BALTIMORE—Pat Valaika had just won Saturday night’s game with a base hit, and there was no wild celebration on the field. Instead, Oriole players were high-fiving the air, trying to maintain social distancing rather than engulfing Valaika.
But this is 2020, and the Orioles did their celebrating alone; there were no fans in the stands at Camden Yards.
Bryan Holaday, a catcher who had been added to club that day and made a game-saving catch at first in the top of the 11th, began the bottom of the 11th by being placed on second base because of a new rule designed to shorten extra-inning games. He scored when Valaika fought off a Chaz Roe slider and blooped it into right field.
The hit gave reliever Travis Lakins his first major league victory, but the walk-off celebration wasn’t how he remembered them.
“Not even close,” Lakins said. “Usually, we’re jumping all over Pat, ripping his jersey off, dumping water on him. Now we [have to be] six feet from him. It’s so weird. It’s so weird.”
Lakins acknowledged that despite a public address announcer, between-innings and walk-up music and pumped-in crowd noise, the atmosphere can’t compare to a packed stadium.
“It’s sometimes hard to get yourself up when you go out on the mound and you look in the stands, and there’s no fans,” he said in a video conference call.
“There’s literally nobody there. You’ve just got to make the most of it. We’re all doing the same thing, and we’ve got to make the most of it.”
Lakins is one pitcher who had seen the runner begin an extra inning at second base last season when he was pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket.
Holaday, who was at first base because of a multi-player switch, snared a one-out line drive by Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot and turned it into a double play when he saw Kevin Kiermaier, who started the inning at second, break for third.
“Seeing it in Triple-A last year helped me a lot,” Lakins said. “My main goal, no matter what, is to get this first guy out. I don’t care if it’s a bunt, a strikeout, whatever, just get him out, and then we’ll go from there. I’m now comfortable with it because I’ve seen it so many times in Triple-A.”
Another change during this 60-game season is seven-inning doubleheaders. The Orioles and Miami Marlins are scheduled to play four games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That would mean a doubleheader on one of those days.
“I think it’s great for this year,” Lakins said. “I really do. Two nine-inning games in one day is a long day. I’m excited to see how it goes.”
For the handful us in the press box, watching the game is also strange, and not just because we have to wear a mask. Without fans, there’s no life, and the pumped-in crowd noise is a second or two late, and doesn’t add anything to the atmosphere.
Perhaps the only advantage is hearing chatter on the field. “I got it, got it,” is easily picked up, and occasionally yelling from the dugout to the umpires is heard.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde misses the crowd reaction.
“I’m definitely into the game, and I’ve got a lot going on in my head, but I do notice it, for sure,” he said.
“It’s weird, when Pat hit that knock [Saturday] night to win the game, it was a very strange feeling of not having a loud crowd. We don’t have as many people in our dugout, either, so we’re trying to stay out of the dugout and keep our distance in the dugout, so that’s strange.
“Usually, in that situation, the crowd goes nuts, our team’s going nuts, high-fiving everywhere in the dugout. There’s a lot of positive emotion going on, and to not know what to do with your hands was definitely odd. There have been some moments where I noticed how much different it is not to have a crowd there, and it’s tough. It’s not easy, but we’re doing the best we can. I’m looking forward to the day when the crowd goes crazy again.”