Of all the losses the Orioles have had this year, only two have seemed to me to be the sloppy, ugly sort that we watched so frequently last year and in the years before that. The first one was their loss to the Yankees last week, and the second was last night against the Red Sox (I know they had some big losses against the Rangers, but to me those were just Texas being Texas). Both times I've gotten worried that those losses meant more than the others, that it was the sign the Orioles were reverting to their old ways.
Well, the Orioles followed that ugly loss against the Yankees with a 5-0 win thanks in part to a brilliant game by Jake Arrieta. And tonight they came back strong against the surging Red Sox with a fantastic game from starting pitcher Brian Matusz. As a wise man once said, momentum is the next day's starting pitcher.
It's no secret that Matusz has looked better of late, and I'm starting to believe in him again. But even with his improved performance, it's tough to forget his season last year and so it's always a big relief when he doesn't fall apart. And tonight he certainly did not fall apart.
Matusz pitched 6 1/3 innings and in his six innings he was perfect in four of them. He struck out nine batters, six of which were swinging, and he got both David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez twice. He allowed two baserunners in the 2nd inning thanks to a single from Gonzalez and a walk to Jarrod Saltalamacchia (his only walk on the day). And he only allowed one more hit, which was unfortunately a home run by Kevin Youkilis. It was one of Brian's few really bad pitches on the night.
Matusz came out to start the 7th inning to face Gonzalez and struck him out. Matusz's pitch count was a only little high at 101, and I have to think that if the next batter wasn't Youkilis or if the Orioles offense had managed to score a few more runs, Buck Showalter would have left him out there to try to finish the inning. But with a slim 2-1 lead it's hard to argue with him being removed. It was a great start by Matusz and just what the Orioles needed.
The O's offense was quiet tonight, mostly unable to solve Felix Doubront. Doubront has been decent so far this year, although he has trouble pitching late into games. It looked like it would be another early exit for him as the Orioles worked him for twenty-six pitches in the first inning, but they were unable to score and, as is so often the case, they didn't. But they scored all the runs they'd need on the night in the second inning thanks to Steve Tolleson's first home run as an Oriole.
Wilson Betemit walked with no outs in the second inning, but was eliminated on a fielder's choice off the bat of Chris Davis. Still, that put one runner on base when Tolleson came to the plate and hit a first-pitch home run to left field, giving the O's a 2-0 lead. I have to say, I know he just got called up, but so far I really like what I see from Tolleson. He has a good approach at the plate and his defense at third base is a breath of fresh air. It was an off-season signing that was barely noticed, but looks like a good move by Dan Duquette. Depth is good!
After Tolleson's home run the O's bats took a snooze. Doubront retired Xavier Avery and Robert Andino to end the second inning, and then allowed only two more baserunners through the 6th when he came out of the game. Adam Jones singled with two outs in the 3rd inning, and Nick Markakis led off the sixth with a single before Doubront struck out the side. It was a good night for Doubront, but tonight it just wasn't good enough.
With the Orioles up by just one run, they needed a good night from the bullpen, and the bullpen delivered. Darren O'Day followed Matusz with strikeouts of Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks to end the 7th inning, and Pedro Strop worked around a walk to pitch a scoreless 8th.
It was looking like closer Jim Johnson would have to be perfect to nail down his 16th save of the season, but Wilson Betemit gave him a bit of breathing room. Former Oriole Matt Albers was pitching in relief and making the O's look just silly. He struck out the final two batters of the 7th inning, stranding two inherited runners, and got two easy outs to start the 8th inning before walking Matt Wieters. It looked a little like Albers was pitching around Wieters to get to Betemit, but with Wieters slumping badly that would have been a strange decision.
Did you know that before tonight, Albers had faced his former team seven times, and in a total of ten innings pitched had never given up a base hit? That streak came to an end tonight in the form of a flag-court home run, Betemit's 7th HR of the year.
Betemit's blast gave the Orioles a few insurance runs, but JJ didn't need them to shut down the Red Sox. He threw just eight pitches, inducing two ground outs and a fly ball to left that could have been trouble if not for the speedy Avery. He raced towards the corner and made the catch look easy, and with that the Orioles are back in the win column.