Orioles center fielder Adam Jones talks about his walk-off home run off Twins reliever Fernando Rodney in the 11th inning. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
An Opening Day that seemed scripted for disaster Thursday at Camden Yards ended with the longest-tenured Oriole — center fielder Adam Jones — as the hero.
After the Orioles blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning Thursday and failed to score the winning run in the 10th with the bases loaded and one out, Jones wasted no time in the 11th, lining Fernando Rodney’s first pitch into the left-field stands for a 3-2 walk-off win over the Minnesota Twins.
That’s the way the Orioles have treated Opening Day of late, a game full of excitement and optimism that they’ve ended with a dramatic final act. Jones’ homer made it the third straight year that the Orioles have won in walk-off fashion on Opening Day at Camden Yards.
Last year, Mark Trumbo’s solo homer in the 11th against the Toronto Blue Jays ended it, and in 2016, the Orioles also squandered a two-run lead to the Twins before Matt Wieters won the game in the ninth on a walk-off single. All three were 3-2 victories.
“Doesn't matter how it comes,” Jones said, “as long as you win the game at the end of the day. It was a beautiful game. Obviously we wanted to win it in nine, but I can't see that anybody complains about a win, no matter how late you have to go and get it.”
The victory was the Orioles’ eighth straight on Opening Day, extending the longest active streak for an American League team.
The fact that Jones — who was making his 11th Opening Day start in center field with the Orioles, trailing Paul Blair’s franchise record at the position by one — was the hero was fitting. He is the team’s longest-tenured player, making his first Opening Day start at the age of 21. Since then, he’s become the most decorated Oriole of this era — trips to five All-Star games and four Gold Gloves on his resume while providing the heartbeat of three playoff clubs in a five-year span — and he’s grown as a player and a person. He’s now a husband and a father of two young boys, which he said makes every Opening Day on the field special.
“Each one is more and more special because it shows I’ve been able to maintain and stay in the big leagues,” Jones said. “I think this one is probably more important because my kids are able to talk a little bit better and they understand what’s going on better. And that’s who I play for. ... It's very, a lot going on I should say. [My] little boys here to watch me, my whole family here to support me, so it's important and a big Opening Day. I'm glad we got the win and it was cool that I was able to get the big hit, but I'm just glad we got the win.”
Said Orioles manager Buck Showalter: “I think we all know what Adam … One of the biggest things that Adam’s brought here is he posts up. … One of the first guys I spent some time with when I got here was Adam. So obviously I’ve got a little special affinity for the things he brings. I understand him and the rough edges we all have, but he’s very consistent. Especially with his baseball. You know what you’re getting every night. That’s a lot of games to not ever walk up the runway and not feel like he wasn’t ready to play.”
Jones stepped to the plate to open the bottom of the 11th hitless in four at-bats, including two strikeouts. He sat on a first-pitch fastball from Rodney, and turned on it with an estimated 392-foot blast over the left-field wall.
So did Jones’ teammates. Manny Machado reached for an cooler of orange Gatorade that would soon be doused onto Jones’ back. Right fielder Craig Gentry lurched for a water cooler and carried it onto the field.
“I was heading for the water cooler,” Gentry said. “I love walk-offs. I was kind of feeling that something was coming and, to be honest with you, I didn’t even see it. I just saw it flying out. That’s a good feeling, especially extra innings, Opening Day. Just a lot of emotions going.”
Jones rounded the bases, then slammed his helmet before running into a mob of teammates at home plate. Machado and Jonathan Schoop then delivered shaving-cream-covered towels to Jones’ face as he did his postgame TV interview.
“It was a perfect spot for the perfect guy, on an Opening Day,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, whose two-run triple in the seventh accounted for the Orioles’ only runs before Jones’ blast. “Nobody knows what the future holds. It was just almost like it was scripted from the beginning, and we were just reading the book, right? He's such a great teammate. He comes to work every day, posts up, never complains. You know what you're going to get out of him. You can trust him. He's a great dad; he's a great teammate. He's a poster child for the Orioles.
“And when I first got called up, I wanted to be like Adam Jones, you know? The way he played the game, the way he hustled, the way he went about his business. The guy just keeps proving his worth over and over and over. And I've told people, I think he's one of the most underrated players in the big leagues. I know he does have All-Star games and Gold Gloves and notoriety, but he's a piece you build around. Obviously, he's done that, and to be a teammate of his has been an honor and a pleasure.”
This could be the opening chapter to the final season Jones plays in Baltimore. Jones — along with Machado and late-inning relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach — are eligible for free agency after this season.
“Who knows?” Jones said of his future. “But right now I’m here and it’s awesome. So [I’m] happy about that.”
The Orioles had an opportunity to win in the 10th, but couldn’t take advantage of a bases-loaded situation when Schoop hit into an inning-ending double play.
In the 10th, pinch hitter Colby Rasmus drew a leadoff walk from Twins reliever Trevor Hildenberger. After a sacrifice bunt by Joseph moved Rasmus to second, Chris Davis was walked intentionally and Twins manager Paul Molitor inserted Rodney to face Machado.
Machado looped Rodney’s first pitch into shallow center, and center fielder Eddie Rosario deked the base runners, holding his glove up as if he were making the catch before the ball dropped in front of him. Rosario had Chris Davis hung up between first and second, but no one was covering second base, and Davis slid in safely, a play that was confirmed by video review. Schoop, who was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts Thursday, then hit a grounder to Eduardo Escobar at shortstop against a drawn-in infield that ended in a 6-2-4 double play.
Before that, Brach couldn’t hold a two-run ninth-inning lead after right-hander Dylan Bundy pitched seven scoreless innings.
The ninth started easily enough for Brach, as he struck out Miguel Sanó on five pitches, blowing a 95 mph fastball by him for the first out. But Rosario then reached on a chopper to Davis that he appeared to lose in the lights and skipped past him for a single.
Rosario went to second on a passed ball and Brach walked Logan Morrison on four pitches. Brach then struck out Escobar on seven pitches by getting him to swing through a full-count splitter.
Max Kepler drew an 11-pitch walk to load the bases, a plate appearance in which Brach was ahead 0-2 and Kepler fouled off five pitches.
After a mound visit from pitching coach Roger McDowell, Brach fell behind pinch hitter Robbie Grossman 3-1 before allowing a bloop single that dropped just out of the reach of Machado in shallow center field. Two runs scored, quieting the Camden Yards crowd.
“Borderline pitch could have gone either way, 3-2,” Showalter said. “Gives up a — I’ll call it a flare — today that broke the guy’s bat and he dumped it into center field after we get a ball in the sun we can’t see. That’s why you don’t play the game on paper and completely analytically, because things like that you can’t evaluate. So many things that happen in innings like that.”
Mychal Givens entered and retired the next batter. Brach’s outing was the only blemish in an otherwise solid pitching performance by the Orioles.
Showalter went into the season having told his top relievers — Brach, Darren O’Day and Givens — that he didn’t plan on naming an interim closer, but that all three should regularly be ready for save opportunities. O’Day pitched a scoreless eighth Thursday and Givens continued with a scoreless 10th.