Thursday, October 6, 2011

Seven Games in September, Part III

Continued from Part II, "The Chase."

III. Birds in Fall
On September 26, the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox reconvene at Fenway South, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, to send this season screaming back to Hell. Tommy Hunter starts for the Orioles; Josh Beckett, again, for the Sox. Each man allows two runs through five innings pitched; then Hunter pulls his groin. He makes it through the fifth but is pulled for former Houston Astro Troy Patton. Both Patton and Sox reliever Matt Albers came to Baltimore in the trade that sent Miguel Tejada to Houston; Albers was allowed to leave in free agency after the previous season. Patton was an intriguing starting prospect for the Orioles, until he tore his labrum twice. Now he's the most middling of middling relievers. Nevertheless, he gets out of the top of the sixth without allowing a run. He has, in fact, looked almost impressive over the past few weeks.

Beckett takes the mound in the bottom of the sixth and the game spirals delightfully out of control. Guerrero takes the first pitch up the middle for, yes, another seeing-eye single, with which he passes Julio Franco on the all-time hits list for Dominican-born players. With a strong second half, he's been an important contributor in the Orioles' resurgent September. As transitory as such success is, the Orioles can always use something to be happy about.

On the very next pitch, Wieters actually tries to bunt for a base hit as the Sox put on the shift. It barely goes foul. Jim Palmer shakes his head—you can almost hear him doing it—as the Sox stand pat and don't adjust their defensive formation. Wieters drills a ball to center; Ellsbury is there.

Jacoby Ellsbury is an MVP candidate; he's had a homeless Brady Anderson's 1996. Thirty home runs, most of them liners and just-barelys. Guerrero "steals" second: the ball is in time, but catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia throws hard toward the first base side of the bag, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia is unable to catch it and tag him. Palmer snickers at the balding little gnome and says, "Short arms.... You can see Pedroia try to catch it and drop the glove; good throw gets him by a mile, but again, you can see just off the base and then, well, if you were a little taller, you would have a little longer arms to tag him."

Somehow, Guerrero is now 2 for 4 in stolen bases. This would be a good time to take advantage of the man on second. Instead Jones, who has otherwise had a very nice season both at the plate and in centerfield, strikes out. Guess where the pitch is.

Reynolds comes to the plate. Jim Palmer about the Orioles: "Do they walk enough? No. Do they strike out too much? Yes. On base percentage? Lower than you'd like. But they do attack the baseball." Reynolds exemplifies one of his three true outcomes and walks.

Then Chris Davis appears and just as quickly lines a pitch down the right field line; it's a one-handed double into the right-field corner. Reynolds holds up at third. The Orioles take the lead, 3-2, and have men on second and third with two outs. And now, Andino.

He is actually Robert Andino, Jr. Tonight, his father, Robert Andino, Sr., is in attendance. This is the first time that he has seen his son play a game of professional baseball. The cameras cut to him once or twice. He looks happy and overwhelmed.

Again, Ellsbury is an MVP candidate. He's had a good if unsustainable bat this season. His power tool is grossly overstated, but here's the thing: he's still actually hit thirty home runs. He has. It's been ridiculous. However, a lot of his value this year comes from his defense, and in previous seasons that defense was, gently put, overrated. Ellsbury took bad routes to balls on the fly but was able to make up for it with his speed. This year, he's actually looked like a good centerfielder; it complements his scary power surge.

That makes what happens on the second pitch of Robert Andino's at-bat in the bottom of the sixth so amazing. The Baltimore second baseman burns a deep fly to center. Ellsbury retreats on it at a dead run, and Ellsbury is fast. He reaches it. He gloves it. He hits the wall, and he drops it.

Ellsbury flails beneath himself for the ball while Andino rounds second. The Sox centerfielder finds it, picks it up and throws it back in, hitting cutoff man J.D. Drew in shallow center. Andino heads home. Drew's throw is a beauty, but it short-hops Salty. Andino's dead to rights: he doesn't even slide. The ball arrives when he's still six steps from the plate, but it skips past Salty and on to the backstop. In front of his father, who watches him play professional ball in person for the first time in either man's life, Robert Andino becomes the first Oriole to hit an inside-the-park home run in Camden Yards.

The Sox score a run in the ninth. No one cares. The Orioles win 6-3.
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The wild card race is now tied. As the second to last game of the season approaches, Boston fans ask what to do for Game 163—the play-in. When two teams are tied for the single wild card berth in either of the leagues, they play a loser-goes-home game. They've happened a lot recently, so much so that the league is making them an official part of postseason play. Boston frets because they do not have someone to start this game. Ace Jon Lester will pitch the last game of the season on three days' rest. Beckett just lost last night. Who throws in the elimination game? Lackey? Wakefield?

The early answer is "Chris Capuano." Word comes out Tuesday morning that the Sox are looking into acquiring him from the Mets, as he's cleared waivers. Nothing develops by game time, and the Sox go to war with the rotation they have, not the rotation they want. Bedard starts against Britton.

The Sox win this game 8-7. They even keep the dreaded Andino off base, but Aceves and Papelbon have to throw a combined 4 and 2/3 innings to do so. Papelbon only gets the final out when Jones grounds out to Lowrie at third, with runners at the corners and two away, after Papelbon's 28th pitch. Both men should be unavailable for the next game—unless the next game happens to be the last, an all-hands-on-deck emergency that makes or breaks team morale, narrative and most importantly, playoff revenue expectations.

The Rays win their game against the Yankees. The wild card race remains tied. Plans go forth for Game 163 if necessary, but every last dollar and moment will be decided Wednesday, September 28, 2011, starting at 7:05 PM.
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Remember Bruce Chen? No? That's fine. Once upon a time, back in the Bad Old Days, he was a touted young Orioles pitcher.

Right now he's a starter for the Kansas City Royals. Somehow, he's not even bad, even though his fastball reminds one a lot of Matusz's: 86 mph and straight. Unlike Matusz's only remaining pitch, his confounding "leftball" is dragging this Royals "ace" to a marginally respectable record. The Chicago White Sox can't hit him at all.

Boston allegedly tries to trade for Chen all throughout the day. Nothing comes of it. They only have so long to get him on the team, and he only really matters if the Sox lose Wednesday. As first pitch approaches and a deal can't be made, the Sox resign themselves: if they force a Game 163, the starter will be from their Major League roster. God save the Boston Red Sox, because now no one else can.
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He almost does. Wednesday night starts poorly for the Orioles and the Rays. The Orioles are down 3-2 by the time the game goes into a rain delay. Lester's not sharp, but Alfredo Simon is even less so. The Rays, meanwhile, spot the Yankees seven runs in three innings thanks to Mark Teixeira being the guy New York signed him to be.

Baltimore/Boston resumes as New York/Tampa enters the bottom of the ninth inning. By now 7-0 has turned into 7-6. The Yankees get the first two outs before Dan Johnson homers to right to tie the game. The Rays have pulled off one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history—so long as you don't mind that the best Yankee pitchers were simply not available. Why would they be? What would the Yankees gain from throwing Rivera instead of Cory Wade?

That game goes into extra innings; back in Baltimore, the tarp comes off the field. Things proceed almost uneventfully for a time. Then Papelbon takes the mound. It's the bottom of the ninth inning in Maryland now, after midnight. The Rays and Yankees enter the twelfth at Tropicana Field. Jones leads off. Does he strike out on a pitch low and away? Why yes, he does. It’s a fastball.

Right now, the Sox are outhitting the Orioles eleven to four, and Sox pitching has retired six Orioles in a row. Buck Showalter leans against the dugout railing and stares out onto the field. What, me worry?

Reynolds stands in, looking like a homeless, murderous Scandanavian. He strikes out. No one is shocked. Red Sox color commentator Jerry Remy is a smug, ridiculous cartoon character in the booth.

Two out, Davis at the plate. Davis is not a regular major league starter. He's a project player, a guy you hope can learn to recognize pitches better, learn to harness his power, learn to—Davis doubles again down the right field line, again late on the pitch. Who cares? He's on second. Showalter immediately replaces him with speedy outfielder Kyle Hudson.

Reimold steps to the plate. He rocks like a serpent, eyes unblinking. He lays off a few tempting outside pitches. He swings and misses on a fastball at the letters moving in to out. The cameras show Andino swinging the bat on deck. There's no reason for this but expected masochism.

The count is 2-1 when Red Sox play-by-play man Don Orsillo mentions that Andino is on deck. It's all right; the Orioles are down to their last strike. Reimold just swung and missed again. This fastball was over the plate. Now the Sox faithful in the Camden Yards stands get loud.

The Boston closer takes a deep breath, tilts his head in, hat brim low, and sets. His right hand, glove and ball travel from his shoulder down to his waist. He's had a good year for a 30 year-old reliever. His strikeouts are up; his walks are down. His peripherals are fantastic. Papelbon does everything you want a good closer to do: he's not allowing baserunners, he's striking people out, he's not giving free passes, and he's—

He’s caught a little bit more of the plate. The heart of the plate. Reimold swings and ruins Papelbon’s season.

Ellsbury and Drew run 20 feet toward the wall in right-center and watch the ball one-hop an ad. Hudson scores easily from second, tie game. Andino walks to the right batter's box. The Orioles are down to their final out of the year.

The theme of this series is that Andino is not actually a good hitter; so far tonight has borne that out. He has two groundouts and two strikeouts. He is precisely the sort of guy you pinch hit for in this situation, but even if someone was available Showalter wouldn’t pull Andino. Reimold takes his lead off second. Papelbon throws a ball, then a strike. The Baltimore utilityman calls time, moves away, walks around a bit.

Jonathan Papelbon takes his foot off the rubber and stares down towards home.

Andino adjusts his helmet and steps back in.
___________________

Next year, the Orioles will not have an ace. They will not have a legitimate #2 starter. They will have Britton, Arrieta and a prayer book. And Kevin Gregg and his goggles. No one else will take them.

Jim Johnson, their only good reliever, will remain in that capacity. They should make him a starter. They're afraid of what will happen to the bullpen if they do.

Really, no one knows who "they" will be. Not Andy MacPhail or Brian Cashman. It might be Showalter himself, if he decides the dugout isn't where he wants to be. Showalter holds more power in the Orioles organization than any manager since and including Earl Weaver. It's as bizarre as it sounds: he gets to pick his own General Manager. The insanity in Baltimore’s front office continues unabated.

Jones and Wieters will be one year closer to free agency. The bullpen will be staffed by Rangers minor leaguers. The Orioles will still have no actual third basemen.

Yes, somewhere down the line, the Baltimore Orioles could again play baseball in October. It is not against the rules. The possibility endures, however theoretical, absurd, and eternally five years away. But it will not be next year.
___________________

Back in the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon's 1-1 pitch hangs, and Robert Andino swings. He hits it sharply, pulls it in the air between third and short.

Carl Crawford charges from medium deep-left and falls into a slide.

September ends.

Part I: The Mathematics of EmotionPart II: The Chase

21 comments:

  1. 100% pure awesome. Thank you!

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  2. Man, how great was it that the O's season ended in a great big happy dog pile? Not that it made up for the preceding 6 months of suffering, but still, it was at least *something*.

    Also, although I have no proof, I strongly believe that the Oriole's struggles over the last 12+ years are the direct result of Jon Miller putting a hex on Camden Yards in response to being fired. We're talking about a level of incompetence by the O's front office that can only be explained by supernatural causes . . .

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  3. Nice read you got there. Be a shame if something happened to it.

    Just kidding, enjoyed it all, even if I tend to lump those New England-ish teams in sports together.

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  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for allowing me the pleasure of re-living this greatest of baseball moments (this coming from a fan of a team which, for its entire existence, has, by and large, stunk). Not only because the Sox lost, but because it came by the ax of a team that they had for so long been used as a doormat.

    If only there were more instances in the real world of hubris, media over-saturation, and unearned hype shoved back so unmercifully in the faces of people who so completely deserve it.

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  5. The only thing that could possibly have made this better is the Yankees also losing.

    Gosh, it's like fucking Christmas up in here.

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  6. That's some great writing. That was a magical night and you put it all together for posterity.

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  7. God, this got me tearing up. I was almost crion.

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  8. Very well done. Though I feel you could have thrown in that the Orioles' *other* sort of franchise player, Brian Roberts, has spent the last two seasons wracked by injuries, and that's part of the reason why Andino is playing at all.

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  9. First time reading this site so annoyed a little at the useless vitriol, but wasn't Davis' double in the ninth pulled? I recall a fastball down the pipe, 1st pitch swinging, pulled one hopper to the right field wall. If you're gonna go with snarky comments about guys like Remy (who actually gives good analysis for a change of pace when it comes to MLB color men) get some of the key instances correct.

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  10. Anonymous said...
    First time reading this site so annoyed a little at the useless vitriol

    Hey now, presumably Red Sox fan, vitriol's a whole different donkey. Vitriol's corrosive, destructive, deadly, so painful and sharp that it's unmistakably all malice. This is just bitterness. If you want actual vitriol, why not enjoy this link-abundant piece about the Yankees from last year? (Note, not affiliated with Mr. Bernhardt in any way.)


    If you're gonna go with snarky comments about guys like Remy (who actually gives good analysis for a change of pace when it comes to MLB color men) get some of the key instances correct.
    I'll disagree with vitriol, but snarky's totally fair here. That said, I think it's understandable. Look, I'm a Sox fan: I watched every NESN broadcast available on MLB Extra Innings this year. And Remy really is a mixed bag. He's still a cut above most color dudes, but as soon as the Sox get a four-run lead, his brain just goes on walkabout. At one point this season he talked about some fishing trip up in Maine for about nine minutes. There was about a two-minute sequence just on car logistics. That's just generally bad, but when it comes to actual Red Sox talent, I can see how he would be insufferable to a dedicated fan of a non-Sox AL East team. He often phrases comments about Red Sox talent in this passive way that avoids the implication that they're bought and instead appeared on the Sox out of serendipity or the good graces of front office folks who just try harder. He also has a tendency now and again to cry victim extremely disingenuously and to frame the Sox as these poor bedeviled underdogs, and for any non Sox fan obliged to listen, that's got to be pretty damned infuriating. Smug isn't extreme here.

    As for calling him a cartoon character, that's the same basis on which I've seen Sox fans adore him. The man sometimes now seems less like a person than this endearing animatronic bottle-brushed-'stached chipmunk that someone magically breathed life into by filling it with weird anecdotes. I like Remy, and if you told me he'd appeared in a cut scene on a DVD of TaleSpin or Rescue Rangers, I'd totally believe you. Basically, I don't see a lot to get exercised about.

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  11. What a terrific triple of writing!

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  12. Solid gold.

    The hex Jon Miller put on the team was joined by a hex from Davey Johnson, who was fired the day he was named AL Manager of the Year. The blinding gall of Angelos has destroyed this team. HE is the true hex.

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  13. Spectacular. Wonderful writing. I salute you.

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  14. A good read; however, I think it is fair to challenge you on your classification of Bruce Chen as an Oriole prospect of note.

    Chen was a much ballyhooed minor leaguer in the Braves system, but he did not payoff as anticipated.

    What is somewhat amazing is that Chen has demonstrated so much staying power for which he deserves great credit. Bruce was not the worst pitcher by a long shot who passed through Baltimore in the past 15 or so years.

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  15. What an incredibly well written piece... thanks for the entertainment!

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  16. Have to agree with Mobutu Sese Seko about Remy--his job is basically to be as comical as possible.

    As for this article, I found it quite enjoyable despite being a Sox fan; in fact, it was probably the first time I read something recounting the disappointing ending of the season and felt no pain. I suppose the fact that it's written from an Oriole fan's perspective helps, because it means that almost all of the focus is on the Sox-Orioles series (which is just something that happened, and as said in this article, good teams lose games all the time and bad teams win games all the time) and so little of it is on the Yankees jobbing to the Rays for three straight.

    While I understand the logic of resting starters when you've already locked up your best possible postseason position, it always rankles me when a playoff race is affected by a team that's fighting for a playoff spot having the good fortune to face a top team so late in the season that they're no longer playing at 100%. The Rays and the Red Sox both had to face the Yankees the same number of times, but the Rays' final three games against the Yankees were after the Bombers had locked up the top seed, so they had an "easier" time of it. Contrast the Philadelphia Phillies, who locked up the NL's top seed around the same time that the Yankees did so in the AL, but still played all of their starters against the Wild Card-leading Atlanta Braves, ultimately knocking the Braves out of the playoff race. Compare also the 2009 New York Jets. At 7-7 and trailing the 14-0 Indianapolis Colts at halftime in their penultimate game, their playoff hopes were by no means fried, but they weren't looking so great. But with the Colts having already clinched the AFC's top seed, they pulled their starters at halftime, and the Jets came back to win. The next week, their game against the AFC North champions, the Cincinnati Bengals, was "flexed" to the nighttime slot, allowing both teams to get a clear look at just how much they would have to play for, and most likely assuring that the Bengals would be unable to get out of the 4th seed by the time the game began. Weirdly, that wasn't the case, as the would-be 3-seed unexpectedly lost. The Jets were in a position where due to favorable tiebreakers, a win would make them the 5-seed, but anything else would send them home. The team that would be the 6-seed in the event of the Jets going home was the one that had just beaten the would-be 3-seed that would've been downgraded to a 4-seed.

    The choice was obvious. Rather than play for the 3-seed and face a team coming in on a high note, also risking injury by playing the starters, just for a chance to avoid the top seed in round 2 (which could happen anyway as the 4-seed if the 6-seed should win, which they did), it was better to job to the Jets now, knowing that they'd have to play all-out to get a playoff berth, and then turn around and beat them the following week. Which they failed to do.

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.