Jim Thome watches the flight of his RBI ground-rule double during… (JESSICA RINALDI, Reuters )
BOSTON – When the Orioles acquired Jim Thome in early July, they did so hoping the 42-year-old had enough hits left in his bat to help get them get to the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
Thome himself said being thrust into a pennant race re-energized him, but it was soon after that a herniated disk left the likely Hall of Famer’s season in limbo.
Thome returned to the starting lineup Saturday for the first time in eight weeks, and the veteran designated hitter provided his team with his biggest hit in an Orioles uniform.
With the Orioles entrenched in yet another extra-inning game, Thome lofted a ball that one-hopped into the right-field stands for an RBI ground-rule double in the 12th inning, the key hit in a 9-6 win over the Boston Red Sox in front of an announced sellout crowd of 37,570 at Fenway Park. The win was the Orioles’ season-high sixth straight.
“Jimmy, when he collides with the ball, usually something happens that you like when he's on your team,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “A lot of guys would have thrown in the towel with some of the issues he had going on with his back, but he grinded through it and came back to make a contribution, and I feel really good for him. He means a lot to our club and the clubhouse.”
As extra innings progressed, the Fenway faithful streamed out of the century-old ballpark, leaving the chants of “Let’s Go, O’s” to fill the seating bowl.
Saturday marked the Orioles’ club-record 16th straight extra-inning win. It was their fourth extra-inning win this season in Boston and their fourth victory in 11 or more innings in their last nine games.
“I think in baseball, I don't want to say you have to have a little luck, but you have to have a little mojo on your side,” Thome said. “You have to be talented. Our bullpen has done a tremendous job, and so have our starters. You can't forget the offense, either. When you play extra innings, you manufacture runs. That's one thing we've done really well. It's not so much always been a home run.”
The win gave the Orioles (87-64), who have won nine of their last 10 at Fenway Park, three series wins in Boston this season. Earlier this month, the Orioles also clinched three series wins at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles, who have an American League-leading 45 road wins, have won nine of their last 11 road series against AL East opponents.
Saturday’s win win helped the Orioles remain one game behind the division-leading New York Yankees, who beat the Oakland A’s 10-9 in 14 innings. The Orioles now lead Oakland by two games in the race for the top AL wild-card spot.
When Thome went on the disabled list July 31, forced to leave the team while it was playing a key division series at Yankee Stadium, it was unclear when he’d be able to return, especially given his history of nagging back problems.
But Thome said he would think about being in situations like Saturday’s when he was rehabbing at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla.
“You want to be a part of what they're doing,” Thome said. “That's what makes you work hard when you're down there. You really don't know. You don't know on rehab how the process is going to go, so being here and being in this atmosphere, you enjoy every minute of it, no doubt.”
Before getting the game-winning hit Saturday, Thome was 0-for-5. But when he came to the plate with one out and Adam Jones on second — Jones led of the inning with a double — he delivered one of the most important hits of the Orioles’ season.
“He’s been around for 20 years,” Jones said. “That’s not even the biggest hit of his career. That’s the biggest hit for us this year, but it’s not the biggest of his career.
“We missed him,” Jones addded. “We missed his leadership. We missed his presence on the bench. He was always positive. He gets people going in the clubhouse, and he came through. I know he was 0-for-5, but you know him. His line is always to keep battling. He did it in a big situation, a big knock.”
Thome’s hit sparked a three-run 12th inning against Red Sox reliever Alfredo Aceves. Endy Chavez later singled home Xavier Avery, who was pinch running for Thome, and Manny Machado drove in his second run of the day with a two-out RBI single.
The Orioles’ bullpen ended the game by throwing four scoreless innings, but the O’s couldn’t hold a three-run sixth-inning lead.
The game-tying run was plated in the eighth on back-to-back two-out doubles by No. 8 and No. 9 hitters Daniel Nava and Scott Podsednik off the Green Monster against struggling reliever Pedro Strop.