The Baltimore Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth inning against the New York Yankees behind by one.
The great Mariano Rivera awaited on the mound at Camden Yards, having never before in his career blown two saves in the month of September.
Baltimore was believed to have the steepest of uphill climbs ahead of them, but Luke Scott broke through.
The power hitter did what many of the Orioles have done during Buck Showalter’s short tenure at the helm: Deliver.
The 32-year-old, who entered the game as a pinch hitter in the seventh, led off the ninth, took Rivera’s famed and relatively unhittable cut fastball high for ball one, but then laced a second, which fluttered into his wheelhouse, over the high right field wall.
He pumped his fist as he rounded first, cheers rained down throughout the ballpark, and Gary Thorne’s jubilantly raised voice beckoned from the Orioles broadcast booth.
Scott’s comments following the game illustrated how rare Rivera’s blown save was: “Considering the situation, the best closer I think that’s ever taken the mound, it’s just another experience that I’ll never forget. I’m thankful for the opportunity and the way things worked out.”
The blast was unexpected, considering it was hit off Rivera, but in a sense it wasn’t altogether shocking. The Orioles are not the Orioles of a few months ago. This is Showalter’s team, a team playing with fire they haven’t possessed in a long time.
They are not only out to play spoiler against the American League’s best, but some are also playing for jobs next year, while the group’s entirety is playing for pride and to prove to their new manager there is hope for the future.
One of their prized pieces of tomorrow, starting pitcher Chris Tillman, struggled, but he managed to limit the damage enough to keep Baltimore within striking distance. The 22-year-old had control issues throughout his short outing, walking six in just 3.2 innings of work. Yet the free passes coupled with the three hits collected by the Yankees led to just three runs and a two-run deficit.
Tillman’s final batter was Brett Gardner, who walked to force in Curtis Granderson from third, and then Matt Albers was brought in to try to clean up his mess and hopefully give Showalter a couple of solid innings of relief.
Albers did just that, as he induced the slumping Derek Jeter to ground out, ending the inning and leaving the bases loaded. Baltimore’s offense couldn’t immediately bounce back against Andy Pettitte, the Yankees veteran making his first start since July, but Albers was very effective in holding New York’s bats at bay.
Everything has changed for the better under Showalter, and that includes the play out of their bullpen. Their relief corps had been one of the major league’s worst for far too many years, and though the statistics put up still are not all too eye-pleasing, today’s performance exemplifies their change of fortune.
Albers pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, and then Mark Hendrickson pitched a perfect top of the seventh, recorded the first two outs of the eighth, and gave way to Jim Johnson, who retired Austin Kearns to notch the Yankees' fourth straight scoreless inning.
The zeros would continue to be put up by Baltimore’s ‘pen, but before they could do so, the offense rewarded them for their efforts by slimming the Yankees' lead. Corey Patterson perfectly placed a drag bunt down the first base line to begin the inning, printing his way for a base hit. Kerry Wood replaced reliever Boone Logan, but that didn’t stop the Orioles from continuing what Patterson started.
Second-year catcher Matt Wieters grounded a single into right field, putting runners on first and third, setting up a third single by Felix Pie, who recently became one of my favorite players, to plate Patterson.
Baltimore was within a run, and then they weren’t, as Scott’s blast completed the comeback after Johnson escaped a first and third jam to toss a scoreless top of the ninth, making Scott’s heroics possible. To extras the American League East foes went, with New York shocked and Baltimore riding a wave of confidence.
The 10th was fairly uneventful for both sides, as Koji Uehara struck out the side in the top and David Robertson had a similarly easy time in the bottom. But then the fun began, with Showalter’s managerial skills taking center stage.
The Yankees quickly put together a threat in the 11th against Mike Gonzalez, as pinch hitter Alex Rodriguez worked a walk and pinch runner Eduardo Nunez scampered all the way to third on a wild pickoff attempt.
A runner 90 feet away just like that, the Yankee fans in attendance were confident their team would finally muster a run to put away Baltimore. But after Marcus Thames succumbed to Gonzalez for a huge strikeout, Showalter played percentages to try to make sure they wouldn’t get their wish.
He had Gonzalez intentionally walk pinch hitter Mark Teixeira, presumably to set up a double-play situation for Jeter. But taking into account Jeter’s ability to deliver in the clutch while ignoring his performance of late, he walked him as well.
This was a gutsy move. He knew the next hitter, Lance Berkman, is slow of foot, increasing the chances a ground ball would result in a double play, but loading the bases put unenviable pressure on Gonzalez to throw strikes.
Miraculously, what Showalter desired came to fruition. Berkman grounded the second pitch he saw from Gonzalez sharply to shortstop Cesar Izturis, and away they went. Izturis threw quickly to second baseman Brian Roberts, and then Roberts threw a bullet to first baseman Ty Wigginton to narrowly get Berkman. Just what the doctor ordered.
The game then came to a fitting end for Baltimore. 7.1 scoreless innings had been tossed by their relief corps, and now it was the offense's turn to truly thank them. Scott led off the 11th with a roped double into the right-center gap and then raced home as Wigginton followed with a liner of his own into the gap. A joyous celebration ensued, with Scott mobbed at home and Wigginton ambushed in the middle of the infield.
It was their 27th win under Showalter, good for the most in the American League East over his first two months—a victory that showed just how good a hire he was by a franchise now moving in the right direction.