Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles did not get off to the best start as a franchise, mostly because it took a little while for them to recover from the fact that they began their existence as the St. Louis Browns. They finished in the bottom half of the AL in all six of their Baltimore seasons in the 1950s. That changed quickly, however, as they won 89 games and came in second in 1960, and posted similar records and finishes in four of the next five years. They were pushed over the edge of contention in the offseason of 1965 when they traded for Frank Robinson, who won the 1966 AL Triple Crown and propelled the O's to their first pennant, which was followed by a sweep of the favored Dodgers in the World Series.

Three years later, Earl Weaver took over as the team's manager - and the Orioles began a decade-and-a-half run at the top of the game. Over the next fifteen years, Baltimore would win 94 or more games nine times, capture seven division titles in the newly-formed AL East, and secure five AL pennants and two world titles.

The O's kicked off that stretch of dominance with a bang, as the first postseason game contained within it doubles as their best postseason victory. It is 1969 ALCS Game 1: Orioles 4, Twins 3 (12). The pitching matchup was a pair of fine pitchers with slight caveats; Mike Cuellar was a fine pitcher whose career was outshined by the Hall of Famer in his own rotation, and Jim Perry was a fine pitcher whose efforts were bettered by the Hall of Famer from his own family.

Cuellar and Perry both worked around understandable baserunners in the first, as Rod Carew singled in the top of the inning and was erased on a double play, and Frank Robinson walked with two outs in the bottom of the inning. The only runner in the second was Brooks Robinson, who led off the bottom half with a single and was caught stealing. The starters exchanged flawless third innings, and Cuellar set the Twins down in order in the fourth as well, allowing the Orioles to take the lead when Frank Robinson homered in the bottom of the inning.

Minnesota came back in the top of the fifth when Tony Oliva led off with a double, taking third on an error by the Robinson in right field. Bob Allison brought him home with a sac fly to even the score at a run apiece. But with two outs in the home fifth, shortstop Mark Belanger, who had tied his career high (to this point) with two regular season home runs, homered to put Baltimore back in front. They stayed there through the sixth, in which the only baserunner came on another walk by Frank Robinson, but the Twins took their first lead in the seventh when Harmon Killebrew walked and Oliva homered.

Perry worked around a single by the third base Robinson in the seventh and a walk to Paul Blair in the eighth. Cuellar was lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth, so Pete Richert took the mound in the top of the ninth, and the Twins had a good shot at some insurance when Cesar Tovar led off with a single and stole second, but Richert retired three of the next four hitters, intentionally walking Killebrew along the way.

Perry was still on the mound to open the bottom of the ninth, holding a 3-2 edge. That lead failed to survive the next batter, as Boog Powell hit a game-tying homer to right center. Brooks Robinson then reached second on a single-and-error, ending Perry's stint. Ron Perranoski relieved and ended the inning without allowing a hit - but it was more dramatic than that makes it sound. Pinch hitter Curt Motton reached on an error, with Robinson holding at second. A foulout and a forceout put runners at the corners - and with two away and pinch hitter Merv Rettenmund at the plate, Robinson was caught stealing home. I don't know whether this was a straight steal or a missed bunt or what, but either way, it's a heck of an exciting play in the ninth inning of a tied playoff game.

Eddie Watt and Perranoski traded spotless tenth innings, and Watt was perfect in the eleventh as well. In the bottom of the eleventh, Powell and Brooks Robinson both singled with one out, and a flyout moved Powell to third before Perranoski recovered to strand them. Marcelino Lopez took the mound in the top of the twelfth and quickly got into trouble, starting with a walk to Killebrew. One out later, Ted Uhlaender singled, and a wild pitch moved the runners to second and third. Rich Reese was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Dick Hall relieved Lopez; he struck out Leo Cardenas and coaxed pinch hitter John Roseboro to fly out, stranding all three runners.

Perranoski remained in the game for the twelfth inning, and Baltimore manufactured a run in the bottom of the inning. Belanger led off with an infield single and was bunted to second. Don Buford's groundout moved the runner to third, and Blair then reached on a bunt single to score Belanger with the winning run.

The 1969 Orioles won 109 regular season games and swept the ALCS (in fairly thrilling fashion, as Game 2 was an 11-inning shutout by Dave McNally). This game shows off the great strengths of this team (and all of Weaver's) - they got excellent starting pitching and hit home runs. But it's worth pointing out that they also went against type in both the ninth and twelfth innings, with an attempted steal of home and a rally in which the ball never left the infield and two outs were used to move a runner around.

Given that the Orioles didn't necessarily end up with as much success as you'd hope for in the playoffs, it poses the question of whether the one-run strategies that Weaver scorned in the regular season might have been more worthwhile in October. But in the meantime, it's fun to see the baseball gods signify their approval of the new LCS format by giving it a barn-burner of a first game.

The honorable mention section starts off with a game that WPL likes slightly better than this one - and I do mean slightly, because the games are freakishly similar; they're both 4-3 wins in 12 innings in which the Orioles hit three home runs. The second one is 1996 ALDS Game 4, which clinched the series for Baltimore over the Indians. I went with the game above because Robinson, Belanger, and Powell are slightly more iconic as Orioles than their longballing counterparts from 27 years later, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, and Bobby Bonilla. Also, the '69 O's didn't win the World Series, but they would take it the next year, while the '96-'97 team never made it out of the ALCS thanks to Jeffrey Maier and Armando Benitez (and despite a fine win in Game 2 of the '96 ALCS, which also qualifies for this section.)

Other entries here include Baltimore's Game 4 win in the 2012 ALDS against the Yankees, which was a fine series that the Orioles lost, their 10-inning win in Game 6 of the 1971 World Series, which was started by one of their famed quartet of 20-game winners and saw relief appearances from two more, and a pair of victories from a year in which they actually won the World Series, 1983. The first of the two was the clinching fourth game of the ALCS, which was a scoreless tie through nine despite the following scoring chances: First and second with nobody out for Baltimore in the sixth, second with one out for Baltimore in the seventh, first and second with nobody out (and second and third with two outs) for Chicago in the seventh, bases loaded with two outs for the Orioles in the eighth, and second and third with two out for the Sox in the ninth. The Orioles finally broke through with three in the tenth, clinching the pennant and advancing to a World Series that included Game 4 against the Phillies, in which the Orioles led 2-0, trailed 3-2, and led 5-3, then put the tying runs on base in the eighth and ninth before hanging on for a 5-4 win.

All in all, they had considerably more options here than the Browns.

The Orioles are not the only long-suffering team to move to Baltimore - in fact, they're not even the only long-suffering team named the Browns to move there, as football's franchise with the same name moved from Cleveland to Baltimore about forty years after the baseball version headed for the same destination. Up next, we'll visit the once and current home of the football Browns, and check on their similarly tragic baseball cousins, the Indians.

1 comment:

  1. I missed this when I was first writing the post, but Brooks Robinson getting caught stealing twice in this game was pretty unusual - as in, it was the only time in his 23-year Hall of Fame career that he was caught twice in one game. Which I guess qualifies as slightly more unusual than even a Mark Belanger home run.