Friday, September 30, 2011
Vintage Fridays: Mike Torrez, 1976 Topps #25
I’ve spent the entire month of September watching the hated Boston Red Sox collapse like a futon from Ikea, acknowledging the improbability of the Tampa Bay Rays making up the entire nine-game deficit in a manner of weeks. Still, I hoped against hope. Tampa Bay won six out of seven games in their last two series vs. the Sox to close the gap to a scant two games with ten left to play. I felt a sense of sad recognition whenever I read an article or blog post that doused cold water on the entire scenario by restating some form of the following sentiment: “Just look at the schedule. The Rays play seven of their last ten games against the Yankees, while Boston gets seven games against the lowly Orioles.” After a while, I started wondering if there had been an official name change. Introducing your Baltimore Lowly Orioles!
I understood. 14 straight losing seasons, most of them attributable in some way to repeated high-profile failures against those very Red Sox, the team with the $160 million payroll and a pair of recent World Series wins and an entire nationwide conglomerate of diehard, self-important fans and obnoxious, entitled bandwagoners. The Birds have won the season series against the Fenway hordes only once since 1997: they squeaked by at 10-9 in 2004, when the O’s were at their least terrible (78-84) and the Sox were on the verge of their first title since 1918. Things have been really ugly since 2006: 34-74 against Boston, including a putrid 2-16 mark in 2009. The lowlights have been many: no-hitters by the washed-up Hideo Nomo and the still-green Clay Buchholz, pitching meltdowns like the Mother’s Day Massacre and this turd from Mike Gonzalez and Kevin Gregg’s greatest hits, you name it. When you take it all into account, and add in a healthy dose of anger and embarrassment from listening to raucous cheers and chants of “LET’S GO RED SOX!” and “PAPI! PAPI!” every time the BoSox travel to Camden Yards, I can only say that I’ve never wanted so badly for the Orioles to win a set of games that had no real bearing on their own fortunes.
To my amazement, it happened. The Birds played good September ball in general, posting their only winning month of the season and winning or splitting series against a host of postseason contenders: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Tigers, and Angels. They took three out of four in a series at Boston, highlighted by Jeremy Guthrie's first-ever win in Fenway and a pair of late-inning comebacks. That set the stage for this week's conclusion to the regular season, with the O's and Sox splitting the first two games in Baltimore and Tampa Bay winning both Monday and Tuesday's games against a Yankee team that had already clinched the best record in the American League. There was a tie atop the Wild Card standings, and it all came down to Wednesday's games. In one fell swoop, it would be possible for the Orioles to singlehandedly knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs.
I made a last-minute attempt to find someone to go to the final game with me, and when I came up short I decided to save a few bucks and stay home. I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that the worst would happen, with the Rays losing to the Yankees and the Red Sox beating the Birds and celebrating on our turf. The pitching matchup of Jon Lester (14-0 in 17 previous career starts against the O's) vs. Alfredo Simon (who, you may recall, was in a Dominican prison six months ago) didn't do much to help. My pessimism persisted as Simon labored through an abbreviated outing, allowing 9 base runners in 4.1 innings. Although the score was only 3-2 in favor of Boston, I'd seen this sort of game play out before. It was only a matter of time before the visitors broke through against a mostly anonymous Baltimore bullpen, and the Oriole hitters were doing little with the precious few chances they had to reach Lester. I checked the score of the Rays game. Not only were they down 7-0, but most of the damage had been done by Mark Teixeira. This was a nightmare.
There was some good news in the bottom of the seventh, as Alfredo Aceves took to the mound in relief of Lester. Aceves has been very effective as the Sox' long reliever this year, but anyone would have been preferable to Lester. That thought would have to wait, as a heavy thunderstorm brought on a rain delay before Aceves could even throw his first pitch. The Yankees and Rays were being televised on ESPN, but there wasn't much point in watching that hopeless spectacle, so I switched to the MLB Network's studio show with its live look-ins at all three games with postseason implications (Phillies-Braves and Cardinals-Astros as well). I called my parents to let them know that I hadn't gone to the game after all, and it was probably just as well. After all, it had been an ugly slog even before the rains came. Who knew how late I would have been out on a work night if I had been at Camden Yards. As I spoke to my mother, MLBN looked in at Tropicana Field, where a bases-loaded walk and hit batter had brought the Rays to within 7-2 in the eighth inning. I sarcastically mentioned that Tampa Bay was mounting a comeback. A few moments later, I looked up and it was 7-3. Evan Longoria was batting with two men on base, but there were now two outs. Before I could process the situation, he launched a monster home run to left field to make it 7-6! When Johnny Damon finally popped out to end the inning and stranded the tying run on second base, I thought the home team had missed their best chance. But they'd gotten most of the way there, and they certainly wouldn't be facing Mariano Rivera in the ninth. I figured I'd stick with that game until the tarp came off in Charm City.
New York couldn't score in the ninth, so Tampa Bay had three outs to work with against Cory Wade. Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman made two quick outs, leaving it up to pinch hitter Dan Johnson, who hadn't had a hit in the majors since April. Five pitches into the at-bat, the count was 2-and-2 and Johnson (and Tampa Bay) was down to his last strike. He hit a bullet down the right field line that struck the foul pole - home run! Tie game! Unbelievable. I was pumping my fist from the couch, and ready to watch the Rays put it away in extra innings. The Yankees had only Scott Proctor available in relief, and he was/is pretty awful. But the game ground on through the tenth and eleventh innings with no resolution. The Rays announcers were keeping tabs on the Orioles and Red Sox, and noted that the game had resumed and that Alfredo Aceves had hit two of the first three batters he'd faced. So I jumped back to MASN, only to see another chance wasted. Robert Andino whiffed and J. J. Hardy grounded out weakly, and the O's were running out of time.
Flipping between games now, I didn't see Pedro Strop get bailed out when an Adam Jones to Hardy to Matt Wieters relay cut down Marco Scutaro at the plate. It was still a one-run game, and the Sox had made their third out on the bases. Now I flicked back and saw setup man Daniel Bard on the mound for Boston. Like most Boston pitchers, he'd had a rough September, so I figured the Orioles might have a chance. Vlad Guerrero and Wieters hit the ball hard, but right at Red Sox outfielders. 1-2-3 inning, and on to the ninth. Back to Tampa Bay, and still nothing resolved there. I saved myself the aggravation of an unusually rocky outing by Jim Johnson, who put runners on the corners with nobody out and escaped by inducing a three-foot nubber by David Ortiz and a double play off the bat of rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnaway. I did come back for the O's last ups against Boston's aggressively dopey closer Jonathan Papelbon. Between his frat-boy fist pumps, his stupid open-mouthed fish face between pitches, and his spastic Riverdance in previous postgame celebrations, I can safely say that there is no Red Sox player I despise more than "Paps". (Well, maybe Pedroia.) I heard Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer talking about Boston's perfect record in 2011 with a ninth-inning lead, but I had seen the Birds reach Papelbon for a run and work him for 28 pitches the night before. I felt that he was vulnerable.
For a few minutes, Papelbon made me look stupid. He struck out Adam Jones swinging on a pitch around the ankles, and then got Mark Reynolds fanning through a few letters-high fastballs. Chris Davis was up next, and if there was anyone on the team more likely to strike out than Jones and Reynolds, it would have been Davis. Fortunately I didn't have to watch the ESPN telecast, on which Rick Sutcliffe was apparently blathering about how he could just tell by the intense look in Papelbon's eyes that he was not going to lose the game for Boston. That's expert analysis right there. Anyway, I began typing out a snarky comment on Twitter predicting the Davis whiff, but before I could even complete the thought he turned on the first pitch and rocketed a double to right field. That brought up Nolan Reimold, someone whom I actually trusted with the fate of the O's. But he took a couple balls and then swung right through a couple more (what else?) fastballs, and now the Orioles, like Tampa Bay and Dan Johnson earlier, were down to their last strike. I wondered aloud in frustration whether anyone on the team could catch up to a fastball when they knew it was coming. Nolan shut me up with a drive that one-hopped the right-center field fence for a ground rule double. Pinch runner Kyle Hudson scored the tying run, and now Robert Andino had a chance to further his legend as a Red Sox killer.
Yep, Robert Andino. The light-hitting infielder who had been acquired a few years ago for failed prospect Hayden Penn, hit .222/.274/.288 in 2009, and was buried in the organizational doghouse in 2010, was looking to cap a surprisingly decent season. With Brian Roberts once again out of commission for much of 2011, Andino played on a near-daily basis and hit .263/.327/.344 with solid defense. So he was a damned sight better than Julio Lugo, basically. He had also delivered a pair of game-winning hits in September against Boston - a three-run double off of Papelbon on the 20th and a three-run inside-the-park homer off of Josh Beckett on Monday. Robert didn't build the suspense for long on this occasion, lining a 1-1 pitch to medium left field. Carl Crawford, who you might remember as the homegrown Rays star who was lured to Boston with a $142 million contract this year, lunged and could not field the ball cleanly! Reimold raced home ahead of the throw and...this part of the story is for Gary Thorne to tell.
I was elated, once again gesturing wildly at the TV and grinning like a doofus. Moments before the walkoff hit, Thorne and Palmer mentioned that Evan Longoria was batting in the bottom of the twelfth in Tampa, so I planned to switch back to that game...but I just couldn't turn away from the joyous mob scene on the field in Baltimore. Andino, still full of adrenaline, came striding out of the dogpile sneering and telling the Sox and their fans to go home. (He may have used a few other, less charitable words.) While I was reveling in the rarest of the rare - a thrilling and meaningful Oriole win in September - Thorne declared that Longoria had just won the game and the wild card with a one-out solo homer off of Scott Proctor. It happened three minutes after Reimold crossed the plate, a serendipitous confluence made possible by a thunderstorm in the Mid-Atlantic and extra innings in Florida. The Lowly Orioles were instrumental in an historic season-ending collapse by the Red Sox, and it was good.
The games ended a few minutes after midnight, but in my excitement I couldn't force myself off to bed until 1:30. In the interim I followed the ongoing postgame commentary on Twitter, Camden Chat, ESPN, and MLBN. I was awash in schadenfreude as I watched video of Boston blowhard Dan Shaughnessy declaring mid-rain delay that the Red Sox' season would NOT end on Wednesday night. I watched Papelbon stammer and stare in the locker room as media members asked him insightful questions like, "How do you feel?" and, "You had to think you had it after you got the first two batters out". I laughed as I saw footage of MLBN analysts Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac's on-set, off-air reactions to the Andino single and Longoria homer. It was all glorious.
The only way it could have been better is if the Orioles were the ones headed to the Division Series.
P. S.: Why did I choose a Mike Torrez card for this post? Oh, no reason.