BALTIMORE — They squeezed into the ballpark wearing bright orange. They packed Eutaw Street and danced to that 1970s ditty, "Orioles Magic." They waved their orange towels and filled the park with chants of “Let’s Go O’s!" They cheered as they watched old clips flicker on the scoreboard before the game.
They came to the ballyard for a party, a celebration of the Orioles' first ALCS appearance since '97. What they got was an ALCS Game 1 with enough drama to fill all those empty years, a game with more dramatic twists and preposterous turns than an overwrought telenovela — a game that became "The Alex Gordon Show."
He had already hit a broken-bat three-run double three hours earlier and made a spectacular catch in left field. At 12:17 a.m., leading off the top of the 10th in a 5-5 game, Gordon stepped up to the plate against Darren O’Day as a steady rain fell. "Just get on base any way you can," he told himself. On a 1-1 count, he saw a 87-mph fastball pitch and rocked it over the right field scoreboard and into a sea of orange, the ball landing near where Gordon's name is engraved in the ground.
As one of the few who’ve hit a ball onto Eutaw Street at Camden Yards, Gordon has a small plaque on the street for hitting a 425-foot home run on July 1, 2008, when he was a 24-year-old in his second season in Kansas City. That seems like a lifetime ago. Gordon is 30 now, and perhaps more than anyone on this team, he represents the long climb of this long woebegone franchise.
He has been a phenom and a bust, the best minor-leaguer in the minors and one of the game's biggest disappointments. He has been over-hyped and he's been forgotten. Now Alex Gordon is becoming an October hero, carrying the Royals on their strange, crazy, magical October ride.
"These games, we’ve played so many of them that we’re kind of used to them a little bit," Royals manager Ned Yost said moments after Kansas City's 8-6 win in 10 innings, a 4-hour, 37-minute drama. It was the Royals' fourth extra-inning win this playoffs and the third time this postseason the team has won on a go-ahead home run in extra innings.
It has been a postseason that's defied all logic, so of course Game 1 of the ALCS would be a game that made no sense. Of course the team that finished dead last in the majors hit the three home runs in the game — not the Orioles, the team that finished first. Of course the team that ran wild on its way to the ALCS did not have a single stolen base — and the team that finished dead last in the majors in steals had two.
Of course the player who hit the first home run was Alcides Escobar, who hit three home runs in 579 at-bats this season (and one home run against right-handers) but ripped a solo home run off righty Chris Tillman to the left field seats for the game's first run. Of course the player who hit the last of the three was Mike Moustakas, the team's No. 9 hitter who hit two regular-season home runs after July and who gave the Royals a 8-5 lead after Gordon's shot in the 10th. Of course the pitcher with the nickname Big Game James would let a 5-1 lead slip away and give up four runs and 10 hits over five wobbly innings.
Things started to get strange at Oriole Park in the bottom of the sixth. The inning began with a leadoff walk, then unraveled for the Royals with a bloop single to right by Nick Markakis. It got worse when a throw by Escobar hit Jonathan Schoop in the back as he attempted to advance to third. A 75-five foot bloop by Alejandro De Aza in no man's land just beyond the pitcher's mound landed for an infield single to score Schoop and tie the game. A heavier rain began to fall as Kelvin Herrera took the mound to face Adam Jones with two on and no one out. Herrera got two groundouts to escape the inning.
A squandered four-run lead, a terrible error, a lucky bloop: It was beginning to look like Baltimore's night, and even more so after the Royals had a couple of big calls go against them in the seventh. With no one out in the inning, pinch runner Jarrod Dyson had second base stolen easily, but a hard tag from Schoop seemed to push Dyson’s left leg off the base. Dyson was called out and Lorenzo Cain was called out on strikes on a borderline pitch — a promising inning derailed.
The bizarre continued in the top of the ninth, when untouchable closer Zach Britton walked the bases loaded after throwing 12 straight balls. Hosmer stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and grounded the ball to first, where Steve Pearce, moving to his left, had to turn his shoulders and laser the ball home to throw out Escobar. It was past midnight in Baltimore when O'Day entered in the ninth with one out and the bases loaded. The Black Keys' "Thickfreakness" blared on the stadium speakers as O'Day warmed up, and the game hung in the balance. On a 2-2 count, O'Day got Butler to ground into a double play to end the inning.
For Kansas City, it was becoming a night of squandered opportunities. Then Gordon stepped up to the plate against O'Day, ripped his second big hit of the night and changed everything. "Gordy just has a lot of confidence in his abilities," Yost said. "And he’s a guy that can hit on a pitch and do exactly what he did, drive it out of the ballpark tonight. So it was a huge hit for us at that point, because we were really trying hard to get Greg Holland in that game and that allowed it."
This is becoming the postseason of the Royals, America’s new darlings, but this is also becoming Alex Gordon’s October. He is the Royals' best player, the biggest reason why they are on this magical run: Gordon had an excellent regular season, finishing in the top five in the league in Wins Above Replacement (6.6), but still entered the postseason under the national radar.
That is changing with every game this October. Gordon’s big night in Baltimore continued his hot hitting this postseason. He drove in four runs over the last two games of the division series against the Angels. It has been quite the turnaround for the outfielder who struggled down the stretch, when he hit .190 with just one home run over 84 at-bats in September.
More than anyone, Gordon knows about ups and downs. "I wish I could swing it great every night and be the greatest player that ever played," he said on Friday, just before his big night, perhaps the biggest game of his winding career. "But it’s definitely not going to happen. So you’ve just got to deal with the ups and downs. Over my career I’ve learned how to deal with it and just moved on. Take every game as it is."