Adam Jones got a few Camden Yards fans a little pie-eyed—cream pied, that is. Bryce Harper plopped a personalised Washington, D.C. Fire Department helmet on his head and took selfies with teammates. Neither man had to be told otherwise that a possible Beltway World Series loomed ahead, depending upon how the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals handle themselves when the postseason launches.
The Orioles haven’t won an American League East since the second Clinton Administration. The Nats have won their second National League East in three seasons. They both did it with a little style, a lot of substance, and a generous dollop of power in the right places and times, though only the Orioles clinched at home. Which may have made life simpler for the Toronto Blue Jays than the Nats made it for the Atlanta Braves.
“We’ve been grinding our tails off, and now we get to release it,” Jones managed to tell reporters somewhere in the middle of the happy mayhem, after they dropped the Jays 8-2 Tuesday night. “Good things come when you work hard as a unit. This has been a long time coming for the city of Baltimore.
Jones of course referred to a division championship. The Orioles pried their way intothe 2012 postseason, of course, playing in in the wild card game and getting thatclose to upending the New York Yankees in the division series. That’s one obstacle they won’t have to overcome this time around. They’re not getting in by way of a backdoor pass this time.
The Jays and the Braves have those backdoor passes into the postseason to play for, but those aren’t guaranteed just yet. The Jays are five behind the Kansas City Royals but in a dead heat with the Cleveland Indians for the second American League wild card, with the Seattle Mariners four in front of them. The Braves are five and a half behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second National League card as I write, with the Milwaukee Brewers four in front of the Braves and the Miami Marlins just a pair of games behind them.
Anything can happen in baseball and often does, particularly with the postseason about to turn onto the block. It happened for the Nats, didn’t it? In the first third of the season they were several games under .500 and reeling a bit with injuries, Harper’s continuing growing pains, and a few shakes on the pitching staff. They went from there to put on a surge that yanked them from several games back of the Braves to a 12.5 game advantage after Tuesday night.
All they needed behind Tanner Roark’s five-hit pitching and the shutdown bullpen was what Ian Desmond gave them in the sixth inning, with Jayson Werth aboard, when Braves starter Aaron Harang served him a curve ball down the chute with a hit-me sign practically sewn into the hide, and Desmond accepted the offer, hitting it so far up into the left field seats that Atlanta left fielder Justin Upton didn’t even flinch, never mind move.
Not that the Nats objected when Desmond himself chugged home on a ninth-inning wild pitch. A little extra insurance isn’t unwelcome even against a team who seems to be sputtering out of fuel. These Braves lost for the eleventh time in fourteen games and fell below .500 for the first time since opening day.
“Nice to have it done,” said Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche, once upon a time a Brave himself. “The sooner, the better.” The Nats would have to dig deep to find a more satisfying win—last year they finished ten back of the division-winning, postseason-exiting Braves.
The Orioles often seemed the not-in-doubt AL East champs in waiting but it wasn’t that much simpler for them than it was for the Nats. As late as 6 August they had a mere four-game lead over the Jays. Then they went on a 27-11 romp that climaxed Tuesday night with an 8-2 win.
They got it from a few contributors once thought unlikely. Ubaldo Jimenez had struggled with control and an ankle sprain and finally pitched his way out of the rotation. Until Tuesday night. Now, Jimenez, on the bump following following a doubleheader early the previous weekend, shook off five walks in the first two innings to dispose of the next ten Jays.
Steve Pearce saw fit to continue his metamorphosis from role player to semi-regular in the bottom of the first. Actually, that’s phrasing it only too politely. This is a guy who’s 31, spend pieces of seven seasons in the Show without more than 188 at-bats in any of them. A guy who started the season with the Orioles but was designated for assignment in late April for the Blue Jays to claim on waivers. A guy who rejected that in favour of free agency and found the Orioles knocking when Chris Davis went down with an injury.
Since then Pearce has hit eighteen bombs with a .541 slugging percentage and .371 on-base percentage. The eighteenth will probably seal him as an Oriole hero. He hit a three-run homer off Jays starter Drew Hutchinson Tuesday night to stake the Orioles to a lead they never surrendered the rest of the game, not even after the Jays hung up a deuce in the second with a little help from a momentarily miscuing defense.
Jimmy Paredes didn’t even put on Oriole silks until near the end of August. Come the bottom of the second, he drew a leadoff bead on Hutchinson and hit his second pitch over the left center field fence. Alejandro de Aza joined the club even later, coming over in a 30 August deal with the White Sox. In case the Jays got any bright late ideas Tuesday night, de Aza told them fuggedaboutit with a three-run triple.
The cake thus baked, Nick Hundley, yet another role player of little enough previous notice, plopped the candle on it with a ninth-inning sacrifice fly. At least the Jays didn’t have to watch the Orioles celebrate in their house.
And at least the Nats had no reason to rub it in the Braves’ faces over clinching in the Braves’ house, the way last year’s Dodgers did when they clinched the NL West against Arizona. “We’ve still got a chance,”manager Fredi Gonzalez said when the game ended. “Now we’ve got to set our sights on a winning streak and maybe we can come in with a second wild card.” Could be a big maybe.
“It’s just one step,” said Werth. “There’s a long, hard road ahead of us. But we’re going to enjoy the moment for now.”
By now the Nats are aware that the Orioles have the AL East in hand. This could prove very interesting talk, speculation, analysis, and even overanalysis around the Beltway and up the Chesapeake Bay. There could be a delicious regional war come World Series time. Could be.
The Orioles know it isn’t guaranteed, either. “We got one step out of the way,” said right fielder Nick Markakis, who was there for the last six of the Orioles’ fourteen straight losing seasons before experiencing now two out of three postseason-bound years. “Now we have a couple more steps to go.”
And there’s a ball club in Anaheim who may have a few things to say about how many steps the Orioles will get away with. So the Angels got bushwhacked by the Mariners Tuesday night? (A 13-2 rout that began only after Cory Rasmus, their go-to guy for opening the bullpen committee’s fill-ins on injured Garret Richards’ scheduled starts, was out of the game after four innings.)
They can afford to be generous—it’s when, not if they’ll clinch the AL West with a magic number of two thanks to the sputtering Oakland Athletics falling to the long-spent Texas Rangers. It was only the fourth Angel loss in twenty-one games, and the A’s—weren’t they supposed to put the AL West in the bank and even win the Serious?—are reduced to wild card hopefuls.
Nobody in Baltimore is kidding themselves that the Angels will be disposed off that easily come October. Nobody in Washington really believes whoever wins the dogfights in the NL West and Central will be pushovers.
But just in case, nobody in either city is letting Tuesday night’s moments or the late October potential Series matchup linger far from their hearts. It’ll be nice, they must be thinking, to think about potential bragging rights having nothing whatsoever to do with the usual business for which the Beltway region is only too well known.