BOTTOM OF THE ELEVENTH: BLUE JAYS 5 (2) – 2 ORIOLES
It’s the eleventh inning of the A.L. Wild Card game. Ubaldo Jimenez steps onto the mound with the 162-game weight of a quavering Orioles season on his back.
“Once upon a time,” says Eddie Johnson, “this guy was unhittable.”
Once upon a time. The long-ago start to a fairy tale ending not so well at all. He comes in and throws a meatball two-seamer over the plate to Devon Travis, a single ripped over Machado and onto the turf carpet in left. He throws the same pitch again to Josh Donaldson, who lines the same hit onto the turf in left. Travis heads to third.
The ballpark’s chanting, flashing blue towels and each one standing, rising into a big proud quilt of fanatics.
The TBS cameras pan across to the Baltimore dugout. No movement for the bullpen phone. A manager sticking to his “guns”. An old vet flinging wiffle-ball lobs for the other side. A sniper left marooned in the bullpen—Zach Britton and a sterling 0.54 ERA. Pent up and tied beyond the outfield wall. Buck Showalter on the dugout stoop, driving the state of Maryland to insanity.
Buck: “The game is on the line, you should probably go to Britton here.”
Buck: “But it’s not a save situation and ubaldo is warmed up…” pic.twitter.com/adjKSRRAQw
— Orioles Memes (@OriolesMemes) November 17, 2016
Britton should start the 8th, they’d said. Brach had served instead.
Alright, the 9th, they’d said. O’Day.
Alright, they’d said again—Buck has some plan, deep down. Britton for the 10th. Britton for the 11th?
Duensing had come in to start the 11th.
Britton are you okay, they’d said, are you okay Britton?
Duensing had struck out Ezekiel Carrera. Showalter had trotted out to the mound. Britton, they’d said. At least we’ve finally got our guy. How wrong that all could’ve gone, but we’ve got him now. Safe for one more inning at least. There’s a shot.
The tall blue doors to the bullpen had opened—out came Ubaldo.
Speechless groans from an entire fanbase and the vision of a season ending. The year on the line and the best pitcher in baseball in a bullpen straitjacket. Buck Showalter KO’d by some unseen glitch, a mis-wiring in the bullpen phone. A handshake deal with Meyer Wolfsheim.
— Dansby Glennon (@glennon247) October 5, 2016
Never the guy for this situation. The last man ready on the roster, with a superstar kept offstage. Never the guy to last-minute save any kind of game at all.
Unless you’re thrown years back into the past. On the bus en route to a high school soccer game. Playing cut-throat rounds of the Baseball Name Game.
And a teammate comes with “Andruw Jones.” Across the aisle the next in line it goes “Jose Canseco.” The bus rattles in and out of a pothole and you shout out “Chase Utley!” You give them U, the all-brutal U. A voice chimes out from the back, the turns going round in a circle—and like an elder guru of the game, some wise opponent comes with one of the great ones. The reversal. “Ugueth,” they say. “Ugueth Urbina.” The jaw-dropper. The slam. Double-letter reversal of the highest order. And the turn swings back to you. U to U to U to you.
And you’re stuck. You think, you think, you stay stuck. Then you flipbook back through your youth. U… U… Unseld… Wes Unseld… Urban Meyer… Umbridge… Underwood… Unctuous… Unguent… and then… it hits you. You’ve got one. You think of a team, purple and black and gray. The ’07 World Series. The Colorado Rockies. Starting pitcher. Number 38. Ubaldo, you think in sweet relief. Ubaldo Jimenez.
“Ubaldo Jimenez,” you spit out, with the clock running out, to a round of Oooooh’s from the hangers on. The back-bus mic gets dropped. You throw down your U and you’re off the hook free. It goes J to the next guy. Ubaldo comes through. The non-Ubaldo Ubaldo, the collection-of-letters Ubaldo. The set-of-initials Ubaldo. Not the pitcher Ubaldo.
Never the pitcher Ubaldo. Maybe then, maybe back when, but never now.
Never in 2016. Never now, in this Wild Card game of sudden death. Never against Toronto, in the rowdy dome of the Rogers Centre. In the 11th inning. Never when you’ve kept Zach Britton hogtied back in the bullpen.
And never, never! when you’ve got Edwin Encarnacion striding up to the plate. When he sets up, cranks back and unfurls a first-pitch swing into a blast, rocketing off into the second deck in left.
When it’s game over—5-2, Blue Jays win.
The crowd roars as Encarnacion lets the ball fly and runs on toward first, a whole dome shaking with the national voice of our neighbors to the north.
Uncle Buck waddles in the clubhouse slumped over and shamed. He’d had a chance to pull the plug. About fifteen chances to pull the plug. To switch out for the Britton connection. Didn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.
And so the beloved, invisible parrot flies down onto Edwin’s side-cocked forearm. Lands onto his blue sleeve and flaps its wings in jubilation. Joins in to the fun of a Gatorade ice bath, a jumbled scrum at home plate. Squawking out to the crowd in joy.
— RussellHodson2 (@RussellHodson2) December 28, 2016
And it flies back up in the air, soaring into the Orioles sad dugout, down the steps and down through the hall into the clubhouse. Onto the hunched-down deflated shoulders of Buck Showalter, letting out a repeating, high-pitched “Zach Britton!” into his ear. And it leaps up again, leaving him behind, flapping through the clubhouse as it flies back out for the party, repeating that name again and again.
Showalter slumps down into his seat, the black fabric on his shoulders torn up with claw marks, littered with feathers. Stained, in white globs, like the mess of seagulls on an unattended windshield.