Written by Mike Laws
Or, How Jim Johnson Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust His Stuff
Orioles 2, New York Yankees 1
It’s now 6 o’clock, as I sit to write this, roughly two hours after Sunday’s surrealist fairytale of a ballgame offered up its final unexpected plot-twist. In that little intermezzo I went out with a couple friends, got some food, watched bits and pieces of a few other games I couldn’t tell you much about now. We mostly joked around some about unrelated topics. If we did happen to mention the broadcast we’d just sat through, it was mostly in the context of that weird thing a certain commentator said. You know the one. In any case I got my mind off the Orioles for a couple hours.
Did I want to divorce from it? To come back to it later, to appraise afresh? Maybe. But if so, it didn’t work. If ever there was one, here was a game that left you with a rich, beefy, complex stew of roiling emotions. At a certain point I think I must have decided just to swallow the blue pill. I Chose My Own Adventure; I went with Glass Half-Full. If there is an undergirding feeling of “wrong decision, right outcome,” this is the last you’ll hear of it.
SO HOW’S THAT MEDICINE TASTE, YANKS? You’ll excuse any gloating, I hope. We just have had so few opportunities over the past fifteen years. Gotta take ’em when you can! Plus, the whole time we watched — or at least for the first eight soul-crushing innings — my one buddy regaled us all with obnoxious tweets from Yankee supporters, for example Where you at now “Bmore fans”? #suckit. So it’s hugely satisfying to be able to throw it back in their faces. Turns out that whole thing about ninth inning at Yankee Stadium being the toughest three outs in baseball — sometimes, well, it works both ways.
So which was more unexpected, the swift sudden comeback to take the lead off their closer — that is, Jim Johnson’s being called up to pitch at all — or Johnson’s actual work in the suddenly necessary Yankee half of the inning?
We’ll start with the offense. Which I don’t need to tell anyone reading this that it hasn’t been exactly red-hot of late. And in typical fashion the Birds fell prey to the wiles and guiles of New York starter Hiroki Kuroda, who delivered eighty-eight baseballs to home plate over seven innings, surrendering three hits scattered across the early going and just the one walk, in his final frame. He also induced ground ball after ground ball and, speaking sort of qualitatively, simply never looked much like giving up a run, even though two of those three hits were doubles with fewer than two away. It’s not even altogether clear (to me, that is — and I’m actually too lazy, if you can believe it, to open another tab in Firefox and try to find out) why Kuroda didn’t return for the eighth. (Eighty-eight is a lucky number in Japan, though, or so I’m told, so maybe he was simply wary of disturbing the delicate balance of his own befuddlingly effective pitcher’s universe.) Whatever the reason, it’s not like David Robertson let his starter down, in that penultimate frame; guy needed just nine pitches to mow down the Oriole side and set up ol’ Mo Rivera.
But what was really probably most nonplussing about this ballgame was that Rivera would enter staked to just that 1-0 lead. Because, though you have to give a ton of credit to T.J. McFarland (who worked a very quiet sixth, and a seventh that should’ve been, but for a botched call — and on a pickoff play where a Yankee was caught up and then clearly out, by the way — though McFarland rallied to strike Ichiro out and make it all moot), and credit as well to Troy Patton and Darren O’Day (combining for a one-two-three eighth), the first half of this ballgame saw starter Jason Hammel having example A in his year of just totally bewildering outings. Of which this was hands-down the most inexplicably efficacious. The right-hander needed a hundred and two pitches to get through five, over which he surrendered six hits while putting two aboard via free pass; and yet he escaped with the Yankees settling for no more than a sacrifice fly. The whole thing was enough to remind you of those three decisive, offensively anemic games played out in the same location last October — and with a similarly gloomy outcome in view.
That all seemed to change with one swing of the bat, in the ninth, against Rivera — and it wasn’t even a fair ball. But something seemed different, it was almost palpable, like it was in the ether, after Nick Markakis’s long swat couldn’t quite slice its way back to the foul pole down the line in right. Or maybe I’m lying and nothing had really seemed like it was gonna change, and we were all confirmed pessimists again, after the ball landed on the wrong side of the yellow by a matter of inches (it looked like), and everyone was saying, you know, “Oh so now it’s 0-2 and Rivera’ll probably just strike him out.” But he didn’t. Nick, ever the professional, rebounded nicely and got his hands inside one of those cutters and punched a ball back up over Rivera’s head and through the middle. Keeping things very much alive, with one away, for Adam Jones, who yes we all know has been scuffling of late, looking like he’s reverted to last year’s playoff form, when he appeared to be trying to win games singlehandedly, and wound up chasing off-speed garbage low and away — but here Jones took a called strike and got a pitch he could drive and didn’t miss, and walloped it way out to left/left-center and — no way, really? — yes, well into the stands, good for a holy-crap 2-1 Oriole lead.
But — and watch me renege on my promise just a little teensy bit, here — was that really Johnson out there, warming? It was. But was Buck really gonna go to his closer, again, and not, say, let O’Day continue and face just his third batter of the afternoon? Or maybe call on Tommy Hunter? Buck went to Johnson. It worked. Today, at least, it worked. Johnson got up on Lyle Overbay; struck him out swinging. He got up ahead of Luis Cruz, struck him out swinging. He fell behind Eduardo Nunez 2-0, yes, it’s true, but didn’t give us (or himself, for that matter) much time to dwell on it, grounding Nunez out harmlessly to first on his next delivery, covering the bag himself for the final out of the ballgame.
Orioles win it, 2-1. And how do we, or I, or whoever, really feel about it all? Maybe we ought to sleep on it. Suspend judgment. Just enjoy — until tomorrow comes and erases the storyline anyway, like it always does — that, however improbable it seems, Rivera was denied his thirtieth save, and Johnson got his instead. God, baseball is so weird sometimes.
AND FINALLY: Manny Machado made a defensive play to end the sixth that I can’t possibly do justice in describing. I can, however, provide you the precise transcript of the conversation Cruz, the batter who hit into the ground ball that Manny knocked down and regathered while being pulled by momentum toward the tarp along the wall over in foul ground beyond the visitors’ dugout — and then somehow rifled the ball from that impossible wrong-footed way-too-far-away position all the way to first, on the money and on the FLY — was then seen to be having with his first-base coach:
LUIS CRUZ (slowing, just past first, at a contented clip): All right all right all right, there we go, keepin’ it crackin’ up in here. Lovin’ it.
FIRST-BASE COACH: Luis, you’re —
LC: Gonna steal this base right here? Yeah, I figured. Cool, cool, I’m —
FBC: No, Luis, I’m saying, you’re ow —
LC: What was that loud popping noise just before I crossed the bag, by the way? Is everybody OK?
FBC: Luis, you —
LC: Aw, naw, it wasn’t me. I feel fine. I think I’d know if it was my own ACL!
FBC: Luis, buddy, you —
LC: You been around this clubhouse too long, skip! I’m not gettin’ injured now too!
FBC: Luis, you’re —
LC: Twenty-nine! Skip, chill! I know I ain’t no spring chicken, but hell, in this clubhouse ...
FBC: Luis, man, you’re —
LC: I know, I know: talking too much. Yeah, but I’m a Yankee! They’ll wait for me! We play at our own pace on this team. Sell the drama. Good for TV. Am I right or am I —
FBC: — out.
LC: Hold up. (Finally turns to face third base. Long beat. Then, laughingly:) Ahhhh-haha, skip! You almost had me! (Beat.) Wait, skip? Where you going? (Confusedly:) Skip, my batting gloves! (Turns again to face third. Beat. Flabbergasted, now:) Are you f--king kidding me?
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