BOSTON - As the visiting dugout emptied this afternoon at Fenway Park, the 162nd game completed and players in a rush to eat, shower and catch their flights, there was no evidence of the grim atmosphere that carried so many of them out the door last year.
The Orioles felt good about the effort and energy in 2019. They’d like to cut back on the losses, of course, but seem confident that it’s only a matter of time. They understand the process and the patience that it requires.
There’s more harmony within the ranks and less uncertainty about the future.
The sixth inning bit them again today, with more bullpen issues that dissolved a lead, and Evan Phillips allowed a run in the seventh to break his September streak. Jonathan Villar tied the game in the eighth with a two-out RBI single off Matt Barnes and Stevie Wilkerson robbed Jackie Bradley Jr. of a two-run homer in the bottom half with an incredible leaping catch at the short fence in right field.
The Orioles weren’t going away quietly. That hasn’t been their style.
Rookie Dillon Tate walked Mookie Betts leading off the ninth, a sure-fire way to get burned. Rafael Devers sent a bouncer to the right side that deflected off Richie Martin’s glove and Betts managed to score after slowing at third base, handing the Orioles a 5-4 loss.
Wilkerson hesitated, trotted toward the infield and lobbed the throw, the last one of the season, after earlier making his spectacular catch.
“I thought the ball took, that second hop took a funny hop on Richie,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “It really boomeranged. It was a tough play for him. And Wilkerson was playing no-doubles, playing a little deeper than normal, so had to sprint in. Mookie with just a really instinctual baserunning play. He’s a great player, great instincts.
“Hopefully we’ll learn from that play to get the ball in a little quicker, but hats off to them. Hats off to Mookie for making a really good play.”
“The ball hit off Richie’s glove,” Wilkerson said, “I came in and got it and I’ve got to do a better job of picking it up and just getting the ball in. Obviously it’s something I’ll learn from but not the way you want to end it.
Christian Vázquez singled off Mychal Givens to lead off the eighth and pinch-runner Chris Owings stole second base. Brock Holt singled against the shift to put runners on the corners with no outs, but Marco Hernández lined into a 4-5 double play and Wilkerson raced to the fence on Bradley’s drive, rolled past the higher portion and reached into the seats to make the grab.
“I thought that ball was 30 rows in off the bat,” Hyde said. “I just put my head down and then I see him tracking it and I’m waiting for him to fall over into the bullpen or into the crowd, thinking he had no chance at it, and all of sudden he comes out of it with the ball. Just one of the better catches I’ve ever seen.
“I couldn’t believe it. When he went in I didn’t know if he caught the ball for not. I was thinking the worst because off the bat I was already (thinking) in my mind that that was a homer, so when I saw our bullpen’s reaction, I looked a little closer to see, I saw him put his glove up like he had the ball. I was in shock. Then I started thinking about , OK, it’s still tied, we’ve got to score here off (Brandon) Workman, which is a tough task. “
Givens pumped his fist, yelled and waited to embrace Wilkerson, who had a rough day in the field before making a play that probably tops Austin Hays’ leaping catch that robbed Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at Camden Yards. The dugout erupted as Hays rushed to Wilkerson and celebrated with him.
“I just saw the ball go up. I knew he put a charge into it and I tried to get back to the fence and got up and made an athletic play,” Wilkerson said.
“When I was tracking it down I had a bead on it, so I knew if I had the space to get to it I’d have a chance to get it. But going back on them, you never know if you’re going to get beat by the wall or not. But I had a good bead on it and just jumped up and grabbed it.”
And basked in the reaction of his teammates.
“Everybody’s was pretty awesome,” he said. “Givens was obviously thrilled, but everyone was just glad we kept the game tied up right there and stayed alive.
“It was pretty cool. Having everybody behind you and getting everybody fired up and trying to get a little momentum and get the offense going, put some runs on the board, but it was pretty cool to have everyone behind me like that.”
The 162th game capped off a bizarre season for Wilkerson, who did a little bit of everything, including earning the nickname “Dr. Poo Poo” for his pitching.
“He’s just a really good athlete,” Hyde said. “He’s played all around the field for us. Never played center field in his life. He played center field in a bunch of games for us. I just think he loves to play. He plays like he’s in the backyard playing Wiffle Ball and he kind of typified his year a little bit. Just an outstanding play in a big spot.”
Said Wilkerson: “Well, I never played center field in my life before this season and I think I played the most games in center field on this team. And I’ve never pitched before in my life and I got the first save in the history of the league. And then I think I tried to rob about 50 homers on the year and came up short on all of them until this one, so it’s been a rollercoaster year and I’m looking forward to just decompressing and reflecting on it here in a couple days.”
Eight-time Gold Glove winner and Red Sox legend Dwight Evans texted Dennis Eckersley, now one of the team’s broadcaster, that he just witnessed “the greatest catch ever by a right-fielder at Fenway Park.”
Wilkerson was just happy that he didn’t land on his head in the seats.
Did he think that he might fall into the stands?
“Not when I leapt up for it,” he said, “but when I came down I realized I was sitting in a couple people’s laps.”
The Orioles finish the season 54-108 after going 47-115 a year ago. They failed again to register their first series sweep since Aug. 27-29, 2018, first on the road since June 5-6, 2018 at Citi Field and first in a three-game series away from home since Aug. 25-27, 2017 in Boston.
Villar’s game-tying hit came as he appeared in his 162nd game. He ran the table.
“It was an important part for me, because I put in preparation to my body before I came into spring training,” he said. “Also, because I love to play the game. That was nice for me.”
Phillips escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth that Shawn Armstrong placed at his feet, but Devers doubled with one out in the seventh for his 200th hit of the season and Xander Bogaerts lined a run-scoring single into left field to break a 3-3 tie.
The Most Valuable Oriole approves of the rebuilding plan and the club’s early advances. He sees the flaws like everyone else - twice mentioning this afternoon that they must do better in close games - but he’s confident that the ultimate goal will be reached.
However many games and seasons are needed to get there.
“Yeah, I feel really good about it,” Mancini said.
“I was kind of thinking about it last night and reflecting a little bit and last year, the last game of the season, I remember there was so much uncertainty leaving the field after that game. Not knowing exactly who was going to be back, what was going on. And now I think we’re going in a pretty clear direction and I really like where we’re headed.”
He wants to be part of it, again willing to block out the trade rumors that gained steam in July.
“I’ve always felt strongly about it,” he said. “That’s never wavered at all. I wasn’t anticipating getting traded at the deadline and again I’m glad I didn’t. So definitely feel very strongly about being here and like I said I really like the direction we’re headed right now.”
Chandler Shepherd, trying to convince the Orioles to keep him on the 40-man roster and in their plans, was charged with two earned runs and three total in five-plus innings. He allowed five hits, struck out six batters and issued his only walk to Bogaerts leading off the sixth, which caused his removal at 81 pitches.
“I think it was important just like all the other outings,” he said. “(They) were just as important, but today I just tried to focus on the same things I always try to focus on: getting ahead of hitters, working quick, and getting our guys back in the dugout to swing the bat.”
“Chandler Shepherd gave us way more than we could have asked,” Hyde said. “But a very short bullpen today, also, with a bunch of guys who weren’t going to throw. He went a long way for us, which was huge.”
Armstrong loaded the bases with no outs and let the inherited runner score on Vázquez’s game-tying single. Phillips replaced him and stranded three with a force at home, pop up and strikeout of Bradley.
Phillips spun toward first base and pumped his fist. Only one run allowed in the inning, where opponents outscored the Orioles 145-73.
Armstrong was charged with seven runs in his last six appearances over five innings and needed a huge assist from Armstrong to get away unscathed today. Phillips, meanwhile, didn’t surrendered a run in eight September innings until the seventh.
Shepherd retired the first seven batters before the Red Sox scored twice in the third inning.
Gorkys Hernández led off with a triple on a ball that right fielder Wilkerson lost in the sun and tried to catch with a late dive. Shepherd hit Bradley and surrendered an RBI single to Betts.
Devers singled and Bradley scored after Wilkerson misplayed the ball. Bradley held at third base, saw Betts barreling toward him and came home.
(Wilkerson was saving the good glove stuff for later.)
Martin made a nice stop and throw to the plate on Bogaerts’ sharp grounder and Shepherd struck out J.D. Martinez on his seventh pitch of the at-bat.
Shepherd couldn’t produce a shutdown inning after the Orioles scored three runs off Eduardo Rodriguez, who sought his 20th win of the season. Rodriguez allowed four hits with two walks and eight strikeouts in seven innings, all of the scoring coming in the third.
Wilkerson drew a leadoff walk, Martin reached on a bunt single with one out and Alberto produced another hit off a left-hander. Hays followed with an RBI double off the Green Monster and Mancini grounded into a 6-5 force to account for the third run.
The Orioles had one more defensive gem in them, and one more breakdown.
It’s part of the process.
“We play with a ton of heart,” Hyde said. “Bounce back like we always do and just fall a little bit short, which we’ve done so many times this year. I’m proud of our guys, proud of the effort. Love the way we played this series.
“Even though that team’s not going to the playoffs it’s still a really good team and a really good lineup. We faced a guy going for his 20th win today. They had the varsity club in there trying to get it for him and we just did a great job of competing.”
Note: Former executive Brady Anderson won’t be returning to the Orioles next season, according to a source.
Anderson is stepping aside as the Orioles restructure their front office and player development and scouting departments. They’re going to reconfigure the strength and conditioning structure and make new hires.