Thoughts from AL wild card game: Classless Jays fans, Ubaldo, and poor Showalter decisions

Orioles manager Buck Showalter never let Zach Britton, the game's best closer, see the field in 11 innings last night in the AL wild card game. (Photo Credit: Scott Clarke / ESPN.)

What a tough way for the Baltimore Orioles to enter the offseason.

Their personal house of horrors, Rogers Centre, got even scarier last night, and it wasn’t all baseball-related. From inexplicable (and not uncommon, apparently) bush-league acts by Blue Jays fans, to poor bullpen decisions, to inconsistent offense, there was plenty of blame to spread around. In the end it amounted to a brutal, 5-2 loss to Toronto in 11 innings.

First, the fans and the atmosphere.

If the Orioles don’t like playing in Toronto, you saw why last night, just as you saw in Game 5 of last year’s ALDS against Texas. On a Fox segment one time a few years back, I thought Josh Hamilton was nuts when he said that Baltimore and Toronto had the worst fans in baseball. Turns out he was only half-crazy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the seventh inning, South Korean left fielder Hyun Soo Kim caught a fly ball on the warning track to end the frame. It was at that moment that some derelict threw what looked like a full beer can at Kim, compounding a night in which both he and Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who is black, were constantly taunted with racial slurs. That is rather ironic given how multicultural of a city Toronto is.

Jones went ballistic and looked about ready to jump into the stands to fight the fan, and I don’t blame him one bit. These are the same clowns who last year threw beer cans and other trash onto the field following a bizarre play that gave the Rangers the lead in, ironically, the seventh inning. One of the beer cans hit a baby, prompting police to make an arrest.

Sure, there were tens of thousands of other Jays fans who probably behaved perfectly well, but unfortunately, every individual ultimately acts as a representation of your entire fanbase as a whole, so let’s drop the inevitable “stop making generalizations” defense. This isn’t your first offense, and it probably won’t be your last with public enemy number one Rougned Odor and the Rangers coming to town next for an ALDS rematch from last year. (Side note: check out this clip of John Gibbons even admitting how hordes of Jays fans have come “out of the woodwork” in the last year.)

Unfortunately for the Orioles, that was only a small part of their woes last night. The bulk of their on-the-field issues stemmed from a continued lack of offense, and one poor managerial decision by Buck Showalter, widely considered one of the game’s best. He seemed to be pushing the right buttons most of the night, primarily summoning both Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day to coax threat-ending double play balls in the fifth and ninth innings, respectively. But it was the one reliever that he did not call on that is causing a stir in Baltimore today.

Zach Britton, baseball’s gold standard of closers who did not blow a single save in 47 opportunities, somehow never saw the field over the span of 11 innings. Showalter had various opportunities to bring him in, but none more obvious and glaring than in the fateful 11th. Instead, after lefty Brian Duensing retired leadoff man Ezequiel Carrera, Showalter went to starter Ubaldo Jimenez.

Yes, this is the same Jimenez who, less than a week ago, was almost flawless against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Jimenez pitched well down the stretch after a dreadful start, but one thing that never changed all season was his ability to get off to a good start in his initial inning. Unfortunately for the O’s, that occurred again last night, as Jimenez was promptly greeted by singles by Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson, putting runners at the corners with only one out.

You can argue that Jimenez facing Travis was the right move. Maybe even facing Donaldson wasn’t a terrible idea. But once Edwin Encarnacion strolled to the plate — with Jose Bautista on deck — a change needed to be made. And it wasn’t.

Showalter went to the mound, presumably to discuss strategy and, more importantly, buy Britton time to get loose. Britton is a ground ball machine, and one was needed to save the Orioles’ season. Showalter instead left Jimenez in, not even opting to walk Encarnacion to face Jose Bautista, a much more inconsistent hitter in spite of the fact he had homered earlier in the night. You could have guessed how this one was going to turn out.

Ultimately, everyone makes mistakes, even really good big league managers. But what bugged me most about Showalter’s decision was that he never really took accountability for it in his postgame interview. We are all human, even if fans sometimes lose sight of that with athletes and coaches. Had Showalter owned up to his mistake, it would still sting for Orioles fans, but it would be understood nonetheless. But that’s not what happened. (I’m going to continue on this, but for reference, check out this New York Times article from Tyler Kepner.)

Per Kepner’s piece:

“You can use Zach Britton in the seventh and eighth inning and not have anybody to pitch the last inning,” [Showalter] said. “So there’s a lot of risk taken every inning, every pitch. You take that on when you get in this format.”
Asked directly if he regretted losing without using Britton, Showalter said that was only true after the fact.
“We went for about four innings there, trying to get to that spot,” he said. “It looked like if he pitches a couple innings — if he can physically, then you’re assuming, which is a pretty good assumption with the way he’s pitched this year. Playing on the road has a little something to do with it, too. But we have some good options that have done a great job for us all year, and Zach’s one of those.”

This convoluted answer seemed like a poor attempt by Showalter at deflecting criticism and blame when he clearly felt remorseful for his managerial blunder. The man responsible for helping making the Orioles relevant again after 15 straight losing seasons, so beloved by fans in Baltimore, did not want to own up to an obvious mistake.

And that, above anything, is where he failed most last night.

It was a great season in many ways for the Orioles, who have won more regular-season games since 2012 than any other American League team. It was a night where the pitching staff, by in large, glossed over blemishes by the free-swinging offense that has fallen off the map over the past few weeks. In the end, it will be remembered for animal-like acts by Jays fans, and one bad decision by the Orioles manager.

One that he seemed to not take full accountability for.

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