Thome himself said being thrust into a pennant race re-energized him, but it was soon after that a herniated disk left the likely Hall of Famer’s season in limbo.
Thome returned to the starting lineup Saturday for the first time in eight weeks, and the veteran designated hitter provided his team with his biggest hit in an Orioles uniform.
With the Orioles entrenched in yet another extra-inning game, Thome lofted a ball that one-hopped into the right-field stands for an RBI ground-rule double in the 12th inning, the key hit in a 9-6 win over the Boston Red Sox in front of an announced sellout crowd of 37,570 at Fenway Park. The win was the Orioles’ season-high sixth straight.
“Jimmy, when he collides with the ball, usually something happens that you like when he's on your team,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “A lot of guys would have thrown in the towel with some of the issues he had going on with his back, but he grinded through it and came back to make a contribution, and I feel really good for him. He means a lot to our club and the clubhouse.”
As extra innings progressed, the Fenway faithful streamed out of the century-old ballpark, leaving the chants of “Let’s Go, O’s” to fill the seating bowl.
Saturday marked the Orioles’ club-record 16th straight extra-inning win. It was their fourth extra-inning win this season in Boston and their fourth victory in 11 or more innings in their last nine games.
“I think in baseball, I don't want to say you have to have a little luck, but you have to have a little mojo on your side,” Thome said. “You have to be talented. Our bullpen has done a tremendous job, and so have our starters. You can't forget the offense, either. When you play extra innings, you manufacture runs. That's one thing we've done really well. It's not so much always been a home run.”
The win gave the Orioles (87-64), who have won nine of their last 10 at Fenway Park, three series wins in Boston this season. Earlier this month, the Orioles also clinched three series wins at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles, who have an American League-leading 45 road wins, have won nine of their last 11 road series against AL East opponents.
Saturday’s win win helped the Orioles remain one game behind the division-leading New York Yankees, who beat the Oakland A’s 10-9 in 14 innings. The Orioles now lead Oakland by two games in the race for the top AL wild-card spot.
When Thome went on the disabled list July 31, forced to leave the team while it was playing a key division series at Yankee Stadium, it was unclear when he’d be able to return, especially given his history of nagging back problems.
But Thome said he would think about being in situations like Saturday’s when he was rehabbing at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla.
“You want to be a part of what they're doing,” Thome said. “That's what makes you work hard when you're down there. You really don't know. You don't know on rehab how the process is going to go, so being here and being in this atmosphere, you enjoy every minute of it, no doubt.”
Before getting the game-winning hit Saturday, Thome was 0-for-5. But when he came to the plate with one out and Adam Jones on second — Jones led of the inning with a double — he delivered one of the most important hits of the Orioles’ season.
“He’s been around for 20 years,” Jones said. “That’s not even the biggest hit of his career. That’s the biggest hit for us this year, but it’s not the biggest of his career.
“We missed him,” Jones addded. “We missed his leadership. We missed his presence on the bench. He was always positive. He gets people going in the clubhouse, and he came through. I know he was 0-for-5, but you know him. His line is always to keep battling. He did it in a big situation, a big knock.”
Thome’s hit sparked a three-run 12th inning against Red Sox reliever Alfredo Aceves. Endy Chavez later singled home Xavier Avery, who was pinch running for Thome, and Manny Machado drove in his second run of the day with a two-out RBI single.
The Orioles’ bullpen ended the game by throwing four scoreless innings, but the O’s couldn’t hold a three-run sixth-inning lead.
The game-tying run was plated in the eighth on back-to-back two-out doubles by No. 8 and No. 9 hitters Daniel Nava and Scott Podsednik off the Green Monster against struggling reliever Pedro Strop.
Rookie second baseman Ryan Flaherty, making just his third start since returning from the disabled list Aug. 24 with a bacterial infection, hit a two-run triple to the deepest part of Fenway — the nook in right-center — off reliever Rich Hill to give the Orioles a 5-3 lead in the sixth.
Jones added another run the next inning with his 31st home run of the season, a solo shot over the Green Monster.
But the Red Sox rallied in the bottom of the seventh against reliever Jake Arrieta, who allowed the inning’s first three batters to reach base. After Podsednik doubled and Pedro Ciriaco walked, Dustin Pedroia hit a slow grounder up the middle that both shortstop J.J. Hardy and Flaherty converged on at the second base bag.
Hardy scooped up the ball right next to the bag, but was blocked by Flaherty, allowing Ciriaco to beat Hardy there and load the bases with no outs.
Two force outs later, the Red Sox had cut the score to 6-5.
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead in the first, manufacturing a run by moving leadoff man Nate McLouth around the bases after he drew a walk. McLouth stole second, moved to third on a ground out to second and scored on Jones’ ground out to short.
Ryan Lavarnway’s two-out single in the bottom of the first scored Pedroia — who doubled earlier in the inning — to tie the game at 1.
Machado’s RBI single in the second, followed by Mark Reynolds’ solo homer over the Green Monster in the fourth — his sixth in 11 games against the Red Sox this season — gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead.
Left-hander Randy Wolf, signed Aug. 31 to add depth to the bullpen, was given a spot start by manager Buck Showalter based on his career success at Fenway (2-1, 2.73 ERA in 4 starts). The 36-year-old gave the Orioles five innings, allowing three runs on seven hits, including a two-run homer by Danny Valencia in the fourth that tied the game at 3-3.
That seemed like an eternity eight innings later, when the Orioles sealed yet another memorable walkoff win when Jim Johnson recorded his 47th save of the season, extending his single-season club record set on Friday night. Since July 30, Johnson has 17 saves and a 0.43 ERA in 22 appearances.
“The one thing I will say is, there's not some sense of panic or that finality, especially on the road,” Showalter said. “When you don't score in the top of your inning, the game could end. But we had some people get some big outs.”