Hyun Soo Kim – the South Korean import whose spring training struggles had the Orioles trying to send him to the minors to open the year – might have saved the
Hyun Soo Kim has hit 148 career home runs, all but six coming in the Korean Baseball Organization, but his two-run, pinch-hit homer in the top of the ninth inning at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday night – a blast that gave the reeling Orioles a much-needed 3-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays – was without a doubt the biggest.
"First," Kim said through interpreter Danny Lee when asked how where it ranked. "It's No. 1…No. 1."
Kim — the Korean import whose spring training struggles had the Orioles trying to send him to the minors to open the year — might have saved the Orioles' season by coming off the bench and giving his team the clutch hit they were missing through their first 17 innings here in Toronto with their postseason hopes on the line.
He saw Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna's entire arsenal – fastballs, changeups, sinkers and sliders – in a nine-pitch at-bat that he extended with four foul balls before sending a full-count, 95-mph fastball over the right-field wall to silence a shocked crowd of 44,668.
"I think that's what it's all about," said right fielder Mark Trumbo, whose 46th homer of the season represented the Orioles' only run going into the ninth. "I think everyone in the dugout was going nuts. Obviously, that was a really hard-fought win, but especially to be him. That was great. … This is a very tough place to play. The fans, they're always giving it to you and they're very passionate. Sometimes it's tough to get something going, but a moment like that, that was big for us."
Coming off the bench has been an adjustment for Kim, who earned the moniker of being Korea's "Iron Man" for playing every day. Now, he's mostly used against right-hander pitching. But he's excelled off the bench, going 6-for-9 with two walks as a pinch hitter, reaching base eight of 11 times.
"There's no secret as to why I've been so successful pinch hitting," Kim said. "I'm just happy I'm put into that situation because it's always clutch situations. So I'm enjoying and I'm doing well with it … I really try to be ready when I have to hit. That helps me a lot."
The Orioles had scored just two runs in their first 17 innings in Toronto, where they had lost six of eight this season through Tuesday night. Even with Wednesday's win, they've scored three runs or fewer in 10 of their past 11 games.
A loss Wednesday would have been a dagger for the Orioles' postseason hopes, especially with both teams chasing them having favorable schedules down the stretch. But Kim's homer provided an injection of life into the Orioles.
"It was big," Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman said of the win. "I think that could push a team a long way in wins. It was a big team win and I think everyone played a part in it. … It was priceless, [Kim] coming in the dugout with big smile on his face. Not a better guy for that to happen to."
The win kept the Orioles one game ahead of the Detroit Tigers — who moments before Kim's homer took the lead on Miguel Cabrera's eventual game-winning three-run homer — for the second American League wild-card spot with four games to play. The Seattle Mariners are two games back.
The Orioles are now one game behind the Blue Jays for the top wild-card spot, and would pull even with the Blue Jays with another win Thursday.
"It's been a while, not just this year," manager Buck Showalter said of the team's resilience. "It's been going on for a while. … I know our city and our organization are proud of that type of baseball. We're trying to continue to play it, just like Toronto has. You have two good clubs competing at a high level and there is a small margin for error."
The Orioles (86-72) trailed throughout, spoiling scoring opportunities throughout the night.
They woke up late. Mark Trumbo's solo homer in the eighth off Jason Grilli cut the gap to one.
Jonathan Schoop looped a one-out single to right in the ninth, and pinch runner Michael Bourn stole second base before Kim came to the plate to pinch hit for Nolan Reimold.
The Orioles haven't been good against lefties all season, and Blue Jays starter Francisco Liriano held them scoreless for 6 1/3 innings, striking out 10 batters and giving Toronto back-to-back 10-strikeout outings from its starters for the first time in more than five years.
The Orioles had their chances earlier in the game. They put their first two batters on base in the fourth on singles by Adam Jones and Chris Davis, but Liriano then struck out the Orioles' 3-4-5 hitters — Manny Machado, Trumbo and Trey Mancini — to escape that jam.
They loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth, but Davis struck out looking on a curveball at the letters to end that inning.
And in the seventh, the Orioles had two on with one out, chasing Liriano from the game, but left-hander Brett Cecil struck out Reimold and received a fine defensive play from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on Jones' grounder in the hole to end the inning.
After Trumbo's homer in the eighth, pinch hitter Pedro Alvarez doubled, but Matt Wieters flied out to left to strand the potential tying run in scoring position.
Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman allowed just two runs, one earned, over 5 2/3 innings, but two errors in the first inning were costly.
Tillman jumped off the mound to field Toronto leadoff hitter Ezequiel Carrera's roller to the right side, but his toss to Davis at first hit his midsection and was dropped.
Tillman then made an errant pickoff throw past Davis that gave Carrera third base, and he scored on Edwin Encarnacion's sacrifice fly.
The Blue Jays (88-70) added another run in the second when Tulowitzki, who hit a one-out double, scored when Kevin Pillar hit a shallow sacrifice fly to right; the ball came out of Trumbo's hand slowly and was cut off by Davis before Tulowitzki's slide at home.
"It starts with Tilly," Showalter said. "We gave them a couple of things early, uncharacteristically. Chris kind of shut it after that. He was wild in the strike zone tonight, but he kind of found his way a little bit. That is a tough lineup to hold in check."
The Orioles bullpen accounted for 3 1/3 scoreless innings, no out more important than left-hander Brian Duensing's strikeout of Melvin Upton Jr. with the bases loaded in the eighth.
Closer Zach Britton retired the Blue Jays in order in the ninth, striking out two for his 47th save to remain perfect on the season.