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How The Orioles And Red Sox Took Back The Meaning Of An Overused Word


Somewhere along the way, the word "epic" lost its potency.

704 B.C. use of epic
When Odysseus spent ten years trying to reach Ithaca after the Trojan War, encountering drugged-out fruit addicts, blinding a Cyclops, making enemies with the god of the sea, encountering cannibals, watching half of his men turned into pigs by a witch-goddess, meeting the spirit of his dead mother, avoiding the Sirens, deftly navigating the narrow seas between a sea monster and a whirlpool, and then becoming the love-slave of a demigod for seven years.
2012 A.D. use of epic
A YouTube video where a guy driving an ATV runs over a hornet's nest.

But on Sunday, there was an epic baseball game. You don't have to feel shame if you want to use the word. Epic. There were Trojans and Achaens and Cyclopseses and gods and demigods and triumphs and defeats. Seventeen innings. And two position players pitching.

Two position players pitching.

And, because this can't be stressed enough, two of the pitchers in the game weren't really pitchers. Chris Davis threw two innings and picked up the win. Darnell McDonald gave up a long home run to Adam Jones in his only inning and took the loss.

If you don't believe this was an epic, let's match it up with the nine main characteristics of an epic, as defined in William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman's seminal A Handbook to Literature, which I have sitting next to me. Yep, right here. It's not like I looked up "epic poetry" on Wikipedia and cribbed all of this. It's pretty basic stuff, people. The qualifications of an epic:

1. The story begins in medias res, or in the middle of a longer story
The game wasn't epic on its own. It was a part of a larger story about the downtrodden Orioles and the crumbling hubris of the Red Sox, implausibly crossing paths yet again. The Orioles ended the Red Sox' season last year, but no one thought they were on the upswing as a franchise.

2. A vast, expansive setting
The Red Sox have an entire nation. A Red Sox Nation. It was once a mighty nation.

The Orioles' nation is a small, provincial hamlet in comparison. A little place known as Birdland.

3. Begins with an invocation to a muse
Not sure about this one. But I'd like to think that Jarrod Saltalamacchia woke up, looked in the mirror, and said, "Dear God, please don't let me screw up today." And when he came to the plate in the bottom of the 16th inning, he was the first hitter to face Davis. The first pitch of that at-bat was a fastball at 89 m.p.h.. A list of pitchers whose average velocity has been under 89 m.p.h. this season:

  • Dan Haren
  • Jered Weaver
  • Johan Santana
  • Trevor Cahill

Davis' second pitch was 91. His third pitch was one of the best change-ups thrown in the major leagues this year.

At which point, we realize that Saltalamacchia's pleas went unanswered. For he screwed up. On the other hand, check out that change-up. Hot damn.

4. Begins with a statement of theme
The last time the Orioles met the Red Sox before this series, it ended with a mob of orange and black around home plate. But that was just an isolated incidence, right? It was a limited-engagement David and Goliath story. Certainly it wasn't anything that either team was expecting to build on.

Except the Orioles are off to one of the best starts in baseball, and they were looking to sweep the Red Sox in Boston. That was going to be a heckuva statement if they could pull it off, alright. And they did. The Orioles went into Fenway and took three straight games, which they hadn't done since 1994.

Since the start of last September, the Red Sox are 18-36. The Orioles are 34-22. Maybe this will all look funny in September, when both teams are back where they're supposed to be in the standings. But the epic game on Sunday opened with the Orioles wanting to be taken seriously. They made their statement, even if it took a dinger off Darnell McDonald to get there.

5. Use of epithets
I think that applies to the fans behind Adrian Gonzalez in this .gif:

There weren't a lot of "Good effort, Adrian!"s or "Understandable turn of events, my friend!"s yelled out after that particular at-bat. Gonzalez was the tying run. He struck out against Chris Davis. I like picking out a different fan to watch each time that .gif loops. And after I've cycled through them all, I start all over again.

6. Contains long, expansive catalogues and lists.
In the Iliad, there's a long passage that details the ships that sailed to Troy, the people on the ships, the regions they represented, etc. If you're looking for a contemporary example, Raoul Duke's trunk in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will do fine.

In this game, think of the at-bats. The sheer multitude of individual match-ups, successes, and failures. J.J. Hardy went 5-for-8 to raise his average 30 points and his slugging percentage 81 points. Mark Reynolds walked four times and raised his OBP 43 points. Adrian Gonzalez went 0-for-8, leaving eight runners on base, and moving from a .284/.350/.402 season to a .264.328/.373 one by the end of the night.

Eighteen different pitchers appeared in the game, 12 of them throwing at least two innings.

Two of them were position players. Figured I should mention that part at least once.

7. Speeches and monologues
One of the best treats about the game was that Peter Gammons did the color commentary for NESN. As the game descended into insanity, he sounded like a kid. When the game went past the six-hour mark, Gammons was laughing at the idea of Darnell McDonald hitting a game-tying home run against Chris Davis. It was the honest chortle of a baseball fan having the time of his life, not a 67-year-old working three hours overtime on a Sunday night.

No matter what happens the rest of this season, this game was the kind that will be referenced in 20 or 30 years, with people bragging that they stayed until the end. This is the kind of game that makes baseball fun. Gammons never lost sight of that, even as it ended with a crushing Red Sox loss.

8. Divine intervention
That would be this play, on which everything happened perfectly for the Orioles. It was the bottom of the 16th. Marlon Byrd, on base following the worst-timed error of Wilson Betemit's career, came streaking around third as the winning run. Adam Jones had to make a clean catch and throw. J.J. Hardy had to make a perfect relay throw to home. Matt Wieters had to catch it and hang on as he was being trucked over.

You might call that good baseball. And you're probably right. But it was one of the better collaborative plays of the year, with three different players executing perfectly. If the Orioles weren't so hot this year, I'd make a joke about how they couldn't play good baseball without divine intervention. This year, though, they've earned a moratorium on the laughingstock jokes.

And there's something meddling about McDonald being the one to give up the home run and hit into the game-ending double play. It's like he was punished by the American League gods for committing National League sacrilege by pitching and hitting in the same game.

9. Heroes who represent the subject civilization
If you wrote a description -- without peyote -- of how the Orioles might make noise in the A.L. East, it would probably involve players exceeding expectations all over the diamond. More than that, though, it would have to do with the guys who had all sorts of latent potential -- Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, the young pitching -- realizing that talent.

Chris Davis is on that list, too. A Triple-A legend but major-league washout, Davis is one of the guys whom the Orioles took a flyer on, hoping he could realize his potential. And before his 0-for-8 game (with five strikeouts) on Sunday, he was absolutely raking this season. But Davis hitting a home run wouldn't have highlighted the improbability of it all. That would have been a young player continuing his surprising season.

Davis pitching a couple of innings and striking out Adrian Gonzalez, though, made you think this could actually be the Orioles' year. I mean, it's still May 7. Let's not go crazy. If you bought a "Cleveland Indians World Champs 2011!" shirt last May, you probably can't bring it back even if you have the receipt. But a game like this sure makes you think something's afoot.

Maybe this is the year that the Orioles make the playoffs again. And if they make it with the help of the extra wild card, that'd be like Charlie Brown finally getting a Valentine's Day card with someone else's name crossed out and his scribbled in. It wouldn't be elegant, but you can bet they wouldn't give a damn.

But even if the hot start doesn't continue, the Orioles played and won an epic game. Epic. No one can take this game away from them. Use the word. Take its meaning back. Reclaim it with this game. The next time someone says that Robinson Cano hit an epic home run to tie a game in the fourth inning, sit them down and share the story of when Chris Davis pitched in a 17-inning win that ended with the Baltimore Orioles in first place.