no walks while striking out three, lowering his ERA to 1.21. He needed only 74 pitches, 52 of which were strikes, and he would certainly have gone deeper had he not been pulled for a pinch-hitter with the Orioles needing runs.
Speaking of which...Stroman was at one point a Cy Young candidate with the Blue Jays, and he returned to that form while matching the Orioles ace pitch for pitch. He allowed four hits and one run while striking out five in 6.1 innings, but he was the first one to blink in the top of the seventh. Galvis led off with an infield single, Maikel Franco roped a single to left, and after a bunt and intentional walk loaded the bases with one out, manager Brandon Hyde summoned first DJ Stewart, and then Pat Valaika to try to give the Orioles the lead against Mets reliever Aaron Loup.
The move worked, as Valaika jumped on the first pitch for a deep fly ball to right that initially looked like it could sail to the wall for a double, but held up enough for Conforto to make the catch. Nevertheless, Galvis scored easily, and the Orioles had a 1-0 lead.
Galvis was front and center an inning later as the Orioles doubled their lead. Austin Hays led off with what became a triple when center fielder Albert Almora Jr. raced to the fence to catch his fly ball and slammed full speed into the wall. The ball came loose as Almora lay crumpled on the ground, and Hays made it to third in the commotion.
The golden chance was in danger of falling through when Trevor May struck out Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle, but Galvis deftly dropped a perfect bunt down the third base line. The Mets were in no position to make a play, and Hays came home to make it 2-0 and, it seemed, give Baltimore some insurance.
Well, so much for that.
Both teams had missed chances that were looming large as the lead was changing hands late. The Mets had a runner on second with one out in the first, men at the corners with two outs in the fourth, and runners on first and third with one out in the sixth, and Means escaped all three times. In the seventh against Adam Plutko they got a leadoff walk, but a nice 6-4-3 double play from Galvis to Rio Ruiz to Mancini broke up that threat.
For the Orioles, the best chance came in the first, as Cedric Mullins singled to right and Hays reached on a Villar error that allowed Mullins to go to third. The chance fizzled, though, when Mancini hit back to Stroman and Mullins was caught between third and home, and Mountcastle and Galvis followed with a flyout and groundout, respectively, to end the inning.
Still, the Orioles were in position for the win at the end. This time, it slipped away. You can’t win them all. But this one would have been pretty nice.