Written by Paul Folkemer
What a series, huh?
The Orioles completed a three-game sweep of the Mariners with another extra-inning win, riding J.J. Hardy’s walkoff two-run single to a thrilling 2-1 victory. The story of the night without question was rookie starter Zach Britton, who twirled the finest game of his already-impressive big-league career with an incredible nine-inning, shutout, three-hit masterpiece. But Seattle starter Jason Vargas was equally dominant with nine scoreless innings of his own, and neither brilliant pitcher was rewarded with a win. The O’s fell behind in the 12th but torched M’s closer Brandon League for the second time in the series for the unforgettable victory.
You know, we really should’ve expected that tonight’s opposing starter, Jason Vargas, would provide the toughest challenge of the series for the Orioles. Yeah, yeah, they faced Rookie of the Year frontrunner Michael Pineda in Game One. And sure, there was reigning Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez in Game Two. But both of those guys were a walk in the park compared to the horror that was in store for the Orioles tonight: a soft-tossing lefthander. Noooooooo!
It never fails. The O’s can knock around one of the best pitchers in the game, yet as soon they’re faced with a southpaw throwing slop, they revert to a group of impatient, hapless hackers who look like they’ve never seen an offspeed pitch before. I call it the Bruce Chen Theory. This has been going on for years, and even the addition of right-handed sluggers Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, and Mark Reynolds this season has done nothing to quell the problem. (In fact, those three guys went 0-for-10 against Vargas this evening.)
Sure enough, Vargas had his way with the Orioles tonight. The only real threat he faced was in the second inning, when an Adam Jones bunt single and a Matt Wieters base hit to left put runners at the corners with one out. But the infallible J.J. Hardy falled-- er, failed-- when he hit a tapper in front of the mound. Vargas, impressively, was able to pounce on it, wheel and fire to second, and start an inning-ending double play. In fact, it was one of three double plays the O’s hit into in the first three innings, with Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts the other victims.
On the plus side, the O’s didn’t ground into any more double plays against Vargas. Of course that’s because they rarely got any baserunners. Vargas worked a perfect fourth inning, and his pitch count after four was just 38. Seriously, Orioles? You’re letting Jason Vargas shut you down averaging less than 10 pitches an inning? What an embarrassment. The O’s didn’t even get another runner into scoring position until the sixth, when Robert Andino (playing left field tonight) led off with his second single and advanced to second on a passed ball. But Roberts and Markakis both popped out to second, and Lee grounded to the catcher a foot in front of the plate.
It’s a shame the O’s couldn’t score, because they were getting an incredible pitching performance of their own from rookie Zach Britton, who made mincemeat of the Mariners’ threadbare lineup. How incredibly, overwhelmingly dominant was Britton tonight? Well, consider this-- the M’s never even get a runner past first base against him. Yeah. That pretty much sums it up. But I’ll continue anyway. Britton allowed a grand total of three baserunners, all on singles, while mowing down 26 of the 29 batters he faced. It was just a montage of weakly hit grounders and routine pop flies as far as the eye could see. Britton pounded the strike zone over and over again and the Mariners couldn’t do a single thing with him. It was truly a sight to behold.
The only Mariner who even tried to sniff second base was Luis Rodriguez, who-- after reaching on a fielder’s choice in the fifth-- foolishly attempted to swipe the bag. Wieters delivered a throw so strong that the ball was waiting at second base 10 minutes before Rodriguez arrived. When will opposing teams learn? You don’t run on Matt Wieters. Silly rabbit! It wasn’t the last time the Birds would flash the leather. Roberts made a couple of very nice defensive plays, twice ranging far behind second base and throwing out a runner at first to take away a sure hit. “The defense was fantastic today,” said an appreciative Britton.
The young lefty retired the final 13 batters he faced, and he barely broke a sweat. His pitch count was at 99 after eight innings, and Buck Showalter sent him back to the mound in the ninth. Now that’s showing confidence in the rookie. “We felt like with the tempo and the effort [and] where we were in the [batting] order, we’d at least take him through Ichiro [Suzuki],” Showalter said. The skipper’s faith was rewarded, as Britton put up a 1-2-3 ninth inning to cap his unbelievable performance. He received a standing ovation from the Camden Yards crowd of 19,082 as he left.
I think one word encapsulates this performance: “Wow.” If you didn’t already know Zach Britton is good, tonight was his coming-out party. He pitched nine innings (the longest stint by an O’s pitcher this year). He allowed zero runs, and zero runners in scoring position. He gave up only three hits, all singles. He didn’t walk a soul. And he struck out five. Yes, he was facing a weak Mariners lineup, but he was overpowering all the same. Britton threw 76 pitches for strikes, and only 32 for balls. Did I say “Wow” already? “I think he had two or three three-ball counts the whole night,” Showalter said. “He didn’t let the hitter dictate the pace.”
“I was incorporating all of my pitches today,” said Britton. “Not walking guys is huge, too. My job was to keep us in the game as long as possible. I’m just focused on giving the team innings.” Yeah, I’d say nine is more than enough-- and it was a first for Zach, too. “It’s the first time ever. Normally in the minors they cut you short a little bit, so that’s the first time I was able to get nine.”
The shame of it is that Britton didn’t even get to win his epic showcase. Because Vargas was just as effective-- or perhaps the Orioles’ offense was just that putrid. The O’s had a chance to finally crack the scoreboard in the eighth when Reynolds drew a leadoff walk, the first (and only) free pass by either starting pitcher tonight. Showalter, though, made the questionable decision to have Andino bunt-- despite the fact that he was 2-for-2 and was the only O’s hitter having any success against Vargas. Andino’s sacrifice was successful, but it brought up the ice-cold Roberts and Markakis. Brian grounded to third and Nick struck out looking. Of course. “We just haven’t centered up some balls,” Showalter said. “We’re taking some swing where we’re not able to square up some pitches. We’re going to have to be better offensively.”
Vargas, too, pitched into the ninth, and he fired a perfect inning to close his evening. Geez, what a pitcher’s duel-- when’s the last time you saw both starting pitchers throw nine full innings? “Vargas was everything we thought he’d be,” said Showalter. “He’s got great command. He’s got a lot of ways to get you out. Cutter, works both sides of the plate.” Vargas allowed seven hits-- all singles-- and struck out four in his scoreless nine. “You just tip your hat to that guy,” said Britton.
As the scoreless tie stretched into extras, it became a battle of the bullpens. Kevin Gregg, pitching for the third straight night, aggravated O’s fans everywhere by walking the first batter of the 10th, Justin Smoak. The runner was bunted to second by cleanup hitter Miguel Olivo, and then the Birds intentionally walked Jack Cust. The decision paid off, as Gregg got Mike Wilson to bounce into a first-pitch, inning-ending double play.
The Birds went down quietly in the 10th and 11th against Jamey Wright, and finally the M’s plated the game’s first run in the top of the 12th. Jim Johnson, who had tossed a perfect 11th, stayed in the game and gave up a leadoff infield single to Ichiro. Chone Figgins failed to lay a bunt down but ended up advancing the runner anyway with a groundout to second.
Adam Kennedy followed with a grounder to short as Ichiro bolted for third. J.J. Hardy thought about throwing to third base, but settled for the sure out at first. That decision came back to haunt him when the next batter, Olivo, lashed an RBI single to left to plate Ichiro. Twelve innings in, the Orioles had fallen behind, 1-0. Bleh.
But folks, the Orioles have had a secret weapon on their side in this series, and his name is Brandon League. The Seattle closer, who entered the series a perfect 9-for-9 in save chances, blew the lead in the first game of the series...and I’m happy to report that he collapsed again tonight. Lee tagged him for a leadoff single, and then League completely lost the strike zone. He foolishly plunked Guerrero on an 0-2 pitch, then drilled Jones on the very next offering.
Bases loaded, nobody out for the Birds! The enthusiastic O’s fans-- most of whom had stuck around for the full 12 innings-- rose to their feet in a loud groundswell. This was a great crowd tonight. Wieters nearly delivered the huge hit, lacing a first-pitch liner to the left side...but the shortstop Rodriguez made a great diving catch for the first out, focring the runners to hold.
Were the O’s going to squander this golden opportunity? Happily, no. The next batter was Hardy, and he sent the fans home happy by grounding a base hit up the middle. Lee scored the tying run, and Jake Fox (pinch-running for Guerrero, in what was an uncannily prescient move by Showalter) dug for the plate, sliding in safely ahead of Michael Saunders’s throw.
ORIOLES WIN! Another last at-bat, extra-inning, comeback victory. This is fun stuff, folks. The M’s are a lousy team, but a walkoff win is a walkoff win. And a quick one, too-- this game clocked in at only two hours and 42 minutes despite going 12 innings. How often does that happen?
The three-game sweep was the Orioles’ first since their opening series of the year in Tampa. Speaking of which, the Orioles will now hit the road for a three-game series in Tampa. Hopefully they can take this momentum with them. Johnson (2-1) got the victory in relief, the ninth of his career...which ties him for 108th place on the all-time O’s win list with such stalwarts as John Habyan, Pat Hentgen, and Todd Williams! League fell to 0-3. Orioles win, 2-1, in 12 innings.
MLB.com Box Score
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