With the Orioles and Blue Jays tied at two in a win-or-go-home wild-card game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter didn’t use closer Zach Britton, who was the best relief pitcher on the planet this year, in the ninth inning. Or the 10th. Or the 11th, when an over-the-hill Ubaldo Jiménez served up a middle-middle fastball on the first pitch to Edwin Encarnación, who duly turned it into a second-deck walk-off home run. As the game went on and progressively weaker pitchers appeared in progressively more important spots, Britton’s absence awakened the interest of American television’s top investigative mind.
Police Chief Jim Hopper rolled over in bed and groped around on his nightstand for the ringing telephone.
It’s late, he thought to himself. This better be good.
“Chief, it’s Callahan. Joyce Byers is on the phone. She says Zach Britton’s missing.”
Hopper leaned out of bed and reached for his uniform shirt, which lay in a wrinkled heap on the floor. He fished around in the breast pocket for a half-smoked pack of cigarettes and extracted one.
“What do you mean, missing?” he asked as he fumbled for his lighter. “He hasn’t come into the game yet?”
“No, sir. We told her it’s only the ninth, and it’s a tie game on the road, and Brad Brach can hold out for another inning just fine.”
Hopper grunted approval. “What’d Joyce say?”
“She’s worried, Chief. Wants us to go look for him.”
“Tell her not to worry. He’s probably just waiting for a save situation. I’m going back to sleep. If Brach gets in trouble, call me back and I’ll come in.”
The phone rang again five minutes later. Hopper had barely finished his cigarette.
“Sir, it’s Callahan. Donaldson hit a leadoff double and Brach intentionally walked Encarnación.”
“Jesus. And is there action in the pen?”
“Yes sir, but — and you’re not going to believe this — it’s Darren O’Day.”
Hopper bolted upright, jostling loose the residue that years of a pack-a-day smoking habit and a consistent five-cans-of-light-beer buzz had built up on the inside of his skull.
“OK, Callahan. I’ll be in in 10 minutes.”
Hopper tried to wave the stink of cigarettes and sweat off of himself as he half-jogged into the station.
“I heard on the way in. Three inning-ending double plays in one game. Buck’s playing with fire here, Callahan. Call the surrounding towns and the state police, ask if anyone around has seen Zach Britton. He can’t have gone far.”
“Hopper, what’s happened to my closer?”
Hopper turned around and there she was: Joyce Byers, her comically large cardigan soaked with rain, an unlit cigarette perched between the fingers of her quivering right hand.
“Joyce, everything’s going to be fine. Buck’s probably just saving — ”
“ — Britton for a save situation? Come on, Hopper, you know Buck’s not that old-fashioned. He knows the season’s on the line!”
Hopper sighed. “Joyce, we can’t get any real search party together until morning anyway.”
“By morning it’ll be too late. Besides …”
“It’s my phone.”
“Your phone? What the hell are you talking about, Joyce?”
“It’s been ringing unexpectedly. Making strange noises.”
Hopper leaned back on his desk. I wish I’d never gotten out of bed. “What kind of noises, Joyce?”
“It sounds like it’s coming from the Orioles’ dugout. It’s just been words like ‘Duensing’ and ‘Ubaldo.’”
Hopper’s blood ran cold. “Wait, someone from the Orioles’ dugout called and asked for Ubaldo?”
“I don’t know, Hopper. It’s just what it sounded like.”
Callahan ran back into the room. “Chief, it’s the bottom of the 10th and O’Day’s coming back out.”
“This is worse than I thought,” said Hopper. “OK, Callahan, keep working the phones. Joyce, come with me. We’re going to the ballpark.”
“What do you think we’re going to find at the ballpark, Hopper?”
“I really don’t know. But if this game stays tied long enough for Ubaldo Jiménez to come in, it won’t stay that way for long. He’s got nothing left, and against a team that hits as many violent dead-pull home runs as the Blue Jays, well … We’ll find Britton before it’s too late. We have to.”
Hopper slammed on the brakes outside Rogers Centre and leaped out of his truck.
“Joyce, stay behind me,” he said as he drew his revolver and checked the cylinder.
Hopper broke open the locked gate to the stadium’s back entrance and carefully paced through the deserted tunnel, Joyce a step behind him, until they reached the Orioles’ clubhouse.
“Can I see your badge?” asked the clubhouse security guard.
Hopper pointed to his police chief’s badge.
“No, I mean your credential. No admittance to the clubhouse without a pass for both of you.”
Hopper nodded. “Oh, I see. I’ve got my credential right here,” he said as he bashed the butt end of his pistol against the side of the guard’s head.
The inside of the clubhouse was completely deserted. Joyce rounded the corner to the trainer’s room.
“He’s not in there,” she said.
Hopper holstered his gun and placed his hands on his hips. “Well, if he’s not in there, he’s not hurt. And if he’s not hurt, then why the hell are they going to — ” Hopper looked at the clubhouse TV and saw an Orioles left-hander with a 5 on his jersey warming up to start the 11th inning.
“Hopper!” Joyce cried out. “That’s him! He’s OK!”
Then the pitcher turned around, showing the no. 50 on his back, not Britton’s 53.
Joyce gasped. “Oh my God, that’s Brian Duensing.”
Hopper placed his hand on the butt of his gun. “Come on. We’re running out of time.”
Hopper and Joyce reached the end of the tunnel to the Orioles’ dugout just as Duensing struck out Ezequiel Carrera and Showalter climbed the steps. Their hearts sank as Showalter tapped his right arm.
“Could be Bundy,” Hopper said, giving voice to the last strands of optimism in his heart.
It wasn’t Bundy. It was Ubaldo.
Joyce and Hopper leaped out of the dugout at a dead run for the bullpen, crying out Britton’s name, but nobody on the field or in the stands even noticed they were there. Devon Travis roped a hard single to left, then Josh Donaldson hit another.
“Zach!” Joyce shouted as they opened the gate to the bullpen and ran inside. “Zach! Are you in here? Can you hear me?”
Hopper turned around, eyes darting to every corner of the bullpen in silent desperation. Nobody was even warming up as Encarnación strolled to the plate.
“Hopper! I’ve found him!”
Hopper spun on his heel to see Britton sitting silently on the bullpen bench, completely unable to hear Joyce as she shouted his name.
A sharp crack and a roar from the crowd got Hopper to turn around again, this time to face the field.
“Joyce,” he said, choking back tears. “Joyce, it’s too late.”
Encarnación raised his arms in triumph, and as a 2 changed to a 5 on the scoreboard, the stadium lights flickered.