People often ask me what is the most unforgettable game I’ve ever seen. I have a few contenders, but there’s something they never ask me that I have an easy answer for.
The 2012 Orioles were my favorite team.
In September 2011, ComcastSportsNet, now NBCSportsWashington, decided that it should begin coverage of the Orioles on its CSNBaltimore.com webpage, and that I should do it.
The assignment ended up lasting for five years, and the Orioles’ heartbreaking loss to Toronto in the wild-card game in 2016 was the last one I covered.
The first game was the final one of the 2011 season, the fabled “Curse of the Andino,” when Robert Andino sent the Boston Red Sox home with a game-winning single, and set the stage for a pesky team full of unforgettable players.
By 2012, the Orioles had gone through 14 straight losing seasons. There was hope in spring training that the run might end, and perhaps that the team could win 82 or 83 games.
It was the first year of the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette partnership, and all went smoothly.
There was Matt Wieters, a blossoming star behind the plate, a solid shortstop in J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones in center, Nick Markakis in right, and a young designated hitter, Chris Davis, who filled in at first, left and, when Markakis was hurt, in right.
Compelling personalities all, and none had his best year in 2012.
Somehow, the team, which according to Baseballreference.com, had a Pythagorean won/loss record of 82-80, managed to win 93 games, despite scoring just seven more runs than it allowed.
This Orioles were a staggering 20 games over .500 in one-run games, (29-9) and won 16 of the 18 extra-inning games they played.
On April 10 and 11, the Orioles lost back-to-back games to the Yankees in 12 and 10 innings, and wouldn’t lose an extra-inning game the rest of the season.
There was an inkling the season was going to be different when the club took a road trip in late April and early May to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, and won five of the six games it played.
Arguably, the most gripping game came on May 6 when the Orioles and Red Sox played 17 taut innings, and Davis came in to the game to pitch a scoreless 16th and 17th.
It was the first time Showalter used a position player to pitch. He often said he didn’t want to do it in a game in which his team trailed badly because it made a mockery of the game.
In his final two years as Orioles manager, Showalter softened his stance, but on an early Sunday evening in May, he asked Davis, who had struck out five times as the team’s DH, to try to keep the team afloat.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, Chris, come get your glove,’’’ Showalter said in 2016. “I waited and waited, and he’s right there with me. I said, ‘You’re pitching next inning. Go warm up down there in the bullpen.’ He probably told you he didn’t have time to think about it.”
Davis was clear on what he was thinking.
“It was crazy. It was absolutely crazy,” he said.
Jones had already made a game-saving throw in the bottom of the 16th, relaying the ball to Hardy, who threw it to Wieters, to nail Marlon Byrd.
In the top of the 17th, Jones hit a three-run home run against Darnell McDonald, a one-time top draft choice by the Orioles who was now an outfielder pitching for the Red Sox.
Jones was hungry, and he couldn’t wait to stay around Boston after the game to take McDonald out to dinner.
“It was a lot of fun,” Showalter said. “It was cold. It was the typical challenges you have in Fenway Park. Our guys just refused to lose. It was the epitome of a team winning a game.
“It was kind of an accumulation of everything we talked about to be good. That game really exposed what we were capable of doing.”
That team turned out to be tremendously fun.
Only one pitcher won more than nine games, an unknown Taiwanese left-hander, Wei-Yin Chen, whom Duquette signed along with a more well-known Japanese pitcher, Tsuyoshi Wada, during his first offseason.
Wada ended up needing Tommy John surgery and never pitched for the Orioles. Chen was arguably Duquette’s best signing.
Joining Chen in the starting rotation were Jason Hammel, whom the Orioles acquired in February, Miguel Gonzalez, a totally unknown signee from the Mexican League, and Chris Tillman, who both won nine games.
Jim Johnson saved a club record 51 games while Zack Britton floundered as a starter.
Late in the season, Showalter needed a left-hander in the pen, and he turned to Brian Matusz, who had failed as a starter.
How successful was Matusz? He had a 5.42 ERA as a starter and a 1.35 ERA as a reliever and owned David Ortiz.
Big Papi was just 4-for-29 (.138) with 13 strikeouts against Matusz.
Markakis, a Showalter favorite, played in just 104 games that season because of hamate surgery and later a broken thumb when CC Sabathia hit him.
Showalter used Markakis in the leadoff position because he didn’t have a true leadoff hitter, and he thrived there, hitting .335.
When Markakis was out, Duquette turned to reclamation projects — Endy Chavez, Lew Ford and Nate McLouth — and they came through.
In a season when every decision seemed to be correct, the most important one came in early August when the team decided to call up Manny Machado, who had just turned 20, to play third base.
Machado played shortstop in the minors but with Wilson Betemit a defensive liability at third, Showalter and Duquette knew they needed someone better there.
Minor league infield coordinator Bobby Dickerson worked with Machado at Bowie, teaching him the rudiments of third base, and when Machado was recalled, he saved the Orioles’ season.
Showalter explained the move, saying that if something could make the team “two inches better,” they’d do it.
The Orioles ended up qualifying for the first Wild-Card Game, and behind another questionable starter, Joe Saunders, picked up late in August, they beat the Texas Rangers.
After the game, it was a wild visiting clubhouse. Of course, there was champagne and beer everywhere, but the wildest scene was a long embrace between Duquette and Showalter.
The Orioles nearly beat the Yankees in a close five-game Division Series.
Showalter was named “Marylander of the Year” by The Baltimore Sun, and team made two more postseason appearances.
It was a far better team in 2014 with much better starting pitching, but it lacked the innocence of the 2012 team that won for the first time.
Oriole fans continue to wait for that next first time.