BALTIMORE – In the middle of the last game of what would be a four-game split between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles here, there was this amusing and perhaps telling little baseball moment.
In the course of a division race, over thousands of pitches over dozens of diamonds, and even in the context of three hours on one brilliant Sunday afternoon, it was meaningless.
But it got me to thinking about who the Yankees are and where the Orioles stand in relation to them, particularly in this September, when sometimes it has felt as though the sky is falling in the Bronx while flowers bloom off Eutaw Street.
There's this thing in baseball about pain. That is, it's not allowed unless there's a stretcher and two EMTs involved, and certainly not ever in the batter's box. Hop around next to the plate like a guy who's just stepped barefooted into a rattrap and forever be that guy in a merciless clubhouse.
Anyway, in the seventh inning of what wasn't yet a runaway win for the Yankees, Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta threw a fastball that struck Alex Rodriguez in the elbow, or where A-Rod's elbow would be if it weren't wrapped in plastic armor. The ball caromed onto the infield grass in the general direction of first base while A-Rod disposed of his various pads.
While this certainly was not any sort of retaliation for the fastball that broke the thumb of Orioles leadoff man Nick Markakis the night before, both clubs might be wary of anything too potentially destructive too close to their bodies for a day or two. Arrieta stood on the mound waiting for a new baseball. A-Rod trotted toward first, veered into the infield, gathered up the ball and tossed it toward Arrieta.
What that may have said was, "Didn't hurt."
Not the pitch, not the series, not the season. Maybe you're coming for us and maybe you're not, and maybe that pitch was 93 mph and should have hurt, but it didn't. We're still the Yankees, we still intend on winning this thing, come inside all you want.
But, didn't hurt.
Arrieta followed the ball as it left A-Rod's hand. He watched it arc across the infield, pass close but not too close to his glove side, thud to the mound and roll to a comfortable place in the grass behind him. Arrieta made no attempt to catch the ball, ignored it as it floated by and instead gazed at the plate umpire, disdainfully waiting for a ball to arrive through the proper channels.
What that may have said was, "We're not backing down."
Not for these four days and not for the next 23. We will not defer to the past 15 years, or the uniforms, or the bluebloods in them or to the smallest charitable gesture. We may be the Orioles, but we're not those Orioles, and we'll come inside all we want.
They'd played for the second time in three days from even atop the AL East. The Yankees would win again, this time by 13-3. They had come in up by a game. By the time a security guard shouted late Sunday afternoon in their clubhouse, "All aboard!" – an urgent reference to the train that waited to take them all back to New York – they remained a game ahead. No blood.
The Yankees and Orioles had split the season series. Now the Yankees would begin a three-game series Tuesday in Boston against a team becoming more dreadful by the day. The Orioles await the Tampa Bay Rays.
For four memorable days, before about 175,000 folks, they'd played for the smallest advantage. At the very end, the Yankees found their swings, leaned up against their bullpen, shook off the drama of the day before and earned their split.
Didn't hurt, they'd insisted.
Arrieta waited for a new ball. The second baseman, Robert Andino, made a move for the one lying in the grass, but Arrieta relented and waved him off. Intended or not, A-Rod had made his point. So had Arrieta.
"I think it kind of rubbed everyone the wrong way a little bit," Arrieta said later. "But it is what it is."
The season moves on. A bag over his shoulder, Rodriguez was in the concourse, in fact, headed for a day off, when he stopped for a moment.
He'd had a hit and scored three runs. After saying at the series' outset that the season now rested with the Yankees veterans and especially those in the middle of the order, he'd homered twice in the series, driven in five runs and scored six. The club will proceed to the playoffs on the backs of its pitchers or not at all, that is understood. But the bats – his, Robinson Cano's, Derek Jeter's, maybe Mark Teixeira's – can cover the occasional bare spot.
He grinned at the mention of the ball he threw toward Arrieta.
"Not a good flip, huh?" he said. "I used to be able to make that when I was a shortstop."
But, the message. Was it intended?
He laughed again.
"All good, man," he said. "All good energy."
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