J.J. Hardy placed his hand on the bill of his batting helmet today as the ovation grew louder and stronger, his feet still outside the batter’s box. Rays pitcher Chris Archer, aware and respectful of the moment, stood between the mound and second base. The occupants of both dugouts lined the railings and applauded.
Always a player who shunned the spotlight, Hardy finally relented and waved to the crowd. No sense fighting it. May as well give in to it, soak it up like rays of sunshine and appreciate every second, no matter how much it contradicted his usual approach.
Hardy grounded out to end the first inning and hit a tie-breaking two-run homer in the fourth, bringing another rousing ovation along with a curtain call - Manny Machado giving him a nudge up the last dugout step.
If this was, indeed, the final home game for Hardy in an Orioles uniform, he certainly made the most of it.
Chance Sisco hit a two-run homer in his first major league start, Hardy homered and singled, and the Orioles defeated the Rays 9-4 before an announced crowd of 23,424 at Camden Yards. They drew 2,028,424 fans in 81 dates.
The Orioles are 75-82 overall and finish 46-35 at home. They won for only the fourth time in 18 games and are 1 1/2 behind the Rays for third place.
“Definitely caught me off-guard and I had to fight some emotions,” Hardy said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why are they doing this now? Going to have to play a whole game after this.’ So when the fans started getting loud, I thought that was cool. Just seemed like it took a long time and it was very well appreciated.”
Chris Tillman, also a pending free agent and today’s emergency starter, allowed four runs and six hits in four innings. Kevin Kiermaier homered on his first pitch, the Orioles scored four runs off Archer in the bottom of the first and the Rays tied the game in the top of the second.
There were no ovations or curtain calls for Tillman, but his contributions to the organization shouldn’t be ignored. The opening day starts, the games won, the status as staff ace. But it felt like Hardy’s day from the outset, in part because his start was anticipated for a while.
Tillman was sprung on the crowd after the Orioles scratched Dylan Bundy due to a strained left hamstring. Center fielder Adam Jones left the game with “general soreness in his legs,” a day after the major bummer of wild card elimination and a sub-.500 finish.
It’s been a long and taxing season.
Bundy isn’t likely to make another start next week.
“I know there’s some people probably trying to read something into it,” said manager Buck Showalter. “I had some apprehension quite frankly about pitching him today. I was going to pitch him five innings only. In fact, Roger (McDowell) and I tossed and turned on it the last few days, especially after we got eliminated last night.
“I’ve got to tell you, in a way it was a blessing. It’s not embarrassing. It really cramped up. He strained it, he slipped in his preparation, the things pitchers do warming up. They start about 11:30, 12, going through some things they do every time and it knotted up on him. It kind of spasmed up on him. So it kind of worked out well because I really wanted to get Chris out there for another start.
“Put our bullpen in a tough spot having to take Chris out of there and not having any length, but everybody we brought out there did their job. Mychal (Givens) was key today, I thought.”
Showalter left the door cracked for Bundy to make another start and then closed it a little more.
“It’s like Zach (Britton), I’m not going to go ahead and ... I’ll tell you, he’s very close to where I was willing to take him to be ready to pitch in the playoffs,” Showalter said. “I can show you the charts we had mapped out since spring. He’s right on the button. That’s why today was a little bit of a stretch. But he really wanted to pitch and we were really going to watch him. I’ve got to tell you, there’s a little part of me that breathed a sigh of relief that he didn’t pitch today, to be frank with you.
“I’m pretty sure, you all know I am. If he comes in and fights tooth and nail ... I’d be surprised if he pitches again, but I’d never say never.”
Jones has been bothered by soreness in his legs for much of the second half.
“I talked to Adam 20 times this year out of respect for him and knowing some of the physical challenges that you go through,” Showalter said, “and last night it was about 12:30 or 1 and he got back to me this morning, which meant he was asleep. With those two young boys, he was asleep. He wanted to play today, he wanted to play today for the fans as much as anything, and I think he was scuffling. Same thing that’s been bothering him since, really, off and on the last couple of months, but that trip to Toronto ...”
Hardy missed a considerable chunk of the season with a fractured wrist and today’s home run was only his fourth, the last coming on May 24. He worked Archer for eight pitches and found the left field seats after Pedro Álvarez reached on an error, giving the Orioles a 6-4 lead.
Machado and Jonathan Schoop were waiting for Hardy outside the dugout, choreographed handshakes at the ready. Fans continued to stand and cheer until he finally came out and raised his helmet, the same one he sheepishly touched before his first at-bat.
Give in to the moment.
“It was a pretty good moment,” Hardy said. “I definitely didn’t expect that to happen today. I was just going to go out there and try not to embarrass myself. Turned out to be a pretty good day.
“Manny shoved me out there,” Hardy said. “I didn’t really have a choice. Also, another cool moment. Today is a day that I’ll always remember, for sure.”
Hardy said he noticed the outpouring off affection from both teams.
“It was special,” he said. “Those are guys that I played against for the last seven years. I have all the respect for all of them and it was pretty cool to see them also clapping.
“After that first at-bat or right before that first at-bat was probably the most emotional I was, but it’s been a hell of a ride with those guys and a lot of fun. Whatever happens with me, I know that they’re going to be playing a long time. It’ll be fun to watch them.”
Hold off the retirement talk for Hardy.
“Honestly, I’m going to see what my options are if I have any at all, and then we’ll kind of go from there,” he said. “As of right now, I still feel like I can play, and we’ll just have to see what happens.”
The Orioles took a 4-1 lead in the first on singles by Machado and Schoop, Jones’ two-run double, Chris Davis’ RBI single and stolen base, and Alvarez’s run-scoring single.
Davis has one steal this season, leaving him eight behind Machado for the team lead. But Hardy stole the show and it wasn’t close.
Tillman served up a two-run homer to Jesús Sucre in the second inning that tied the score and brought a few more boos, an unfortunate soundtrack given his accomplishments in Baltimore and the circumstances surrounding his unexpected start.
“Let’s see what the future brings for both of those guys, OK?” Showalter said. “They’ve got some good baseball ahead of them, both of them. And you never know. This game has a funny way of ... It’s that time of year I don’t say, ‘Goodbye.’ I said, ‘See you later.’ I’m really, really bad at goodbyes, especially to people you’ve gone through the things you’ve gone through with Chris and J.J. We kind of went through this together here.
“Chris was great, right up his alley. ‘Team needs me, let’s go.’ Had seven days off, not one whimper about anything. He said, ‘I’m fine, keep going.’ I thought his last inning was Chris. I did. He located some fastballs. In fact, he said up the runway, ‘There it was. I finally got it.’ I thought each inning got a little bit better. He’s going to be a good pitcher next year.”
Sisco followed Hardy’s single in the sixth inning with a two-run shot to right-center field - his second home run in seven major league games. He hit seven in 97 games at Triple-A Norfolk.
Davis increased the lead to 9-4 in the seventh with an RBI roller up the first base line after Schoop doubled and moved to third base on a grounder.
Hardy brought them to their feet one last time in the bottom of the eighth, bouncing into a force while fans chanted his name and clapped in rhythm.
As Darren O’Day induced a foul popup to end the game, Hardy and Schoop met at second base for a long embrace while waiting for the congratulatory line to form.
Hardy will hold onto this memory for a long time.
“We’re talking about it like 100 percent I’m not coming back here,” he said. “I know they’re not going to pick up my option, but I feel like there’s probably still a small chance that I could come back. Definitely, I feel like I’m an Oriole. I’ll be an Oriole for life. These seven years have been, I couldn’t have asked for more.
“I’m really appreciative of Buck writing my name in the lineup as much as he did, the Angelos family for signing me to two extensions, all my teammates. I’m a person that really cares about what people think about me. To see the way that they reacted today was really special.”
Showalter thought about removing Hardy from the field with two outs in the ninth, but he sensed that the veteran wanted to stay out there.
“It’s one of those things when he hits the home run and we’re in the dugout going, ‘Really?’ ” Showalter said. “I don’t think it surprises anybody. J.J. has delivered a lot of things the team has needed over the course of his time here. We’ll see what the future brings. He’s one of those guys, everybody says you don’t how good he is until he’s gone. I think everybody here knows how good he is. He’s got some good baseball ahead of him.
“You think of J.J., you think about the word ‘efficient.’ Trustworthy, impactful to his teammates. We’re very lucky to have had him pass our way. We’ll see what the future brings. He played a big part in the culture, I think.
“The great compliment, Brady (Anderson) and I were talking about him, that he’s probably the only guy I’ve ever seen that reminds you of Cal (Ripken Jr.) at shortstop defensively. They were able to get the balls with their brains as well as their hands.
“There’s not a day J.J. wakes up and doesn’t realize how fortunate he is, how lucky he is, and to come to Baltimore, a place where people really get what he brings. J.J. never wants the attention taken away from the team. He’s the ultimate teammate.”
Notes: Trey Mancini extended his career-high hitting streak to 14 games with a two-out single in the eighth inning.
Showalter said Kevin Gausman will make his final start of the season on Tuesday. He also said the club probably will bring up a pitcher from minicamp before the trip to Pittsburgh to assist in the bullpen.