One play doesn't make a season. Logically, we understand this. But you know, it's a lot more fun to throw logic out the window and turn to the emotion of a moment sometimes, the emotion of one important victory and believe, "Maybe ... just maybe, the Baltimore Orioles are a team of destiny."
We're allowed to think like this, right? Put the history and preseason predictions aside, focus on the Orioles' hot start, focus on their big week and focus on how they completed a sweep of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway: With infielder Chris Davis pitching two innings to get the win in a 17-inning, 9-6 victory, one I would call implausible except the Orioles forged ahead against another position player, Darnell McDonald.
Davis, who pitched in high school, retired the first two hitters in the bottom of the 16th, including a strikeout of Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a pretty 83-mph changeup that showed some nice vertical drop. But third baseman Wilson Betemit booted Marlon Byrd's routine grounder and Mike Aviles lined a double into left-center that rolled to the Green Monster. Then, the play, one that could go down in Orioles history if this season builds into the unthinkable: Adam Jones to J.J. Hardy to Matt Wieters, who tagged out a piano-on-his-back Byrd. A perfect relay by Jones, a perfect missile by Hardy, a perfect block of the plate by Wieters to send the game to the 17th inning.
The Red Sox had also churned through their bullpen by now and turned to outfielder McDonald, but Jones deposited a three-run homer into the Green Monster seats. With two runners on in the bottom of the frame, Davis struck out the slumping Adrian Gonzalez (0-for-8 this game) on another changeup and then, on his 23rd pitch and 570th of the game, induced McDonald to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Some of the crazy factoids: It was the first time two position players pitched in the same game since 1925, when Ty Cobb and George Sisler pitched in the second game of a doubleheader on the season's final day; Wilson Valdez won a game last season for the Phillies, but Davis became the first American League position player to record a win since Rocky Colavito of the Yankees in 1968; Davis also went 0-for-8 and struck out five times to record the season's first platinum sombrero (he was also the only position player to strike out five times in 2011); it was the Orioles' first sweep in Boston since June of 1994.
The game left the Orioles ecstatic and the Red Sox despondent.
"I was like 'Sweet! I get to try something different today -- because hitting ain't working,'" Davis said.
"Basically, that was my first thought." Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Just when you think you've seen it all, some days you come out here and just assume the position. That was fun. It was a long day, but you like to get something good out of it."
Bobby Valentine, looking in his postgame news conference like he was ready to break into tears at any moment, oddly stated that Gonzalez wanted to pitch. "And for the record, I didn't put him out there," he said. You do wonder, once Showalter had gone to Davis in the bottom of the 16th, why Valentine didn't try to eke at least one more inning from veteran reliever Scott Atchison, who had thrown 23 pitches over two innings. Yes, Atchison had thrown 35 pitches on Saturday and three on Friday, but it would seem the value of one more inning would have been huge. Who knows how Davis would have responded pitching in a tie game, for example, rather than with a three-run lead.
It all leaves the Orioles at 19-9. First place by a half game over the Tampa Bay Rays, four games ahead of the New York Yankees and 7.5 games ahead of the Red Sox.
At the start of the week, we said this would be an important week for the Orioles. They entered 14-8 but had three games in New York and three in Boston. This stretch would reveal the real Baltimore Orioles. And by "real" we meant "a team playing over its head." But they went 5-1 as they held the Yankees to three runs and took extra-inning games against the Red Sox. They outscored their AL East rivals 36 to 15. There was nothing flukey about the week. They hit, they pitched and they fielded.
On Sunday, the bullpen (including Davis) allowed just one run in 12.2 innings, lowering their season ERA to 1.41 (no other team is below 2.00). Closer Jim Johnson hasn't allowed a run, Luis Ayala and Matt Lindstrom have yet to allow an earned run and Darren O'Day has allowed just one run. It should be noted that the latter three are new to the club, new additions brought on to improve a pen that ranked 13th in the AL in ERA. Much like the 2011 Diamondbacks improved from 65 to 94 in part by revamping one of the worst bullpens in baseball, so hope the Orioles. The starting pitching has also been solid, and Baltimore's 2.78 ERA ranks second in the majors. Not bad for a team that has ranked 29th or 30th in ERA in five of the past six seasons.
Look, playing in the AL East, it's not going to get easier for the Orioles, so they'll need this bullpen to continue pitching lights-out baseball. Their next 32 games: Four against the Rangers, three against the Rays, two against the Yankees, two at the Royals, three at the Nationals, three against the Red Sox, three against the Royals, three at the Blue Jays, three at the Rays, three at the Red Sox, three against the Phillies. Whew.
For a franchise with the long stink of losing, it's a fun start. Check out, however, their records after 28 games the past 10 seasons. Check, in particular, 2005 (Orioles fans may wish to stop reading now):
2012: 19-9, +0.5
2011: 13-15, -4.5
2010: 7-21, -13.5
2009: 11-18, -8
2008: 16-12, -0.5
2007: 12-16, -6
2006: 14-14, -4
2005: 19-9, +2.5
2004: 16-12, -1.5
2003: 15-13, -6.5
Yep, that same 19-9 record. That team blazed out of the gate thanks to a strong offense. The club hit .302 in April and was still hitting .287 with a .483 slugging percentage through June 19 ... when the Orioles were 41-27 and still in first place.
And then the bottom dropped out. They hung in the race through mid-July, but then went on a 2-16 stretch, during which manager Lee Mazzilli was fired. They'd finish 74-88, just another in a long string of losing seasons.
Now, there is one big difference between those 2005 Orioles and these 2012. That team had a mostly aging lineup -- Rafael Palmeiro (in his final, steroid-tainted season), B.J. Surhoff, Sammy Sosa, Javy Lopez, Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada were all 31 or older. The rotation of Rodrigo Lopez, Erik Bedard, Bruce Chen, Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson eventually wilted in the summer heat. The bullpen was thin behind B.J. Ryan.
This team, however, is young. At 30, Betemit is the oldest regular in the lineup, although 34-year-old Endy Chavez is playing right now with Nolan Reimold on the disabled list. At 29, Jason Hammel is the old man in the rotation.
Being young perhaps means this team could eventually collapse under the relentless pressure of games against the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays and Red Sox. But it could also signify a team on the rise.
Or, maybe, a team of destiny.
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