Trying to recount what we witnessed Sunday afternoon in the Orioles’ 9-6 win over the Red Sox in 17 innings won’t do it justice.
In all my years watching Orioles baseball, I haven’t seen anything like it.
But lost in the excitement of designated hitter Chris Davis’ two-inning relief stint that resulted in his first career win and the Orioles’ first three-game sweep at Fenway Park since 1994 is a dirty little secret.
Manager Buck Showalter essentially threw in the towel in the bottom of the 16th inning.
After Jim Johnson worked two innings to empty the bullpen, Showalter decided he wasn’t going to risk his closer any further or shake up his rotation by sending Monday starter Brian Matusz to the mound. While still hoping for a minor miracle, he was willing to sacrifice one game against the Red Sox with thoughts of a challenging four-game series with the Texas Rangers squarely in his mind.
His post-game comments about Davis’ lively arm and how he pitched in college — his fastball hit 91 mph and he struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez over his two innings — only explained the manager’s decision to choose Davis over any other available position players. Without any consideration for the coming days, going to Davis wasn’t Showalter’s best option to try to win Sunday’s game — plain and simple.
The decision would have brought the ire of fans had Davis not fared so well, but it’s hard to fault the manager for focusing on the big picture in not wanting to upset the karma of his league-leading pitching staff. There were 134 more regular-season games to think about after Sunday.
Yet, the red-hot Orioles still found a way to win the game thanks to a game-saving relay throw to the plate by J.J. Hardy in the 16th and Adam Jones’ three-run home run in the top of the 17th inning. The winning blast came against Boston outfielder Darnell McDonald, who enter the game after Bobby Valentine followed his peer’s line of thinking an inning later.
Despite the lowest expectations of any season in recent memory, the Orioles are playing outstanding baseball and even found a way to earn a win they had no business taking on Sunday. Squandering an early 5-0 lead, grounding into six double plays, and relying on a position player to throw the final two innings aren’t exactly winning ingredients drawn up in the off-season.
However, Showalter has his team believing it’s capable of competing and beating the best teams in the American League. Now sitting atop the AL East and owning the best record in the league, the Orioles just finished a 5-1 road trip against the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Their starting pitching has been good and the bullpen even better, owning the best earned run average in baseball after allowing one earned run in 23 innings of relief work against the Red Sox over the weekend. The offense even perked up during the trip, scoring 36 runs over the six games against New York and Boston.
Even if the cynic wonders if the 19-9 record represents the high-water mark of the season with the powerful Rangers coming to town for a four-game set against a taxed bullpen, there’s no disputing how impressive the Orioles have been through the season’s first 28 games. Baltimore is playing its best baseball since 2005, a team that spent much of the first half of the season in first place before collapsing down the stretch and finishing with a 74-88 record.
Are the Orioles capable of continuing their winning ways? History suggests they can’t, but no one predicted the Orioles to be in this position in early May after a challenging schedule over the first month of the season.
Inevitably, the Orioles will run into a tough stretch and how they respond to that adversity will give us a much better idea of what lies ahead for the totality of the 2012 season. They haven’t lost consecutive games since April 20-21, but the club’s ability to avoid the extended swoons of the past will determine whether they can play meaningful games in the final two months of the season.
Right now, they can do no wrong, even after Showalter was — begrudgingly — willing to wave the white flag on Sunday.
Call it Orioles magic, label it karma, or even suggest the law of averages will eventually return the baseball universe to its normal state if you must.
But there’s no disputing how enjoyable it’s been to watch for a fan base starving for a winner.