Orioles: Fundamentals, 10th man propel Birds toward pennant

Last Tuesday evening, I brought my kids to Modell’s Sporting Goods store off Joppa road in Putty Hill to meet Steve Pearce. The journeyman outfielder turned Oriole hero was scheduled to sign autographs at 6 p.m. There were 30 people in line waiting for him as we pulled up. Five months ago he’d been released by the Orioles and then quickly resigned. I wanted to tell him how much he reminded me of the players on the 1970s teams–guys like Rich Dauer and John Lowenstein. I needed his reassurance that facing three former Cy Young winners and a Motor City line-up with seven hitters capable of jacking the ball out at any given moment was all in a day’ s work for the extraordinary assemblage of baseball talent occupying Eutaw Street these days.

Fifty minutes later, a store clerk appeared to tell us that practice was running late and had just ended. Of course it ran late. Buck Showalter needed to drive home the point that the recent glut of errors to end the regular season would not be tolerated. We didn’t get the chance to meet Pearce, but we now know that the extra preparation—which focused on fundamentals—paid huge dividends as the Orioles swept the Tigers in the American League Division series.

Baseball fever hits Baltimore as the Orioles advance. (Bruce Cunningham)
Baseball fever hits Baltimore as the Orioles advance. (All photos by Bruce Cunningham)

Thursday’s game began with a rush hour traffic jam trying to get to the park. Four blocks away on Lombard and Charles, the sounds of Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army” anthem bellowed from the park—“Ohhh-oh-oh-oh-oh-Ohhh!” Inside Camden Yards, the ballpark resembled a volcanic jack-o-lantern.

The noise was constant and deafening. Tillman’s three first inning strike-outs sounded like Terrell Sugg’s quarterback sacks in Ravens Stadium. Nelson Cruz’ blast in the bottom frame turned the amp to eleven. It was the loudest roar of the night—17 years of pain erased in the arc of a deep fly that carried into the right field bleachers. One voice, nearly 50,000 fans strong, willed that ball out of the park. The din of the raucous crowd crested and surged all evening. The Darren O’Day song (“Ohhh Day, Ohhh Day, Oh-Day-oh-Day-oh-Day!”) was so loud I’m convinced it broke the relief pitcher’s concentration against Miguel Cabrera in the top of the 8th, who drilled a home run after the chorus ended to cut the lead to 4-3 in the eighth.

Then the lid of the great pumpkin blew off. Detroit starter Max Scherzer left the game for reliever Joba Chamberlain. He looked like an extra from Duck Dynasty. Was it an Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky Halloween costume or Bluto from Popeye? All of Detroit’s Murderer’s Row swagger went out of the stadium with each step from the cartoon-like pitcher. The Orioles erupted for 8 runs.

“It’s a different season,” said Showalter after the game.

In sixty years of the franchise, we’d never seen a team like this one. Fourteen hours later, the Orioles took the field again. Nick Markakis staked the Birds to a 2-0 lead with a home run off of Justin Verlander. But the powerful Tigers found their stroke in the fourth, scoring 5 runs off of Wei-Yin Chen. Ryan Flaherty made a diving stop to rob Cabrera and turn a double play in the 5th that halted a rally. Adam Jones threw out Cabrera at the plate to squash another uprising. Fundamentals–the ones Showalter practiced into the evening on Tuesday had paid off.

Inexplicably in the 8th, Joba Chamberlain appeared again to hold a three run lead. He induced a ground ball from Alejandro De Aza and then hit Adam Jones with a pitch. Cruz singled, bringing up Steve Pearce. In game one, Pearce went 2-4 with a run and missed a home run by a foot on a scorching liner to left. Chamberlain got him to chase two breaking balls. Chamberlain tried to sneak it by him again. This time, Pearce went with the pitch and deposited a single into right field, scoring Jones. I was listening on the radio and could barely hear Joe Angel’s call above the crowd as former Tiger Delman Young doubled in three runs with what would turn out to be the game-winning hit—and one of the greatest moments in Baltimore sports history.

The teams changed venues to a city that is often used as a benchmark for Baltimore. We are calmed by our politicians when our shortcomings take center stage with, “It could be worse. You could be in Detroit.” Up until now, they had the better baseball team.
A bulldog of a competitor, Bud Norris blistered his fastball past the Tigers hitters in Game 3. I had witnessed the Orioles last out at Yankee Stadium in 2012 when we were happy to be in the playoffs. It was cold and rainy in the Bronx that day. Chris Davis hit a ball to deep center that hung in the frigid air mass and died at the fence. Nate McLouth launched a towering drive down the right field line that barely eluded the foul pole.

It wasn’t our year.

On Sunday afternoon, Nelson Cruz hit a ball that found the first seat inside the foul pole and ushered an early winter into the Detroit area. He’s now being compared to Frank Robinson—and this group of upstart Birds to the 1966 championship team.

We won the series with a blowout, a comeback and a one-run pitcher’s duel. The manager making all the right moves—including an intentional walk in the bottom of the ninth that led to a series-ending double play.

“Nobody’s that smart,” Buck Showalter said after the game, playing down his contribution and his endless hours of preparation and nights spent getting limited shuteye in the office. His preparation and knowledge are easily worth 30-40 wins a season. “We just needed a little karma change the way that inning was going.”

We weren’t supposed to beat the Tigers on paper. The national media and the consistently inept TBS playoff broadcasting team were at a loss to describe our ballclub. I agree that it’s a hard one to fathom. Without Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis, this team defies comprehension. How do they win without a legitimate ace in the rotation? The Orioles play the game backwards, with their best pitchers handling the last half of the game. The Orioles with their “next man up” mentality are similar to the Ravens in 2012.

Before we could fully bask in playoff glory, sportswriter William Rhoden published a piece in the New York Times over the weekend, “Baltimore Teams Leaving Different Impressions on Nation” that talked about the darkness over the Ravens and the light over the Orioles even though the parks are only 500 yards away. But we’ve always been a baseball town since “Little Bobby Matthews” threw spitballs in the 1870s, decades before Babe Ruth swung the lumber and Tiger Al Kaline sprayed line drives in South Baltimore. According to Rhoden, in the midst of our orange crush, we should check our moral compass and ponder our gridiron sins. In the end, we’re a defunct manufacturing town in Manhattan’s shadow that needs all the help we can get. Yes, the blast furnaces may be quiet but we hold onto the values that made them prosper. So does Buck.

And remember, we’re not Detroit.

This story celebrates Baltimore in the grit of Buck Showalter and Steve Pearce— underdogs with chips on their shoulders and something still to prove. Throw in Dan Duquette and Nelson Cruz while you’re at it—and Ryan Flaherty, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones. Line up all of the Orioles around the diamond. The city and its struggles embody and empower them. In the last thirty years, there has never been a better time to be an Oriole or Ravens fan—they both compete for the postseason every year. We haven’t seen that since 1977. There has never been a more exciting time to be a Baltimorean.

As the last of bats were cleared from the dugout at Comerica Park on Sunday afternoon, Detroit native Jack White’s anthem rose again from a small gaggle of fans behind the Oriole dugout. From what we’ve witness so far, we will be crooning this number well into October.