On July 26, Stevie Wilkerson recorded a save for the Baltimore Orioles. He became the eighth Oriole to do so during the 2019 season. So far, so dull. Even extremely bad teams rack up save opportunities, even extremely bad relievers occasionally seize them. But Wilkerson is no mere bad reliever. He is, in fact, an outfielder. And in getting the final three outs against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night, he became the first position player to record a save. Ever.
Position players pitching is a cherished tribute of baseball’s inherent weirdness. Shohei Ohtani aside, they’re not very good at it, and watching Major League hitters go up against slop is enormously amusing, especially when they manage to get themselves out. A position player taking the mound happens mostly during blowouts, when teams care more about chewing through innings than preventing runs. Since 1969, there have been hundreds of instances of position players taking the hill. It took 50 years for any of them to pick up a save.
How did this happen? Let’s set the scene.
The Angels-Orioles game wasn’t totally meaningless — the hosts are still in the hunt for a Wild Card berth — but for the Orioles, the result of any individual game is a matter of some indifference. By the time it stretched to the mid-teen innings, the Angels probably felt similarly. The game itself was a wild affair: it was 2-1 in the 8th before several bullpen implosions led to multiple lead changes and three blown saves.
By the bottom of the 16th, with the Orioles holding a two-run lead and with nine pitchers already used, Brandon Hyde had had enough. On came Wilkerson, whom Hyde calls “Dr. Poo Poo”, perhaps in reference to his stuff. Wilkerson had played a part in Baltimore’s meltdown when, with two outs, he failed to gather a Kole Calhoun line drive to center field. Three runs scored, and the game went off the rails entirely. Twelve runs later (one of which he doubled in to tie the game at 4-4), he found himself on the hill.
This was not his first rodeo. Wilkerson had pitched twice already in July, appearing with the Orioles down 16-2 on the 12th and 16-6 on the 20th, giving up one run over his three innings of work. But one has to assume that he was not expecting to emerge as Baltimore’s closer-by-attrition. Six-plus hour games have a way of getting weird.
Brian Goodwin was his first victim. Wilkerson’s first pitch was a slow floating ... thing. If you’ve seen Wilkerson before — and who among us is not a connoisseur of Orioles blowouts? — that would not have surprised you, because Wilkerson has yet to throw a pitch that isn’t a slow floating thing. This particular slow floating thing (upon reflection, I think they’re probably changeups) just missed the inside corner, and Goodwin took it to get to 1-0.
An aside: Goodwin has not had much of a career in MLB, but he’s had some success as a bench bat, and this season he’s been more than that, hitting .285/.341/.467 in 83 games. He was also responsible for tying the game in the ninth, obliterating a Mychal Givens fastball into the right field seats. Givens probably regrets this pitch:
Anyway, Goodwin can hit, at least a little bit, and Wilkerson might have considered himself in trouble after going behind in the count. He was not. A curve down the middle was taken for a called strike, and one floated well over the zone was given to Wilkerson out of charity. Goodwin’s first swing was a confused wave at a pitch well outside, fouled down the third-base line, and his second resulted in a lazy fly ball to center.
Calhoun was next. He quickly got ahead 2-0 before another generous umpire call brought Wilkerson back into the count. Two pitches later, Calhoun produced a thoroughly uncomfortable swing and grounded out to second.
The only man standing between Wilkerson and history was walking-history Albert Pujols. Goodwin and Calhoun had shown themselves flummoxed by facing mid-50s floaters. Would a future Hall-of-Famer fare any differently? Reader, he would not.
Pujols might have got himself out on the second pitch he saw, jamming himself and hitting a pop foul that just escaped into the seats behind home plate. He barely avoided a called strike three on the next pitch on when the umpires forgot that they were favoring Wilkerson. But he couldn’t avoid fate: a weak flare to centre and the Angels’ humiliation was complete.
And so the 33-69 Orioles made the record books in what was felt the weirdest way imaginable. Stevie Wilkerson, Slop King of Baseball, had earned himself one of the least plausible saves the sport has ever seen.