Five straight quality starts by the pitching staff, five straight victories for the Orioles. Can it really be that easy? Friend, if your answer to that question is yes, I don't know what the heck baseball team you've been watching, because of course it can't be easy! This is the Orioles we are talking about here.
A 4-0 lead that looked like the rare three-inning save (Luis Ayala entered the game with the score at 3-0) turned into a 4-3 nailbiter that required an emergency summoning of Jim Johnson for a two-out save. Johnson was not sharp to start out - take your pick as to why. The tying runs and winning runs were both on base when the game ended, and you didn't have to stretch your imagination to see the Orioles' undefeated streak when leading after 7 innings possibly coming to an end.
Then, Johnson threw a pitch that must have looked oh, so tempting to Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera - there it sailed right towards his wheelhouse, and yes, Asdrubal, you can be a hero! Take that hack! Smack the homer out into the right field seats! Oh, I'm sorry, did you make up your mind to swing at that pitch? Because the bottom just fell out from that breaking ball, and now it's dropping, dropping, your bat is swinging, you try to adjust in a split second - but you can't. All you can do is swing and miss, and now the game is over. Good job, Asdrubal. You're the man now, dog.
So those were the theatrics. It was almost enough to ruin a great outing from Zach Britton that featured lots of ground balls, several strikeouts, and most importantly, no runs allowed! With four hits allowed against two walks, that's a WHIP of 1.00 for the day, and we will take that, yes. As did Chris Tillman, and even Tommy Hunter before him, Britton resembled a major league pitcher against a decent, if not Yankee-esque, lineup - although Britton had the extra advantage of Cleveland being stacked with lefties.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, three of the Orioles' four runs scored via the home run. There was a graphic during the broadcast that showed the O's have scored something like 48.7% of their runs by home run - the only team higher is the aforementioned Yankee team with something like 52.3% of their runs coming from a homer. The Orioles have neither the sluggers nor the stadium to compete with that, but they are coming close anyway.
J.J. Hardy got things started as the second batter of the game, sending a drive deep to left to score himself and Nick Markakis, who opened up the game with a grounder deep in the hole that Cabrera gloved but couldn't throw to first in time. Though it got close at the end, that was a lead the Orioles would never relinquish.
Hardy was responsible for an insurance run - one the Orioles would need, as it turned out - when he drove in the O's third run in the 7th inning. With runners at the corners and one out, Indians third baseman Jose Lopez was playing in to try to cut off the run at the plate, and Hardy smoked a grounder past him for his third RBI of the day.
The 4th, and also necessary, Orioles run of the day came off of a home run from Wilson Betemit, a 438 mammoth blast to right in the 8th inning. That was the 11th Betemit home run of the season; Hardy's first inning bomb was his 14th.
About that interesting 9th inning... we could read doom into it if we want. Things just had to be interesting, didn't they? Well, I think when you try to ride a third inning from Luis Ayala, that's about what you're asking for. The inherited runner-scoring machine came in to open up the 7th inning with a clean slate, and he proceeded to send down the Indians in order in the 7th as well as the 8th. He did not allow a hit or walk for two innings. He came out for the 9th, and got a strikeout, but then Michael Brantley singled and Carlos Santana hit a barely-but-still-good-enough home run to right.
Suddenly, it was a save situation and it was time to summon Johnson. The bases were empty and there was one out, so he was even closer than usual, right? The first batter he faced was Shelley Duncan, who doubled. It was a long fly ball to left and Duncan was in his home run trot, then barely stumbled around first and into second when it bounced off the wall and back in play instead. Pinch-hitter Travis Hafner, whom I will always find annoying because of that year he was rehabbing during the AA playoffs and single-handedly beat Bowie, singled in Duncan.
The tying run was on base for Johnny Damon. Ooh, Johnny Damon. Could we at least not get beaten by Johnny Damon, Orioles? Johnson was listening to everyone who said that, getting Damon on a deep fly to left that defensive substitute Endy Chavez ran down. Two outs! Shin-Soo Choo then walked. Your heart rate ramped up, or at least mine did. Cabrera battled through an at-bat, but it ended in the strikeout, and Johnson had his 30th save notched.
The Orioles, who six games ago seemed like they would never win another game, are now winners of 5 straight and are 51-44 on the season. They are in the second wild card spot at this moment - although as Andrew will remind us, that doesn't mean anything until after 162 games have been played.
The O's have sealed the series victory over Cleveland, but there is a fourth game to be played tomorrow. They will go for the sweep, and six straight wins, at 7:05pm on Monday. Tommy Hunter takes the ball for the O's against Justin Masterson for the Indians.
But seriously though, it is July 22 and the Orioles are in a playoff spot. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are competing in late July. This is reality, man. This is Birdland.