since ER and Seinfeld were prime time TV staples. This despite the fact that the team was trotting out Ubaldo Jimenez for his first appearance since he bombed out of a mop-up relief appearance on August 31. Toronto's starting pitcher was none other than Drew Hutchison, who had flummoxed the O's in each of his previous six starts against them. It was a "reverse lock", I told my sister, only half-joking. Any matchup that seemed that lopsided couldn't turn out the way that everyone expected. Not in baseball...not for this team.
There was a palpable energy in the ballpark long before the first pitch was thrown. 35,297 fans filled Oriole Park to three-quarters capacity, quite a strong showing for a Tuesday night game in mid-September against a so-so Blue Jay squad. The Baltimore faithful bought over 10,000 walkup tickets in the 21 hours between Monday's final out and Tuesday's potential clincher. Everyone was yearning to celebrate, especially since the home-clincher scenario hadn't played out in Charm City in 45 years. On Twitter and Facebook, handfuls of my friends and acquaintances also acknowledged their own presence at the game. I saw friend and fellow card collector Ed out on Eutaw Street, trying to give away his extra seats. On the first-level concourse, my sister and I ran into our cousin, her father, and their significant others. More than any other game I've ever attended, this one put the "small" in "Smalltimore". We took our customary seats in Section 340, high above home plate with an excellent view of the entire field. As the lineups were introduced, Jose Reyes was lustily booed for inciting the Monday night fracas that led to Caleb Joseph ducking out of the way of a head-seeking Marcus Stroman fastball. I knew it would be a good, loud, engaged crowd; rarely do you hear loud fan response during pregame activities. Everyone in the Orioles' starting ten received a strong ovation, even the much-maligned Ubaldo. We were determined to wipe the slate clean and provide encouragement. A good performance in this high-stakes game, and much would be forgiven. The fan feedback continued through both national anthems, with loud cries of "O!" punctuating those interjections in "O, Canada" as well as "The Star-Spangled Banner". Baltimore was ready.
Jimenez, however, did not seem ready. Whether it was nerves, rust, or the familiar mechanical problems that have marked his rough first season in Birdland, the O's starter put the team in an early hole. It took him 30 pitches to dispatch the Jays in the first inning, with a Jose Bautista walk and an Edwin Encarnacion double plating that first Toronto run and leading to displeased murmurs from the crowd. The momentum seemed to swing as Ubaldo rallied to strike out Adam Lind and Danny Valencia, and the good vibes were flowing again when Steve Pearce solved Hutchison with a two-out, three-run homer to right-center field in the bottom of the inning (coincidentally, his first-ever opposite-field shot in the majors). We cheered and clapped rhythmically as the Orioles' bargain-basement hero crossed home plate after his Earl Weaver special. It didn't seem like three runs would be enough, but it was a good start.
The top-of-the-first murmurs devolved into groans and scattered boos as Ubaldo's control completely abandoned him in the second inning. Three walks and a Reyes single sliced the Oriole lead to 3-2, and the O's righthander was approaching 60 pitches with the bases loaded, two outs, and the dangerous Encarnacion standing at bat. T. J. McFarland hurried to get ready in the bullpen, but Jimenez got EE to hit a harmless grounder to Jimmy Paredes at third base, and the lefty reliever sat back down. He wouldn't be needed until the sixth inning, because somehow our starting pitcher retired the last ten batters he faced and bowed out with 97 total pitches thrown. I had gone from restraining myself against my baser instincts to complain and boo to giving the man a standing ovation and joining in the fledgling chants of "U-BAL-DO!". Yet another surprise from the 2014 Orioles.
Meanwhile, substitute third baseman Paredes powered a solo homer just out of the reach of left fielder Kevin Pillar in the bottom of the second inning to push the advantage back to two runs at 4-2, but the O's bats went quiet for a while afterward. Since neither team was scoring, I maintained a good deal of confidence, but I felt anxious knowing that a walk and a big swing could tie the game. As each defensive inning came to a close, I turned to my sister and updated the outs-to-go countdown. Eighteen...fifteen...twelve...when there were ten outs remaining, I began counting down one-by-one on my fingers, much to the mingled amusement and annoyance of Liz.
The atmosphere became decidedly more celebratory after the seventh-inning stretch. (Thank God I'm a Country Boy!) Hutchison finally ran out of gas, allowing a Paredes single that took a bad hop on second baseman Ryan Goins. Ryan Flaherty hit a comebacker and the Jays pitcher hastily went for the out at second, throwing the ball wildly into center field. With runners on the corners, Nick Hundley struck out, but Toronto manager John Gibbons called for the bullpen. Reliever Aaron Loup's first pitch drilled Nick Markakis between the shoulder blades, much to the anger and dismay of everyone in orange and black. Nick shook it off and took his base, bringing up late-season acquisition Alejandro de Aza with the bases loaded. After working the count full, de Aza roped a line drive down the first base line and into the right field corner for a bases-clearing triple. 7-2, and suddenly victory was a near-certainty.
Darren O'Day, who was serenaded with the trademark "O-Dayyyyyy, O-Daaaaayyyyyy O-Daaaaayyyyy O-Daaaaaaaaayyyyyyy" chant both during and after his work on the mound (in my experience, the fans usually wait until he's done pitching) aimed a breaking ball squarely at Bautista's rear end in the top of the eighth inning, settling the score for Caleb Joseph and Markakis and earning warnings to both teams from the home plate umpire. He then got back to work, teaming with Andrew Miller to strike out the side. The O's loaded the bases again in the bottom of the eighth and settled for a Hundley sac fly that pushed the lead to 8-2. I tried to savor every moment, taking measured sips of my Natty Boh tallboy can so that I'd still have something left to drink after the final out was recorded. A family in the front row of our section had a clinching-themed banner and an oversized bottle of champagne made of cardboard and aluminum foil, complete with white balloons as bubbles. Speaking of balloons, black and orange ones started appearing in the section below us, as if conjured out of thin air.
Tommy Hunter shuffled in from the Orioles 'pen to get the last three outs. We rose to our feet, cameras and cell phones at the ready to record a historical moment. Valencia grounded a ball to Flaherty, now playing third base, on the first pitch.
John Mayberry, Jr. looped a ball into shallow right field, out of the reach of Steve Pearce. Delayed gratification.
Pinch hitter Dalton Pompey hit it down the left field line, and de Aza ranged over to make the grab.
Two outs. The noise swelled. The chants of "Let's Go O's!", which had been peppered throughout the game, took on an inevitable, fevered pitch.
Ryan Goins fell behind 1-2, then topped a Hunter pitch over first base. Pearce scooped it up, jogged forward, and stepped on the bag.
Bedlam. Balloons. Streamers. Fireworks. "2014 AL East Division Champions" in bold capital letters on the scoreboard. The players, coaches, staff, and families raced onto the field. The rest of us jumped, clapped, raised our hands to the air, screamed, cheered, hooted, embraced.
And that was just the beginning of the celebration.