ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was the kind of game where disbelief gave way to more disbelief.
But the greatest disbelief came after the ballgame ended.
Chris Davis, author of the titanic home run that served as the only score of a 1-0 Baltimore Orioles victory against the Tampa Bay Rays, stood by his locker and asked how far they said his bomb to center field went.
"Four forty," someone said.
"Come on!" he yelled, a smile creasing his face. Everyone thought the ball went much farther than that, flying so far beyond the 404 sign in the top of the fourth inning that Rays outfielder B.J. Upton simply turned around and watched it soar.
Davis had spent the entire postgame interview session fielding questions while his eyes locked on the bank of televisions overhead. The New York Yankees were about to lose to the Boston Red Sox; they were in the bottom of the ninth in the rain. Things were good – amazingly good. The O's were on the verge of pulling even with the Yankees in the standings with one game to play. Now with all the questions done, Davis walked closer to the TVs, to what he hoped would be a chance to win here Wednesday and maybe clinch the AL East title. It would be the perfect ending to the perfect regular season.
Then Davis and his teammates saw Raul Ibanez send a shot into the right field night. On the multiple screens overhead, the tiny image of Yankees fans jumping up and down was seen. Tie game in the Bronx. And the Orioles clubhouse blew up.
"Who's that pitching?!" one demanded to know.
"I hope they stay [expletive] for a decade!" said another.
Then came the torrent of cuss words, the groans, the sighs.
And the jokes.
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"I hope they play 40 innings tonight!"
"I'm gonna send bad stuff to that guy's Twitter account!"
It was a dagger, yes. The Red Sox had let the Orioles down again. But the humor was far more telling than the anger. Because if you saw this game, witnessed this little bit of orange and black magic here in this crummy baseball building, you know bad omens don't stick to these Birds. By the time the ninth inning was over, the underdogs had all left the room.
Oh well, 161 improbable games deserve another, right? And maybe another after that.
What happens here Wednesday will overshadow what happened here Tuesday, but what happened here Tuesday was sheer baseball beauty. Game 161 meant nothing to the Rays, but they got one of the greatest pitching gems in recent team history from starter James Shields.
"That was the most brilliant performance we have seen all year by any of our pitchers," Rays manager Joe Maddon said in what was actually a happy losing clubhouse.
Shields, nicknamed "Big Game," was better than clutch when it didn't matter. He struck out 15, a club record, and gave up two hits in nine innings. One was his only mistake of the game, a change-up that hung just slightly in the indoor air. Davis obliterated it, landing it on the roof of the restaurant in the deepest part of the park.
That was it. The game was won by Davis, a Rangers cast-off who was basically Josh Hamilton's injury replacement before being traded to Baltimore last season, and O's starter Miguel Gonzalez, whose outlook was so bleak in January that he was forced to choose between a long shot at the club in spring training and a contract in the Mexican league.
He was leaning toward the Mexican league.
"My agent told me to hold on," Gonzalez said. "Stick around, don't rush it."
Gonzalez pitched zero major league innings in the spring. And now here he is, a hero for one crucial, division title-saving night. He threw 101 pitches and allowed two hits over 6 1/3 innings. He was a star.
"It's amazing how things can go," he said. "How things can change."
They changed dramatically Tuesday night, from what looked like the end of the Orioles' division hopes to a shot at avoiding a single-elimination game Friday. Then, after the uniforms were all thrown into laundry bins, they changed back again.
But nothing has changed about the Orioles. They are for real, and they are for certain. They have a power hitter nicknamed "Crush Davis," who has homered in six straight games. They have a closer in Johnson who deserves Cy Young consideration. They have a bullpen which is 74-0 when protecting a lead after the seventh inning. And most amazing of all, they have guys from the brink of oblivion getting big hits and gems. If you think that's hyperbole, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters described some of his teammates as "Pieces we've found."
The pieces all went their separate ways as the Yankees stole the night, but Wednesday they will come together one more time in this dream season.
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"You have to win these games," Johnson said after getting his 51st save, unaware of what was about to happen in the Bronx to make his words even more powerful. "Keep it close. Keep it close."
That's what the Orioles have done all season. That's what they did Wednesday. That's why they're here now, with one more shot at the overwhelming favorites from New York.
Prepare for disbelief.
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