Bases loaded. A tie score. The game on the line. And you’re in the batter’s box, one swing away from becoming a hero. It’s the kind of situation every Little Leaguer dreams about.
So nothing could have been more perfect for the Orioles’ Jorge Mateo than to smack that game-winning hit in front of thousands of young athletes in Williamsport, Pa., in the fifth annual Little League Classic. Mateo’s decisive three-run double broke a 2-2 tie and vaulted the O’s to a dramatic victory over the Red Sox on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
The Birds showed the national TV audience, as well as the exuberant crowd of Little Leaguers from across the country, what O’s fans have known all season: this team is for real. With the win, the Orioles remained 2.5 games back of a Wild Card spot with 41 left to play.
Mateo’s big hit capped a resilient Orioles rally after the club had just blown a 2-1 lead in the eighth. Ramon Urías sparked the offense in the eighth by drawing a one-out walk from reliever Matt Barnes, prompting Sox manager Alex Cora to replace Barnes with righty John Schreiber. Boy, did that not work out. Schreiber’s first pitch drilled Austin Hays in the back and his command didn’t improve from there. He walked the hard-to-walk Rougned Odor on four pitches to load the bases.
That set the stage for Mateo. The Orioles shortstop worked a 2-1 count and then scorched a liner inside the left-field foul line and into the corner. All three runners hustled home as Mateo settled in at second with a clutch, three-run, go-ahead double. The O’s were back in front, 5-2. The crowd of Little Leaguers applauded dutifully, though it paled to the frenzied state we would have seen from a Camden Yards crowd had this game been played in Baltimore.
Still, the Orioles did their best to make Muncy Bank Ballpark feel like home, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning. After the O’s escaped a jam in the top half — when Urías speared a Xander Bogaerts liner and slapped a tag on third base to double off Tommy Pham — the Red Sox weren’t nearly so crisp with their defense in the bottom of the inning. After a Cedric Mullins leadoff single, Adley Rutschman lofted a fly ball to shallow left that probably should have been caught. But Pham fumbled it (Phumbled it?) for a gift single.
With two on, Anthony Santander ripped a single up the middle that plated Mullins. Sox starter Nick Pivetta nearly limited the damage there, retiring the next two hitters, but second baseman Christian Arroyo couldn’t corral an Urías grounder up the middle, allowing Rutschman to score from third. Again, it was ruled a hit, but it was a play that could have been made.
The Sox got one of those runs back in the second against O’s starter Dean Kremer. They put their first two runners aboard on a single and a walk, only for Kremer to induce a double-play grounder from Arroyo to nearly snuff the threat. Nearly, not entirely. Kiké Hernández laced a two-out RBI single to score the remaining runner, making it a 2-1 game.
That, as it turned out, was the only run Kremer would allow during his excellent night’s work. It was also the only time he’d put more than one runner on base in an inning. Pounding the strike zone was the key to Kremer’s success; he threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 20 batters he faced, constantly putting Red Sox hitters behind in the count. Kremer allowed a leadoff single in the third but erased him on another double play, then stranded a two-out double in the fourth.
Kremer’s most dominant inning was the fifth, in which he retired the Red Sox 1-2-3 with a pair of strikeouts. He had a full five-pitch mix working — four-seamer, cutter, sinker, changeup, and curveball — and rarely fell into any sort of pattern, keeping hitters guessing throughout the night. He certainly picked up where he left off from his previous outstanding effort in Toronto, in which he fired six straight scoreless frames after a first-inning homer.
As Kremer entered the third time through the lineup — in which batters have hit .302 with an .881 OPS against him this year — Brandon Hyde didn’t want to push him much further. After a Pham walk and Alex Verdugo flyout to start the sixth, Hyde turned to his bullpen, ending Kremer’s night at 5.1 innings and 80 pitches. Kremer was visibly frustrated at being pulled, yelling into his glove, but Dillon Tate kept his inherited runner stranded by retiring the next two batters.
Meanwhile, the Orioles’ offense had no luck adding to their razor-thin lead against Pivetta. The Red Sox righty ended up tossing 5.2 strong innings and kept them off the board after those two first-inning runs. The O’s had scoring chances in the third, when Santander doubled with one out, and the fourth, when they put two aboard with two down. They couldn’t capitalize on either.
Those missed opportunities came back to haunt them. In the top of the eighth, Hyde made the fateful decision to stick with Tate — who, in fairness, had retired all five batters he’d faced — instead of bringing in southpaw Cionel Pérez to face left-handed pinch-hitter Franchy Cordero. It backfired, as Cordero lofted an opposite-field home run to left to tie the score at two. Sigh. Only then did Hyde summon Pérez, who set down all three batters he faced, including a great diving play by Ryan Mountcastle at first to rob Pham of a hit.
The 2022 Orioles wouldn’t let themselves be deflated by letting the Sox tie it. It took no time at all for the O’s to rebuild the lead, even bigger and better than before, thanks to Mateo’s clutch hit in the eighth.
With a 5-2 advantage in hand, the Orioles handed the ninth inning to closer Félix Bautista. (And yes, he entered the game to the Omar Whistle, but not the lights show that typically accompanies his entrances at Oriole Park.) Bautista wasn’t sharp to the first batter, serving up a leadoff home run to Xander Bogaerts after falling behind 2-0. Hey, that’s why it’s good to have a three-run lead — now a two-run lead — to work with. Bautista rebounded quickly, mowing down the next three hitters in succession to seal the win.
Fireworks boomed overhead as Bautista and Rutschman shared their usual post-game embrace. What a win for the Orioles. And what a show they put on for the next generation of MLB stars, watching from the stands.
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Dean Kremer (5.1 IP, 1 ER, 4 K)
Jorge Mateo (go-ahead three-run double in 8th)
Anthony Santander (3-for-5, 2B, RBI)