Last Thursday, fans at Camden Yards who waited out two rain delays and a sluggish 7-5 Orioles loss to the Detroit Tigers got to witness a rare feat: a triple play turned by the Orioles’ defense (its second of the year, and first at home since 1992).
Third baseman Manny Machado started the three-out play in Thursday’s second inning by fielding a James McCann sharp grounder, stepping on the bag, and going around the horn to cut down the other two runners.
The memorable moment was the 14th triple play turned by the Orioles since their Baltimore debut in 1954. With some help from the Society for American Baseball Research’s invaluable Triple Play Tracker, let’s do some digging into the Orioles’ triple play history.
The around-the-horn, ground-ball triple plays
Aug. 6, 1969 vs. Kansas City Royals: 3B Brooks Robinson to 2B Davey Johnson to 1B Boog Powell
July 7, 1973 vs. Oakland Athletics: 3B Robinson to 2B Bobby Grich to 1B Enos Cabell
Sept. 20, 1973 at Tigers: 3B Robinson to 2B Grich to 1B Terry Crowley
Sept. 9, 1978 at Toronto Blue Jays: 3B Doug DeCinces to 2B Rich Dauer to 1B Eddie Murray
Aug. 3, 2017 vs. Tigers: 3B Machado to 2B Jonathan Schoop to 1B Chris Davis
Turning a ground ball into a triple play requires a lot of quick thinking and a bit of luck. It’s usually only possible if the ball is hit directly to the third baseman positioned close enough to step on the bag, and even then, both he and the second baseman need to zip the ball around the infield without hesitation. And of course, the runners — especially the batter — usually need to be lumbering oafs on the base paths.
Prior to Thursday, the Orioles hadn’t turned a ground-ball triple play in nearly 40 years — but it happened four times in a 10-year span before that, including triple plays two months apart in 1973. Three of those ground-ball triple plays were started by Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, the 16-time Gold Glover. (On the other hand, Brooks also hit into an MLB-record four triple plays.)
Triple plays were particularly kind to lefty Mike Cuellar — the 1969 and July 1973 ones both occurred with Cuellar on the mound.
The line drive triple plays
April 9, 1959 at Washington Senators: 1B Bob Boyd to SS Chico Carrasquel to Boyd
June 10, 1979 vs. Texas Rangers: 3B DeCinces to 2B Dauer to 1B Murray
June 15, 1989 vs. New York Yankees: SS Cal Ripken to 2B Bill Ripken to 1B Randy Milligan
Aug. 8, 1990 at Athletics: P Jeff Ballard to SS Cal Ripken to 1B Sam Horn
Aug. 25, 1992 vs. California Angels: 3B Leo Gomez to 1B Milligan
Perhaps the most conventional type of triple play — if getting three outs on one play can ever be considered “conventional” — is when a fielder snares a sharp line drive and the runners, hung out to dry on the base paths, don’t have time to get back to their bases.
The Orioles have turned five line-drive triple plays, and each one carries some historical significance. Their 1959 triple play was the first in baseball history to occur on Opening Day. The 1979 triple play featured the same three players who turned a ground-ball triple play the previous year: DeCinces, Dauer and Murray.
The 1989 triple play was the first in MLB history that involved two brothers. The 1990 triple play was the only one in Orioles history involving a pitcher. And the 1992 triple play was the first turned by the Orioles at Camden Yards — and the only one, until last week. (In case you’re wondering, there have been two triple plays turned by opponents at Camden Yards: the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 7, 1992 and the Royals on April 3, 1996.)
The wacky and weird triple plays
OK, now that we’ve gotten the ground balls and line drives out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the more bizarre triple plays the Orioles have turned. These are plays that involve baserunning blunders, rules confusion and other wacky shenanigans. How do you turn a 9-6-4-6 triple play? Or a 3-6-2? Read on.
Aug. 3, 1955 vs. Kansas City Athletics: 1B Gus Triandos to SS Willy Miranda to C Hal Smith
The first triple play the Orioles ever turned — which came in the franchise’s second year in Baltimore — was also one of the strangest. In the top of the seventh, the A’s put runners at second and third against Orioles starter George Zuverink, threatening to build on a 3-0 lead.
The batter, opposing pitcher Art Ceccarelli, hit a grounder to Triandos, who stepped on first base for the out. But there was confusion between the Athletics baserunners. Lead runner Jim Finigan hesitated between third and home; Triandos fired to the shortstop Miranda covering third, who in turn relayed home to Smith. While Finigan was caught in the rundown, trail runner Billy Shantz advanced to third base. Smith chased Finigan back to third base and tagged both runners.
Shantz was ruled out because Finigan was entitled to the base, but Finigan — thinking he was out too — wandered off the bag and was tagged for the third out. Finigan, essentially, blundered his team into a triple play. Ironically, he had just entered the game as a pinch-runner.
The Athletics squandered a golden opportunity to pad the lead, and the Orioles made them pay by scoring four runs in the eighth and ninth for a 4-3 walkoff victory.
June 3, 1977 at Royals: RF Pat Kelly to SS Mark Belanger to 2B Billy Smith to Belanger
It’s rare for a run to score on a triple play. It’s rarer still for the game to end on a run-scoring triple play. But that’s how the 1977 Orioles pulled off an improbable victory in Kansas City on June 3.
The Orioles were clinging to a 7-5 lead in the bottom of the ninth when the Royals loaded the bases against Tippy Martinez. John Wathan aimed to end the game with one swing — and that’s what he did, but not at all in the way he’d hoped. He lifted a flyout to Kelly in right, deep enough for lead runner Al Cowens to score from third.
Then things got weird. Freddie Patek, who had been on first base, broke too far off the bag. Kelly fired to Belanger, who caught Patek in a rundown, with the ball going to Smith and then back to Belanger to apply the tag.
The one remaining runner, Dave Nelson, perhaps befuddled by the bizarre series of events, meandered off third base. Belanger charged at him and stranded him in no-man’s land, applying the tag for the final out of the game.
Just another day at the ballpark.
Sept. 1, 2000 at Indians: SS Melvin Mora to 2B Jerry Hairston to 1B Jeff Conine
May 2, 2017 at Boston Red Sox: SS J.J. Hardy to 2B Schoop to 1B Davis
I’ll group these last two triple plays together because they were astonishingly similar. In each case, the Orioles took advantage of infield-fly confusion to turn what should’ve been one out into three.
In the 2000 play, Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar lifted a pop-up to shallow left field. As Mora drifted back to make the catch, he alertly noticed that the umps hadn’t called the infield fly rule. So he took a step back and let the ball drop in front of him. He immediately fired to second, where Hairston tagged out lead runner Travis Fryman — who was still glued to second base — and stepped on the bag to force out Wil Cordero. Alomar, meanwhile, had assumed he was out and hadn’t run to first, so Hairston threw to Conine to complete the triple play.
Earlier this year, a nearly identical play unfolded in the eighth inning in Boston. On a shallow fly to left by Jackie Bradley Jr., miscommunication between Hardy and left fielder Trey Mancini caused the ball to fall in safely. But the runners, assuming the infield fly had been called (it hadn’t), didn’t budge from their bases. Hardy tossed to Schoop, who tagged out Mitch Moreland and touched the bag to force out Dustin Pedroia, then relayed to first to triple up Bradley, who had already headed back to the dugout.
In both cases, the opposing managers — Cleveland’s Charlie Manuel and Boston’s John Farrell — argued vehemently with the umps, to no avail. The calls stood and the Orioles added two triple plays to their tally. They didn’t help, though; the Orioles lost both games by identical 5-2 scores.