TOP OF THE SEVENTH: ORIOLES 5 9 – 4 RED SOX
The Pesky Pole. 302 feet from home. Baseball’s version of a glitch in the matrix, a secret hidden room behind a bookcase, a barely legal offshore tax loophole and the locale of the cheekiest collection of major-league home runs—each one like a three-point bankshot without calling ‘glass’.
Given what happened tonight, some strange magic must be afoot at Fenway Park, with a lightning you hardly see touch down even once striking twice tonight, off the bat of J.J. Hardy and into the hands of the same group of dumbfounded fans thinking, at least by the second time, Did dis dude just did this?
I took a tour of Fenway once, the raggedy old pole being lauded as one of the historic highlights, up there with the Ted Williams seat in right, the Green Monster, the carefully planted Kentucky Bluegrass in the outfield—the type of thing that today’s new parks would sweep under the rug like an embarrassing blemish, but just the kind of detail that makes baseball all kinds of special, all kinds of unpredictable, all kinds of unlucky if you’re a Boston fan tonight watching your team fading just enough in the early season standings to be concerned.
And the Orioles, with a power-heavy lineup rivaled only (if at all) by the Cubs and Blue Jays, looking to become 7-0 and stay standing as the last of the unbeaten teams, a quick sprint to the front of a pack they were never predicted to break away from. (pre-season predictions from CBSSports.com)
So they come into the 7th with a 5-4 lead, sitting pretty but not quite comfortably, with the heart of their order due up.
Manny Machado, youngest and brightest star of the Orioles roster, steps in against Noe Ramirez, a mismatch the equivalent of Stephen Curry being guarded by some always-two-steps-behind lumbering center.
Machado Machadoes a flare single to center, prompting an immediate mound visit from manager John Farrell, hustling out from the dugout with a signal down to the bullpen: Send help!!
In comes Robbie Ross, assigned the tough test of Chris Davis, part of the long list of 2016 Orioles who’ve recently competed in the MLB Home-Run Derby, which must be the most all-time, with five: Davis, Machado, Trumbo, Jones and Alvarez.
Robbie Ross delivers to Davis, nervously but with no other choice than to let it fly. The Sox meanwhile put on a huge pull shift, bringing the third-baseman over between first and second.
Davis takes a big-boy cut and whiffs badly, then fouls one off high, up over the grandstand roof.
With the next pitch he takes an even bigger, longer hack on a low, trailing fastball and he’s struck out, stalking back to the dugout with a swallowed-pride look like he’s just lost a fight.
Mark Trumbo comes up now, still buzzing from the feel of his home run in the 6th that gave Baltimore the lead, a huge two-run blast that cleared everything, the field, the green monster, its billboards, bouncing on top of the tallest and cascading beyond to settle somewhere on Lansdowne Street.
With obvious confidence Trumbo now lines a sure-thing frozen rope into the left-field corner, rolling sharply up against the green mechanical scoreboard, this the fourth time on base for him tonight.
Now rolling through the lineup, Matt Wieters comes up–long-time Oriole and catalyst for the team’s early season success, with a walk-off hit on opening night that started off the win streak.
Base-hit line drive up the middle for Wieters, driving in both Machado and Trumbo to shoot the lead up to 7-4.
Pedro Alvarez steps up now, hitting a weak dribbler to second, Dustin Pedroia tossing across his body for the first-half of a double-play, with the throw the first just late as Alvarez, somehow some way, beats it out.
So now, finally… we’re back where we started, back to the “spooky”, back to the man whose Pesky-Pole-spooning home run earlier in the game has the Boston faithful peeved all evening, up now with the stakes lower, a run no longer really needed, yet with the same odds-defying magnetic charge in his bat just waiting to slap another practical-joke-esque ball down the right-field line and into the scorecard.
A nearly-wild pitch from Ross bounces in front of the plate, blocked by Blake Swihart. Ross reading the signs now from Swihart, Alvarez still on first. The American flag blowing strong way up above centerfield, beneath the giant John Hancock electric sign, the red white and blue banners draped over the padded green walls along the backstop.
J.J. Hardy fouls off a few pitches, steps out of the box and back in, then readies for the next offering from Ross. Nothing to lose here, with the lead secured and a healthy tally of three RBIs on his line for the night.
Hardy swings. Popped up in the air to right. But it’s drifting. Drifting. Again? The Pesky Pole maneuver again? Keeps drifting.
Right-fielder Mookie Betts runs over to the wall expecting a sure catch, and there it is, he’s done it: Hardy snaps out of a casual, routine mid-run to first he watches the ball land in the stands barely 300 feet from home, now trotting between first and second with a grin on his face like he just got away with a crime he’d never even meant to commit, a complete accident, a standard fly ball, a—and this is official—Home Run (…wow) that’s delivered an huge lead back to the Orioles—the 7-0 team record very very close on the horizon.
J.J. Hardy’s second HR was calculated at 339 feet. He has the two shortest home runs this season, both today. pic.twitter.com/zf05Nilj6l
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 13, 2016
And so the house magician of the hour rounds third and jogs home, sauntering into the dugout to a festival of happy grins, with life at an all-time April high for the Oriole fanbase.
The inning ends with the next batter, as Jonathan Schoop grounds out weakly back to Ross, the Orioles heading back out to the field with a completely new feel to the scoreboard as it switches into the bottom of the 7th, and a new frontrunner zooms ahead past the jammed-up jumble of AL East traffic.