BALTIMORE — They only had a minute or so to discuss strategy before Chris Davis took the mound and Matt Wieters crouched behind the plate to catch him, so they kept it short. This was Sunday evening at Boston’s Fenway Park, as the bottom of the 16th inning was about to get underway, and Davis, who began the afternoon as the Baltimore Orioles’ designated hitter, prepared to pitch for the first time as a professional.
“Okay,” Wieters said, “what do you throw?”
“Fastball, slider, change-up,” Davis said confidently.
“Really?” Wieters said.
“Yeah,” Davis answered. “Really.”
“Well,” Wieters said just before slipping on his mask, “first of all, don’t blow out your arm. And second, just throw strikes.”
What followed would test the limits of baseball believability and provide the signature moment of the Orioles’ shocking and spectacular opening month.
Davis, a 26-year-old first baseman-designated hitter whose last meaningful pitch had been in junior college, tossed two scoreless innings of emergency relief and earned the win in the Orioles’ 9-6, 17-inning victory over the Red Sox.
“It’s not something I ever want to do again,” Davis said a day later. “But it was fun.”
At the intersection of what is universal and explainable in baseball — pitching, defense and timely hitting is what wins games — and what is inexplicable and mystical sit the Orioles. Despite losing 14-3 to the Texas Rangers on Monday night, Baltimore is 19-10 and sits tied for first with Tampa Bay in the murderous American League East.
“It’s early [in the season],” said second baseman Robert Andino, “but it ain’t too early to say we’ve got something good going on here.”
The Orioles’ just-completed trip was supposed to have been the one that proved their fast start was just a fluke: Three games at Yankee Stadium, and three more at Fenway — two stadiums that have been the settings of so many horror shows for a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001 and hasn’t had a winning season since 1997.
But after dropping the opening game of the Yankees series, the Orioles reeled off five straight wins, capped by their first three-game sweep in Boston since 1994. That brought them back home to face the Rangers, Rays and Yankees — three of the four AL playoff teams in 2011 — during a nine-game homestand.
“It’s not as if we expected to get off to this fast start,” Davis acknowledged. “But we expected to succeed.”
In the wake of Sunday’s epic win at Fenway — the game took more than six hours to complete — folks in Baltimore are beginning to compare this team to the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles who, after losing 107 games the previous year, came out of nowhere to contend for the playoffs until deep into September.
There’s a long way to go until September — and this team could still go the way of the 2005 Orioles, who led the AL East as late as June 23, at 42-30, only to go 32-58 the rest of the way and finish in fourth place.
But there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is a team that, at the very least, can keep things interesting deep into the summer.
“It’s better than being on the other end of the stick,” said center fielder Adam Jones. “[But] today is the only day that’s circled on our calendar.”
The Orioles’ 2.78 team ERA entering Monday ranked first in the AL and was second only to the Washington Nationals (2.59) in all of baseball.
Their bullpen was 7-0 with a 0.95 ERA in its last 22 games entering Monday, and was in the midst of a 322 / 3-inning stretch in which it gave up only one run. Already, they have won as many games (five) in which they trailed after seven innings as they did in 2011.
This may also be the year Wieters establishes himself as the best catcher in the game. The strapping 25-year-old, who did not play Monday, has seven homers, top among AL catchers, and a .301/.381/.602 batting line.
And that’s in addition to his work guiding the Orioles’ pitchers.
Wieters never expected one of those pitchers to be Davis. But as he warmed up Davis prior to the bottom of the 16th, Wieters was amazed at how firm his fastball was, and how easily it came out of his hand.
If you didn’t know any better, as Davis collected his six outs, fanning Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez, with a fastball clocked at 91 mph and quality change-up, you would hardly know he was so out of his element, he had to take a moment to remember how to pitch out of the stretch position.
“I have a little bit of a [pitching] background,” Davis said. “I was pulling everything out of the memory bank that I could.”
There are plenty of ways to measure and explain what it is that has the Orioles in first place, but there is nothing quite like a 17-inning win with your DH on the mound to make an Orioles fan ponder, “Why not?”