Perhaps no other night better represented the embarrassment of a season gone horribly wrong than Saturday at Camden Yards.
On a night when bobbleheads of Brian Matusz — the young pitcher currently trying to find himself in the minor leagues — were handed out to the 19,396 fans in attendance, the Orioles appeared on their way to wasting an encouraging outing by 23-year-old Chris Tillman.
Toronto starter Brandon Morrow had retired 15 straight to begin the game and held a 2-1 lead with two runners on and two outs in the sixth.
After harmlessly grounding out twice in his first two visits to the plate, center fielder Adam Jones stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game or put his team ahead. Jones ripped a low-and-away fastball onto the flag court, pumping his fist as he rounded first base to give the Orioles a 4-2 lead. The 26-year-old added a run-scoring single in the eighth as the Orioles completed a 6-2 win, giving them an opportunity to go for their first series win since late June on Sunday.
But instead of talking about his best single-season home run total (20) or four runs batted in after the game, Jones wanted to credit the maligned Tillman’s effort in picking up his first victory since May 11.
“I rarely show emotion on home runs, but Tillman battled his tail off and it was to take the lead,” Jones said. “A big home run for the team and for myself, but more importantly, it was for Tillman. We were behind him, and he went out in the seventh and had a really good inning.”
A polarizing figure because of his fearlessness in speaking his mind, whether sounding off on Twitter or controversially encouraging Orioles fans to rough up visiting Yankees fans back in spring training, Jones leaves himself open for criticism. His Twitter profile mantra (“Me being me. Like it or NOT“) welcomes it, in fact.
Many love him while others hold disdain for the outfielder, evident by his interaction with followers on the social media site. Even on Saturday night, a spectator could be heard in front of the press box mocking, “Watch out for that low-and-away pitch!” only a second or two before Jones smacked the opposite-field home run that put the Orioles in front.
Though sometimes abrasive in his comments to the media, Jones is the position player most consistently available to talk after the many losses that commonly send players into hiding. It’s rarely warm and fuzzy — a 14-35 stretch will do that to even the friendliest players — but the center fielder helps the media do their jobs.
What you see is what you get with Jones. And that is a pretty darn good ballplayer.
Jones is quietly putting together a strong season that’s been lost in the collapse of the young starting pitching and everything else that has gone wrong for the Orioles in 2011. As many dwell on the declining power and patience of Nick Markakis, the lack of progress offensively for Matt Wieters, and the grim health of Brian Roberts, Jones continues to make strides in his fourth season with the Orioles.
With 20 home runs and an .829 OPS, the center fielder continues to produce — even if few teammates are doing their expected share. Though still not as patient at the plate as you’d like (only 22 walks in 460 plate appearances), Jones has improved his ability to lay off the low-and-away breaking pitches that plagued him over his first few seasons with the Orioles.
The San Diego native is on pace to hit 29 home runs, drive in 102 runs, and collect 63 extra-base hits, head and shoulders above his previous single-season highs.
Though still prone to defensive lapses despite his many highlight-reel plays in center field, Jones has been the “rock” on which manager Buck Showalter has relied through an otherwise miserable season riddled with injuries and poor performances.
“He’s got so much want-to in everything he does,” Showalter said. “But I’m proud of him, the way he approaches it every day. There’s not a day he’s not ready to play for the most part, and that’s a challenge when you’re playing every day in center field in the American League East.”
Despite the Orioles’ abysmal 4-17 record against the two big boys in the division, Jones has come to play against the Yankees and Red Sox, posting an .843 OPS against New York and a .944 clip against Boston.
As the organization ponders what to do after a season that started with such promise has morphed into a 14th straight losing campaign, locking up Jones long-term has to be something to strongly consider this offseason.
Under team control through 2013, Jones has to be frustrated with the losing and the negativity surrounding the organization. The closer he gets to free agency, the more difficult it will be to keep him in Baltimore.
In a season from hell that might be more disappointing than any of the previous 13 losing seasons, Jones has been one of the very few bright spots. The losses continue, but he continues to go about his business every day.
“I could be doing other stuff [in life],” Jones said. “I get the opportunity to come and play major league baseball. I’m just trying to relish the opportunity and take advantage of it.”
With so many of his teammates having not taken advantage of opportunities, Jones’ success is a rare breath of fresh air in an otherwise suffocating summer of baseball.
Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, and Buck Showalter following the Orioles’ 6-2 win over Toronto on Saturday night.