Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the inning in which Orioles catcher Nick Hundley hit a sacrifice fly. It was the eighth inning, not the ninth. This version has been corrected.
BALTIMORE — By the time the groundball cracked off the bat toward first baseman Steve Pearce, Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter had already maneuvered his way to the corner of the home dugout at Camden Yards for an unobstructed view of the historic moment.
“I wanted to get a good seat and I was trying to find a good angle,” explained Showalter, who is generally listed at 5 feet 9. “Because, you know, with my height I can’t always see.”
From his spot, Showalter watched Pearce gather the ball and raise his right hand to assure Tommy Hunter he could handle the night’s 27th out without the pitcher’s assistance. He scurried over to first base and easily beat Toronto’s Ryan Goins to the bag to ignite a champagne-soaked celebration 17 years in the making.
The out clinched an 8-2 win over the Blue Jays and the Orioles’ first American League East title since Davey Johnson managed the club to 98 victories in 1997. It was the franchise’s first division-securing victory at home since 1979 and the earliest the Orioles have clinched a division title (151st game) since 1971.
“We are where we are,” Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette said, “but I’m looking forward to the next couple of steps because we got some more work to do.”
Showalter, a favorite to win his third career manager of the year award, elected to give Ubaldo Jimenez the spot start less than a month after Jimenez, the Orioles' disappointing $50 million free agent investment, was demoted to the bullpen.
Jimenez responded with his best outing since Aug. 9, limiting Toronto to two runs on two hits over five innings. The Dominican right-hander struck out six, walked four and retired the final 10 batters he encountered. Four relievers then combined to toss four scoreless innings.
“It’s been hard,” Jimenez admitted. “But at the tunnel I saw the light. And this is what the light is.”
Appropriately, four players called on to replace the three unavailable cornerstone pieces led the offensive charge for a team that has overcome several hurdles to smash spring training prognostications.
Pearce, now manning first base full time for suspended slugger Chris Davis, ignited the announced crowd of 35,297 when he muscled a 93-mph fastball from Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison over the right-center field wall for a three-run home run in the first inning.
An inning later, Jimmy Paredes, a member of the Orioles’ platoon at third base in place of the injured Manny Machado, whacked his second home run of the season to extend the hosts’ lead to 4-2.
Alejandro de Aza, acquired in a trade on Aug. 30 and now the full-time starting left fielder because of Pearce's move to first base, blew the game open with a bases-clearing three-run triple off left-handed specialist Aaron Loup in the seventh inning. Nick Hundley, half of the catching platoon tasked to replace Matt Wieters, capped the scoring with a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
“It’s not just tonight. It’s been like that all year,” Pearce said. “That’s why we have such a great team. Because it’s been coming from everyone all year long.”
The Orioles are the second American League team to secure a postseason berth, following the Los Angeles Angels’ triumph in the American League West a day earlier. They pulled away from the mediocre American League East pack with a league-best 49-21 record since June 30 and hold a 131 / 2-game division lead.
The success obliterates the widespread consensus before the start of the season. The Orioles were widely predicted to land in the American League East’s basement with their complete roster and they ended up in first without Machado, Davis, and Wieters — a trio of significant pieces the Orioles have been without for varying lengths of time this season.
“That’s why we play the game,” Showalter said. “I knew we had a chance, a really good chance, because of the people we had and I knew it wasn’t a lot of lip service. They were very focused and they weren’t going to let anything get in their way.”
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