We haven’t had a good, intense divisional race in the American League East for quite a while. The last two seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays had the division locked up with multiple weeks left in the season, and the Yankees did the same in 2019. The 2018 Yankees did not seriously threaten the Red Sox after being swept in a four-game set in early August. Technically, the 2017 race was tight, with Boston winning the division by only two games, but it was only appeared at close because the Red Sox lost four of their last six games. Another slow ending for the 2016 Red Sox similarly brought their division lead over the Orioles and Blue Jays to only four, but again, by that point the division was already locked up, while the 2015 Blue Jays, 2014 Orioles, and 2013 Blue Jays had sizeable division leads in the final days of the season.
To find a true division race, one where both teams were neck-and-neck down the stretch and fans spent as much time with their eyes on the scoreboard as they did watching the game, you have to go all the way back a decade, as the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles jostled for the division crown in hopes of avoiding the inaugural AL Wild Card Game.
Ten years ago, the New York Yankees hosted the Oakland Athletics for a Saturday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium, with first pitch scheduled for 1:08 pm ET. Two minutes later, the Baltimore Orioles started at Fenway Park for a 1:10 pm ET matchup with the Boston Red Sox. With the teams just a game apart in the standings, both fanbases settled in for a baseball-filled afternoon.
And boy, did that afternoon have a lot of baseball.
The A’s got on the board first, scoring two quick runs off Yankees starter Iván Nova courtesy of three consecutive doubles. Just a few minutes later, the O’s took a 1-0 lead thanks to a walk, a stolen base, and a pair of groundouts. Within minutes, however, the Yankees and Red Sox got those runs right back. After Derek Jeter lined out to right field, Ichiro Suzuki deposited a baseball into the right field seats to cut the lead in half. Alex Rodriguez walked, moved to second on a balk, and scored on a Robinson Canó single to tie it up. A walk, a single, and a bases-loaded walk later, and when Nova returned to the mound at 1:46 pm, he had himself a 3-2 lead.
For those watching the scoreboard, though, they would have seen not one but two lead changes during that half inning. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia bounced a ball into the right field seats for a ground-rule double. He would later come around to score when cleanup hitter Ryan Lavarnway (yes, the 2012 Red Sox had a rookie catcher slashing .171/.230/.276 hitting fourth) singled. But at 1:39 pm, Manny Machado took the lead back, driving in Chris Davis with a one-out single.
A pair of back-and-forth games ensued. A wild pitch with a runner on third brought in A-Rod to extend the Yankee lead to 4-2 in the bottom of the second. But future Yankee Stephen Drew got that run right back with a leadoff homer to lead off the third. Just a few minutes later, at 2:19, the Yankees were forced to go to their bullpen; Clay Rapada got Josh Reddick to hit into a 1-2-3 double play to keep the score at 4-3. In Boston, another future Yankee, Mark Reynolds, extended the Baltimore lead with a leadoff homer of his own, this one in the top of the fourth.
On and on this seesaw battle continued. Cliff Pennington tied it in the fourth with an RBI single off Rapada. Danny Valencia tied it in Fenway with a two-run shot off Randy Wolf. Raúl Ibañez, pinch-hitting for Casey McGehee, gives the Bombers a 5-4 lead with a solo shot in the fifth. Ryan Flaherty hits a two-run triple in the sixth to give Baltimore a 5-3 lead. Yet another future Yankee, Chris Carter, hit a sacrifice fly in the seventh to tie it up at five in the Bronx. Cody Ross and Lavarnway drove in a pair of runs with productive groundouts in the seventh and Scott Podsednik doubled in the eighth to tie it up at six in Boston.
The scorecard says that it was the Yankees and the Athletics going back and forth, the Orioles and the Red Sox battling it out. In reality, although they were more than two hundred miles apart, the Yankees and the Orioles traded blows. And as the sun began to sink in the sky, as four o’clock came and went, the two teams took each other to extra innings. With a tie for the division on the table, neither New York nor Baltimore was willing to yield, as they traded zeroes in the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th.
Five o’clock came, the O’s and Sox went to the 12th, and for the first time in over an hour, somebody’s offense began to shine through. With Alfredo Aceves, Boston’s eighth pitcher, on the mound, Adam Jones led off the twelfth with a double. He would come around to score on a double by Jim Thome.
ON THIS DAY IN ORIOLES HISTORY:— Locked On Orioles (@LockedOnOrioles) September 22, 2020
September 22, 2012:
The Orioles score three runs in the top of the 12th, with the go-ahead run scoring on a Jim Thome RBI double, and go on to beat the Red Sox 9-6 for their 16th consecutive extra-innings victory. pic.twitter.com/RmWFXMKVm4
Xavier Avery pinch ran for the 41-year-old designated hitter, and he scored two plays later on an Endy Chavez single. After Chris Carpenter came on in relief, Machado himself singled, driving in Chavez. Just like that, it was a 9-6 Baltimore lead. Jim Johnson shut the door in the bottom of the inning, and at 5:24, the Yankees’ lead in the AL East had shrunk to just half a game.
At this point, the Yankees and A’s were headed to the top of the 12th. Freddy García, now in his second inning of work, sent the A’s down in order, giving the offense a chance to win their own in the bottom of the 12th. After Eduardo Núñez led off the inning by looking at strike three, Ibañez doubled to put the winning run on second, advancing to third on a wild pitch. He would be thrown out at the plate, however, as he ran on contact on a groundball to second. Curtis Granderson walked, putting runners on first and second, then another passed ball put runners on second and third with two out. Eric Chavez walked to load the bases. Unfortunately, Derek Jeter would fly out to right field, rending it all moot. The game moved to the 13th.
Coming in for his third inning of work, García simply didn’t have it. A Stephen Drew single, back-to-back homers by Jonny Gomes and Yoenis Céspedes, and he was out of the game with the Yankees down by three. Justin Thomas wasn’t much better, allowing a solo shot to Chris Carter to make it 9-5, but he at least got out of the inning. The Yankees were staring a tie atop of the AL East in the face.
The thing about those 2012 Yankees, though, was that they didn’t have much quit in them, especially during the regular season. Ichiro, A-Rod, and Canó led off the inning with a trio of singles to load the bases with nobody out. With Pat Neshek brought on in relief, a wild pitch plated Ichiro, while a Núñez sacrifice fly brought home Rodriguez.
And then, foreshadowing his October heroics, Ibañez drilled his second home run of the night to tie the game at 9 at 6:33 pm.
September 22, 2012— NY Yankees Throwbacks (@yankeethrowback) June 6, 2020
Raul Ibanez hits a game-tying home run in the 13th inning pic.twitter.com/EHzL073WAx
Cory Wade maintained that momentum, setting down Derek Norris, Cliff Pennington, and Stephen Drew in order in the top of the 14th. Chavez led off the inning with a single to right field; Melky Mesa would be tapped as a pinch-runner (his MLB debut) to give the Yankees some speed at first. Jeter bunted him over to second. To put the double play back in order, the A’s intentionally walked Ichiro. Then, A-Rod drilled a single up the middle, Melky Mesa rounded third as the winning run...
...and he immediately ran back to third, because he missed the bag! Out of all the rookie mistakes, it ranks up there as one of the rookiest. The next batter, he was thrown out at home as Robbie Canó reached on a fielder’s choice. Then Núñez hit a soft ground ball to first base, the clock struck 7:10, and all of Baltimore sighed in relief as the game would go into the 15th.
Not so fast. First baseman Brandon Moss misplayed the ball! Núñez reached on an E3, Ichiro scored, and the Yankees recorded one of their most unlikely wins of the 2012 season.
September 22, 2012— NY Yankees Throwbacks (@yankeethrowback) January 3, 2022
The Yankees walk off on an error in the 14th pic.twitter.com/R7qoIMXuwv
Two games. Ten hours of baseball. Six hours of the day. A Saturday afternoon turned into Saturday evening, four teams played a pair of epic matchups (one of which we here at PSA ranked among the Top 25 games of the last 25 years) in which the winners of each eyed not their opponent of the afternoon, but their season-long rival. An intense division race is, in my opinion, baseball at its finest. While my ideal season involves the Yankees coasting to a division title, I can’t help but look fondly over the month of September 2012. New York and Baltimore, ever at each other’s throats, the Orioles nipping at the Yankees’ heels. Every game mattered, every scoreboard was watched closely.
September 22, 2012: baseball at its finest.