But infielder Kelly Johnson, an Oriole for roughly two weeks, ignited his own impromptu celebration in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off double to give the Orioles a 3-2 win over the New York Yankees. The victory reduced the Orioles’ magic number for winning the American League East division to three.
“It feels like a first-place team -- bounced around just a little bit now, and you just kind of get a feel that it’s meant to be,” said Johnson, who was acquired by the Orioles on Aug. 30 in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. “Things find a way to happen; you find a way to win rather than ways to lose. It’s been pretty cool. I haven’t been here long, but I’ve seen some things I haven’t seen before.”
If they can win twice in their upcoming three-game series against the second-place Toronto Blue Jays that starts Monday, the Orioles can officially do something they haven’t accomplished in 17 years: Claim the AL East title. It would be the first time they’ve clinched the division at home since 1979 and the first time they’ve done it with a victory since 1969.
“But we haven’t done it yet, so when that time comes, we’ll celebrate, and we’ll have a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “That’s the bottom line: Finishing the job, and then we’ll get to celebrate.”
Sunday’s comeback victory occurred on a night in which the Orioles wore special uniforms to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Key’s penning of the Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry. The club also honored Jeter, the Yankees’ retiring shortstop, who terrorized the Orioles for years.
Much of the announced 43,947 may have come to witness Jeter’s last game at Camden Yards, but they left after watching the Orioles’ 30th one-run win of the season.
“We had an electric crowd out there, Derek Jeter’s thing was special, too,” said first baseman Steve Pearce, who scored the winning run. “But it was a big win, a fun win and to do it in front of that crowd was great.”
Down, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth after Darren O’Day (5-1) served up a solo home run to Yankees catcher Brian McCann in the top of the inning, the Orioles rallied with two runs on three doubles against Yankees closer David Robertson (2-5).
Nelson Cruz led off the inning with a double to left field, hustling into second base just before the throw.
“The hit was huge. To lead off the inning in that situation off the closer, definitely gave us a better shot at winning,” Pearce said. “And he busted to second, you could see everyone in the dugout, we all got fired up.”
Pearce followed with an RBI double to score pinch-runner Quintin Berry for the tie. After J.J. Hardy hit a fly ball for the first out, Johnson smacked the first pitch from Robertson deep to the right-center gap.
Johnson, who had spent most of this season with the Yankees, collected just his third RBI for his new club. It came at a perfect time.
“It’s really, really exciting. I’m not going to lie. It feels really good,” Johnson said. “You want to contribute, you want to drive in runs, you want to score runs, all those things, and you want to be a part of it.”
All season the Orioles have preached the need for passing the baton, for having a different person step up to contribute. Johnson was the latest.
“The fact that our pitching keeps us so close gives us a chance to do that. You can’t really take any kind of credit without looking at those guys first,” Johnson said. “The starting pitching, and obviously, the bullpen. When games are that close, it allows a different guy.”
Right-hander Chris Tillman’s career track record isn’t particularly good against the Yankees. Heading into Sunday night, he was 5-5 with a 5.32 ERA in 14 starts. But he has been much better this season, allowing just five runs in three games before Sunday.
The Yankees took an early lead against Tillman with a solo home run by Martin Prado to lead off the second inning. It was nearly a long out, but left fielder Alejandro De Aza mistimed his jump as the ball sailed above his glove and over the wall.
Tillman then allowed consecutive singles, but he used two strikeouts and a pop-up to prevent the Yankees from scoring again. He wouldn’t give up another run, allowing five hits and a walk in 6 2/3 innings.
“It was good. Made a mistake early, just missed it,” Tillman said. “[But] was able to work out of a big inning there.”
It was the 19th consecutive start in which Tillman has yielded three runs or fewer. He tied Milt Pappas for the third-longest such streak in Orioles history; Dave McNally holds the record with 25 in 1968.
“I think it starts and ends with the pitching. Obviously, Tilly was good,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I thought the key situation was after the home run to left field … he really got some key outs there. It’s something we’ve talked a lot of times about it with Chris. That’s a real difference with him -- and a lot of our pitchers -- is they minimize the damage.”
Reliever Andrew Miller struck out three of the batters he faced to bridge the gap between Tillman and O’Day. Orioles pitchers have 11 quality starts in their last 13 games -- while Tillman lowered his season ERA to 3.29 in 32 starts and his ERA against the Yankees this season to 1.96 in four starts.
Yankees right-hander Hiroki Kuroda was just as good. He lasted seven innings and gave up one run and six hits, taking a shutout into the sixth.
With one out, De Aza singled to center field, just the Orioles’ fourth hit of the evening off the 39-year-old veteran. It was the ninth time in De Aza’s 10 games as an Oriole that he picked up at least one hit.
Adam Jones followed with a liner down the third base line that Prado nearly snagged as he jumped. The ball glanced off the tip of Prado’s glove and bounced into foul territory in left field. De Aza blazed around third base to tie the game at 1-1.
It was Jones’ second smash of the game. In the fourth inning, he fouled a ball straight back behind the plate and destroyed an ESPN camera. Jones dropped some choice words and then a smile after breaking the camera.
The game remained deadlocked until McCann’s homer in the ninth -- and then the unplanned celebration in the bottom of the ninth erupted on this celebratory night.
The Orioles wore red-trimmed uniforms with a red-white-and-blue “Baltimore” script on the front of their jerseys and red hats as part of the city’s Star-Spangled Spectacular festivities. Before the game, the Orioles honored Jeter with several gifts, including a bushel of crabs, a U.S. Navy captain’s hat, a cake designed to look like his Yankees jersey and a $10,000 charitable donation in his name.
Jeter played 140 games at Camden Yards -- and he had more success in Baltimore than in any other road stadium. Heading into Sunday night, Jeter had a lifetime .311 average and .383 on-base percentage at Camden Yards while setting career road highs in homers (15) and RBIs (82).
But the 40-year-old Jeter is finishing his splendid career on fumes, hitless in his last 24 at-bats, including going 0-for-4 on Sunday night with three flyouts and a strikeout.
That’s another thing that has changed in the battle between the Orioles and Yankees.
Jeter, a certifiable Orioles killer, was a nonfactor in this series and most likely will miss the postseason in his final year. Meanwhile, the Orioles are on their way to their first division crown since Jeter’s second full season in the major leagues.
“You can't get too caught up in it. We've got to take care of our business,” Jones said. “Once they say it's ours, we go accordingly. But until they do, we've got something to do.”