Rex Hudler became the first player ever to hit a home run into the Club Level at Camden Yards yesterday. But it wasn't even his most impressive -- or important -- at-bat.
That came two innings after his first-inning monster shot. After fouling off three pitches on a 3-and-2 count, Hudler stayed with a pitch that was down and away and flipped it into the right-center-field gap for a two-run double.
The hit erased the Orioles' 2-1 lead and sparked a four-run inning that finished left-hander Jamie Moyer. Had he been able to handle Hudler, Moyer would've survived and the game most likely would've taken on a different story line.
There was one out and two runners on base when Hudler came to the plate in the third inning. With Tim Salmon and Chili Davis behind him in the batting order, Hudler was the hitter Moyer had to get out.
"That was probably the biggest at-bat for me, and the key was falling behind in the count," said Moyer. "It got to 3-and-0, then 3-and-1, but I couldn't afford to walk him and face Salmon with the bases loaded.
"I've played with Rex and he's a good hitter, but he'll swing into some outs, too, because he's so aggressive. But I could tell it was a very comfortable at-bat for him. He fouled off three straight changeups -- and let's just say he wasn't fooled by any of them."
Moyer decided to try a sinker and the pitch wasn't in a bad location. It may even have been just out of the strike zone. "Most guys would hit that pitch on the ground," said Moyer, "but he hit a line drive that was right at Manny [second baseman Alexander] -- but over his head."
Hudler concurred he felt comfortable against Moyer. "I feel like I can handle any of his pitches," he said.
Still, he had the discipline to take a fastball down the middle for the second strike because he was looking for something off-speed. "When I took it, I said 'you just missed a chance for a two-dinger game.' But I put it out of my mind right away."
Then, it became a battle of wits between pitcher and hitter, similar to, but not of the same magnitude as, the duel between Lee Smith and Cal Ripken that ended the game. Hudler and Smith won their personal duels and the Angels prevailed.
Hudler was so moved by the experience he called it "one of the most emotional games I've ever played."
And it's only June.
"What a place to be," Hudler said shortly after Ripken lined to center field on a 3-and-2 pitch with the tying run on third and the potential winning run on first base. "It was a thrill to be wearing a big-league uniform and playing in that game. I almost feel guilty."
The Orioles are one of several former teams for Hudler, who has taken his act around the globe. Yesterday he took his journeyman role to another level -- the club seats.
But he's still a dirt-and-grime kind of guy -- and when he says it's a thrill just to wear a big-league uniform, you don't question his sincerity. He's played at enough different levels to appreciate the difference.
Against the Orioles yesterday, he was the difference.