Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Defense, Orioles Magic Lead O’s to 5-2 win over A’s, 5-1 Homestand

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On Sunday, the Orioles looked, for all intents and purposes, to be destined to take a series loss against the Oakland Athletics. After scoring 10 on Saturday to set up the rubber match, A’s hurler Bartolo Colon had effectively silenced the O’s bats through eight innings, and, although Tommy Hunter turned in a strong effort of his own, it appeared as though the two runs he did surrender would be more than enough for Oakland.

If things had indeed transpired that way, it still would have been a relatively successful home stand for the Birds. While losing two of three to the A’s would have been a bit of a let down after sweeping the AL East rival Blue Jays, a 4-2 record over the last six would have been nothing to hang their heads over.

However, the O’s had some magic in their bats on Sunday afternoon – as they have many times so far this young season.

In 2011, the Orioles won only four games when trailing after seven innings.

That’s four games ALL YEAR LONG.

Entering Sunday’s game, they had already matched that total in 2012, through just 21 games. While they can’t hope to keep skating by by the skins of their teeth, the fight that Buck’s bunch has shown here in April is more than a bit exciting for this downtrodden fan base in B’More.

The bottom of the ninth on Sunday started off with two huge hustle plays by the Birds. J.J. Hardy led off the inning and grounded up the middle for what initially appeared to be a sure base hit. However, A’s second baseman Eric Sogard ranged to his right and made a great stop, turned and fired.

A good throw (or scoop) would have gotten Hardy for the first out. Luckily for the O’s, though, first baseman Kila Ka’aihue couldn’t handle the bouncing throw, and Hardy was safe.

Colon then struck out Nick Markakis swinging on a 3-2 pitch, and hope seemed to fade once again.

But Adam Jones was about to show some hustle of his own.

Beating Colon’s 0-1 offering into the dirt in front of home plate, Jones forced the sizable 38-year old pitcher to come up and field his position. By getting on his horse and getting down the first base line, Jones didn’t give Colon any time to set and throw, and Bartolo – like Sogard before him – handcuffed Ka’aihue. This time the ball bounced down the line into foul territory in right field, and Hardy scooted to third, with Jones pulling up at second.

The O’s had the tying runs in scoring position for Matt Wieters, and A’s skipper Bob Melvin went to his closer, Grant Balfour.

Wieters had been scuffling a bit at the plate, going 0-for-6 to that point in the series. However, after taking a questionable strike two to fall behind 1-2 in the count, Wieters jumped all over a Balfour slider and crushed it to left-center.

When the ball left the bat, I was just hoping for it to find some green in the left-centerfield gap. Instead, it continued to carry, and instead found some green at the base of the wall just under the 364 mark.

Jones and Hardy scored easily, and Wieters slid into second base with a double.

The O’s had the winning run in scoring position with one out, and the over 31,000 fans at Camden Yards were on their feet.

After an intentional walk to the red-hot Chris Davis, Wilson Betemit came to the plate.

Betemit made Melvin pay for choosing to pitch to him instead of Davis, taking Balfour’s 3-1 pitch to the top of the grounds crew shed in right center for the walk off home run.

Orioles Magic baby. Feel it happen.

The O’s wouldn’t have been in a position to tie or win the game without some stellar defensive play throughout the day. A much-maligned aspect of their game so far this season (and with good reason – the O’s lead the American League with 22 errors), everything just seemed to come together for the O’s gloves Sunday.

From Nolan Reimold making the most lackadaisical home-run saving catch you’ll ever see (seriously, Nolan, jump next time dude), to Mark Reynolds breaking twitter by making not one, but two great plays, to Adam Jones sliding to take away base hits, to Markakis gunning down runners at second base from right field, to Robert Andino picking up the aforementioned Reynolds when it looked like Oakland might add to their lead in the top of the ninth, it was just an incredible day defensively for the Birds.

As I tweeted during the game, it was like the Baltimore Ravens defense had shown up wearing Orioles uniforms.

Now, of course, the Orioles have had good Aprils before, only to inevitably disappoint us as the season wore on.

Still, after improving to 14-8, the Orioles are six games above .500 for the FIRST TIME since way back in July of 2005 (if I remember correctly, that would have been right before the Rafael Palmeiro B-12 fiasco caused the wheels to completely fall off on that once-promising campaign).

If this 14-8 April mark had been put up in 2011 – after the great finish to the 2010 season under Buck Showalter – we’d be wetting ourselves with excitement. Instead, we force ourselves to remember last year – when a great 6-1 start quickly turned sour again on the way to yet another 90+ loss year.

As cliche’ as it is, doesn’t this year just FEEL different?

The unexpectedly great pitching, from the starters through the bullpen.

The great O’s Magic I talked about before, the “never quit” attitude of the team.

All of it has added up over the first month to make some O’s fans think that maybe – just maybe – this is the year we finally see some games that matter played at OPACY in say, August.

As Orioles fans though, we’ve been beaten down to the point that we’re conditioned to not believe what we’re seeing with our own eyes. While a large segment of the fan base has given up completely on the club, another has taken a very cautious “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” kind of approach.

That second group can be seen and heard saying things like “let’s see where they are in July,” and “get back to me in August, and we’ll talk about the pitching again.” Or even a more short-sighted view, something along the lines of “yeah, this road trip to New York and Boston will reveal their true colors.”

An absolutely understandable mindset, if also quite a bleak and depressing one.

The third group of fans though – and I count myself among these misguided few – still lives and dies with every pitch, and absolutely revels in every bit of excitement the orange and black gives us, regardless of if it may be nothing more than Fool’s Gold.

Games like Sunday’s (and the other four late comeback wins) are the reason we watch not only baseball, but sports in general. There is nothing like that uplifting wave of emotion when a sure loss turns into a victory with one or two swings, before our very eyes.

And that’s why we still watch, and still have hope.

Sure, this time next week the O’s could very well be licking their wounds after another Bronx/Fenway series of beatdowns. We’ve sure seen it enough over the last 14 years to not be surprised.

But maybe – again, MAYBE – they will play their hearts out up north and make us proud, and they’ll keep hope alive for another few weeks or months.

Either way, we’ll be watching. Go O’s.

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