Baseball in the time of COVID-19
(Writing time: 30 minutes)
The last time the Baltimore Orioles beat the New York Yankees was March 31, 2019. The Orioles scored three runs in the first inning on a Renato Nunez home run, got a big two-run homer in the eighth by Joey Rickard, and held on for a 7-5 victory.
Yes, sure, the Orioles TRIED to lose the game in the ninth, but someone named Paul Fry struck out Troy Tulowitzki in the ninth to end the threat to close things out.
The Yankees have won 18 straight games against Baltimore since then.
They haven’t all been easy victories. Most of them have been, yes, but there have been a couple of one-run games, like the one last May when the Orioles tied up the game in the bottom of the eighth only to have Mychal Givens walk in the winning run in the ninth. But in general, the Yankees have not only beaten the Orioles 18 straight times, they have mostly humiliated the Orioles by scores like 15-3 and 14-2 and 11-4 and so on.
There is something about baseball that allows even dreadful teams — and the Orioles have been about as bad as any team in baseball history the last two years — to win a lot of games. The 2019 Orioles were a baseball atrocity but they still won 54 times, including two wins each over World Series participants Washington and Houston. It would surprise absolutely nobody that the Cleveland Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, but something like that is shocking in baseball. The game is supposed to even things out a bit. Even a team as crummy as Baltimore is supposed to take out the mighty Yankees every now and again.
The Orioles had that chance on Thursday in Camden Yards. They somehow led 6-5 going into the ninth inning. I say “somehow” because the Yankees scored five runs in the top of the first inning, thanks largely to a grand slam from Luke Voit, who apparently plans on continuing to hit home runs despite the fact that the Yankees only got him as a throw-in for a deal they made to get some international slot money.
Anyway: J.A. Happ started for the Yankees — perhaps not coincidentally he was also the starter the last time Baltimore beat New York — and Hanser Alberto cracked a two-run homer in the first inning, proving to all the doubters that there is someone named Hanser Alberto who plays in the Major Leagues.*
*Actually, Hanser Alberto hit .305 last year, which shocked the heck out of me. He still had only a 98 OPS+ because he walked — get this — 16 times in 550 plate appearances. But, hey, hitting .305 over a full big-league season is an achievement and it is noted.
And the Orioles climbed back in the game and took a one-run lead in the eighth on Pedro Severino’s home run. Here, finally, was the Orioles victory …
And then Cole Sulser came into the game. I realize that I have made a few jokes about the namelessness of Baltimore Orioles players but I can promise you that I have never heard of Cole Sulser. His story, however, might be deduced from his name. Cole Sulser was an engineering major at Dartmouth. He is clearly one of those overachieving people — he won just about every academic award and leadership award you can win in high school — who decided to stick with baseball out of sheer love even though every single sign pointed to finding a career in engineering.
He was taken by Cleveland in the 25th round of the draft, meaning he had virtually no chance to make the big leagues. Only one player in his round, a guy named Alan Busenitz, ever made it to the big leagues, and Alan’s big league career was 57 innings pitched. At age 24, he went 4-13 with a 5.62 ERA in Class A ball, which is about as direct a “GET OUT!” as there is.
And then he had Tommy John surgery. For the second time.
So it’s a miracle of persistence that Cole Sulser is in the big leagues. He kicked around with Cleveland in the minors until he was 28, then he was a throw-in in a massive three-team deal and ended up in Tampa Bay and then got released and was picked up by Baltimore last October.
Now, suddenly, he was asked to close out a one-run game against New York to break a 17-game Yankees losing streak.
It will probably not surprise you that he walked the leadoff hitter, gave up a singled to D.J. LeMahieu and then grooved a 3-1 fastball to Aaron Judge who mashed it into the empty but still sad stands for the three-run homer that made it 18 straight Yankees victories.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the emotions of watching baseball these days. With the weird cutouts, the strange and fake crowd noise, the social distancing, the new rules, the general concern that none of this should even be happening, you can’t say that it FEELS the same.
But the Yankees still beat the Orioles. That part does feel the same.