For much of my lifetime, the battle for the American League East crown has come down to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, hated rivals that have annually made September a fierce, nerve-wracking fight to the finish. While they have tussled atop the standings, the Baltimore Orioles have been bottom dwellers, an afterthought with continuously not enough hitting and ineffective pitching. This season is a different story. This season, Baltimore has assumed Boston’s role, playing meaningful September games against New York as its equal, breathing down its neck with a realistic chance at surpassing the perennial power.
The Orioles, backed by a lineup full of accomplished hitters in their primes and a vastly improved pitching staff, entered their series against the Yankees three games back of the division leader, looking to gain ground on the road in a pivotal three-game set. And, not surprisingly, they continued to prove they belonged, remaining a thorn in New York’s side to further increase the anxiety level in the Bronx.
For Friday’s opener, Baltimore turned to 28-year-old rookie right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, who spent two years on the shelf due recovering from a torn meniscus and Tommy John Surgery. Healthy with his injuries well into the past, he was on point, pounding the strike-zone, getting ahead of hitters, and offsetting a lively fastball with well-placed offspeed pitches. New York was baffled, as he allowed just one run on four hits in seven innings, while striking out a career-high nine. He let only one Yankee reach base through five innings and didn’t issue three balls to a hitter until the sixth. He was awarded with his sixth win as Baltimore dominated for a 6-1 victory. In two starts against New York, he has struck 17 batters while issuing just one free pass. The success certainly didn’t surprise manager Buck Showalter, who has also played a significant role in the franchise’s turnaround.
“I think he’s a guy that’s just letting it fly and trusting himself,” he said to The Baltimore Sun. “He doesn’t have anything to lose. Heck, he’s had a lot of people in his career tell him that he couldn’t do something and I think he knows he’s in a place where people get him and know what he brings.”
“Unbelievable,” added Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds. “[He] threw strikes all night. Guys who throw strikes, it’s a lot more fun to play defense behind. Keep you on your toes. Some quick innings, get you back into the dugout. He didn’t make many mistakes.”
Neither did Reynolds, who flashed the leather at first in snagging short-hops and leaping for liners while also doing a significant amount of damage at the plate. He crushed two homers in the victory, one a two-run shot and the other of the solo variety to provide all the run support Gonzalez and company would need and a dash extra.
Reynolds, 29 and in his sixth major league season, is primarily known for three things: prolifically hitting home-runs, striking out at a record-setting pace, and carrying a gigantic bag of sunflower seeds in his back pocket that, while manning first base, he manages to snack on between pitches. He did a lot of seed-eating and homer-bashing against New York in this series, and not much of the swinging and missing that has hurt his overall effectiveness. And he, who hit 44 blasts for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, wasn’t done depositing balls amongst deflated Yankees fans.
After the Orioles tossed away Game 2 of the series by giving up three seventh-inning runs to fall 4-3, Reynolds was at it again. This time, pitcher Phil Hughes was left to somberly watch the flight of two crushed offerings. The first was a solo shot in the fifth, a no-doubter to left, and the second came an inning later, another moonshot deep into the seats that had brilliant MASN announcer Gary Thorne all riled up. With that, Reynolds had helped turn a 2-0 deficit into a 5-3 lead that would only increase.
Reynolds’ latest power display was the crowning touch to his impact over the past few weeks. In the last 23 games, he is hitting .315 with eight homers, 13 total extra-base hits, 14 runs scored, 16 rbi, and 13 walks. Over that span, the Orioles are 15-8, putting them two games back of New York, primed for their first postseason birth since 1997, when a guy named Cal Ripken Jr. was the team’s backbone.
Unlike in Ripken’s time, it isn’t just a one man show in Baltimore these days. Gonzalez has had help, and so has Reynolds. Due to their contributions of these two and so many others, the Orioles won all three road series against NY for the first time since 1976. Additionally, they won their fifth and sixth games in the Bronx this season–the total number of victories they had at Yankees Stadium over the previous three seasons combined. And they also improved their record to a remarkable 67-0 when leading after seven innings. Now they are more than just within striking distance of a team that has rarely seen them as a dangerous threat. They are knocking at the reeling Yankees door, with a series against their foe at Camden Yards next weekend, primed to leapfrog New York.
They aren’t getting ahead of themselves, though. They are taking it one play, one game, and one series at a time. And they are as relaxed and driven as can be.
“Everyone in here is having fun and going out and playing hard,” Reynolds said to the New York Times. “We’re right where we want to be.”
They may soon be somewhere else, somewhere they aren’t accustomed to. A place that has the Yankees in the rear-view mirror.