Pitch perfect

Remembering a 17-inning odyssey and Chris Davis' infamous day on the mound

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It couldn’t happen now. The Orioles would never allow a player with a seven-year, $161 million contract to win an early-season game by pitching two innings. But, that was long before the pitcher won two home run titles and inspired the Crush Davis madness.

On May 6, 2012, Chris Davis was a player with just seven home runs in his first few months with the Orioles, and someone who his manager turned to because he had no else to pitch.

The Orioles had a great start to the 2012 season. They’d won 18 of their first 27 games, and had the best record in baseball. Fresh off a rare series win at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles were trying to do the same at Fenway Park.

As that Sunday afternoon turned into evening, pitcher after pitcher came into the game. Tommy Hunter started, and couldn’t get through the fifth inning.

After eight innings, the game was tied at 6, and the Orioles had already used five pitchers.

As scoreless inning after scoreless inning ended, Buck Showalter began thinking. At what point would he run out of pitchers?

Four relievers would work as long as Showalter would allow them, two innings each while his hitters couldn’t touch the Red Sox bullpen, either.

“I knew exactly how many innings I could get out of my bullpen,” Showalter remembers.

And when those innings were gone, he’d have to think about an alternative, an unthinkable one.

A year before, the Orioles trailed by 12 runs after one inning at Yankee Stadium, but Showalter refused to use a position player to pitch merely to save his bullpen. That would make a mockery of the game, he said.

Showalter himself was used as an emergency arm in the minor leagues, a left-handed knuckleballer, but he didn’t want to use a position player in a game that was already lost.

But, to win a game, now that was something else.

Showalter had a few alternatives. He had a third-string catcher, the rarely-used Luis Exposito, who surely had a good arm. He also had Nick Markakis, who pitched for Greece in the 2004 Olympic Games.

He also had someone else, a left-hander with some real pitching experience. That was Davis.

“You do your homework, first of all. There was a lot of talk of him being drafted as a pitcher coming out of high school, in JUCO,” Showalter knew.

“I didn’t tell him until the last second. It’s not something you start talking about in the 12th inning. I knew in what inning I would need somebody else, and he was DHing that day, and I also knew I wouldn’t lose my DH.”

Showalter looked down to Davis when Boston went out in the 15th. Jim Johnson had worked two more shutout innings, and the Orioles’ supply of relievers was exhausted.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey Chris, come get your glove.’ 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,” Showalter said.

Davis had another thought.

“It was crazy. It was absolutely crazy,” Davis says now.

Davis was having a horrible day as the Orioles’ designated hitter. He’d struck out his first five times at bat and grounded into a double play in his sixth. He’d end his day hitless in eight at-bats, but few remember.

“Of course, I can pitch. I pitched my whole life. At that time of the day, I wasn’t exactly the greatest hitter so, maybe I’ll give them a shot off the mound,” Davis said.

No one really knew him then. The previous July, he and Hunter came over from Texas for reliever Koji Uehara, a trade that would turn out to be one of the best in team history.

“I was Mr. Irrelevant,” he jokes.

Many of the names that played in that game are recognizable: J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters. Darren O’Day got two outs in the seventh.

But, some of those names have long been forgotten by even the most avid of Orioles fans: Endy Chavez, Matt Lindstrom, Nick Johnson and Ronny Paulino.

The second baseman that day was Robert Andino, tormentor of these same Red Sox the previous September, eliminating Boston from the playoffs and giving the Orioles hope that 14 straight losing seasons were about to end.

Could this be about to change?

“I don’t know if that was the start of the team being good. I think that happened maybe September of 2011 where we realized, ‘we can win, we’re good,’ and we kind of carried it in to 2012 and ever since,” Hardy said.

But before Davis could pitch the bottom of the 16th, Boston manager Bobby Valentine tried to argue that a designated hitter couldn’t pitch. Showalter knew he was wrong, and a half-inning later, Valentine sent his own DH, Darnell McDonald to the mound.

Showalter badly wanted to win the game, but as he put it:

“You reach a point in a game where there are diminishing returns for a W, and that’s where we were, and I’m sure they felt the same way,” Showalter said.

In retrospect, it seems so logical to put Davis in the game, but it was a tough call.

“You always have to live to fight another day, so the number one thing is you can’t put anyone in harm’s way physically. One, he wasn’t in the field, and he doesn’t play a position that required his arm to feel perfect the next day. These things you think about for five hours. Constantly as a manager you have to think of ‘what if?’” Showalter said.

“There’s a certain karma of a game, too. There’s an aura that certain games have. There’s nothing worse than facing a pitcher who’s a position player because if they hit a home run, well, they’re supposed to.”

It was time for Davis to take the mound, and after getting the first two outs in the bottom of the 16th, Marlon Byrd reached on an error by third baseman Wilson Betemit.

Mike Aviles hit a long drive to left-center. Jones fielded it off the wall and threw to Hardy.

Third base coach Jerry Royster sent Byrd, but Hardy’s throw to Wieters caught him.

“Jonesy fielding the ball off the wall, throwing a perfect strike to J.J. J.J turning and throwing a perfect strike to Wheaty. It was one of those baseball moments that you don’t get to see every day,” Davis said.

Hardy had a great day offensively, too. Five hits, a pair of home runs and a game-saving relay.

“It takes a good throw to get him out. Jonesy made a perfect throw to me. I think Wieters made a tough pick. I don’t think it was a great throw to the plate. It was kind of an in-between hop. There were a lot of things on that particular play that went right for us,” Hardy said.

Jones deflects praise for the throw.

“That’s fundamentals. I don’t need gloating for doing my fundamentals. That’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to hit the cutoff man. I don’t need any praise for that,” Jones said.

It was time for the 17th inning. It was McDonald’s turn to pitch.

With one out, Hardy doubled, Markakis walked, and Jones hit a long home run down the left-field line.

The Orioles led 9-6.

Davis had a three-run lead as he continued to throw fastballs in the low 90s.

Tiring, Davis gave up a single to Ryan Sweeney and walked Dustin Pedroia. He struck out Adrian Gonzalez, and McDonald came up as the tying run.

McDonald hit into the game-ending double play.

Jones, who likes to tweet #stayhungry had one thought: Food. The game had lasted over six hours, and it was time to eat.

His greatest memory?

“Taking my friend Darnell McDonald deep, then taking him out to dinner afterwards,” Jones said.

Four years and two postseasons later, Showalter remembers every detail from that day.

“It was a lot of fun. 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,” he said.

“It was kind of an accumulation of everything we talked about to be good. That game really exposed what we were capable of doing.”

Showalter has won more than 350 games since then, but that one was special.

“When you get through the game, and you’re almost laughing more than … that’s a form of being happy. The entertainment factor was so good,” Showalter says.

“It was conventionally unconventional.”

After his pitching day, Davis was interviewed countless times about it.

“That’s the way I am. Anything I would do, I’d do as hard as I can. It’s funny because I never imagined pitching in the big leagues and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that would have gone that way. I work hard on every area of my game. I think it’s one of those things where I was in the right situation at the right time.”

More than 160 home runs later, Davis says people often talk about that day with him.

“It comes up a lot. I think it was cool for the fans because it showed some selflessness, but it also showed some perseverance,” Davis said.

When he re-signed in January, Showalter publicly promised never to pitch him again. That’s fine with Davis.

“I’ll never pitch again. There’s no need to. You can’t do that again. You can’t duplicate that,” Davis said.

“It’s probably one of the best memories I have in the game because of the uniqueness of it. I think from a health standpoint, it’s probably better that I probably don’t go out there and pitch again because I’ve never been that sore.”