Zach Britton was so bad in his first two August starts that he was invited to return to the minor leagues to think things over. After the Orioles extended him that invitation, he did not have anything resembling a good start. Then desperation struck the big club once again, and Britton's name came out of the hat when a starter was needed for tonight's game.
Why would anyone without inside knowledge have thought Britton would do well? I'm not so sure that people with that inside information believed Britton would do well, just that they recognized he was the least objectionable of a series of unpalatable menu options. The brigade of pessimists, myself in their number, braced for the inevitable disaster as Britton loaded the bases in the first inning, giving up two singles and a walk. The Tigers had the sacks full, and one out, and Britton got the double play he needed, escaping from the jam.
We've seen starts like these before, where the shaky first inning becomes a shaky second inning. Zach was not playing by those rules today. He settled down, improbably, and ended up throwing seven shutout innings, scattering a total of six hits and three walks while getting five strikeouts. After that first inning, there were only three Tigers in scoring position while Zach was pitching - and one of those was the result of an error where Nate McLouth dropped a routine pop fly.
The error did not end up mattering. He bore down, holding up his end of an unlikely pitcher's duel with another under-performing former prospect, Rick Porcello, who came into the game with a 4.68 ERA. Yet they kept racking up the zeroes as players grounded into double plays or inexplicably ran their way into outs, or just plain could not get on base to begin with. Through six innings, it was a scoreless game. With the two teams involved, it was only a question of who would homer first, and would that first homer be enough to win the game?
Porcello was cruising to enter the top of the 7th. He'd retired the last ten Orioles in a row, with perfect innings in the 4th, 5th and 6th. In the 7th inning, the O's decided they'd had enough of that. Adam Jones led off with a single to center, the first ball all night that fell in front of Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who may not be the biggest human vacuum cleaner in MLB, but has to be up there. Matt Wieters followed up with an infield single - yes, really. It was a grounder deep in the hole between 1B and 2B, and while Omar Infante dove and gloved it, Wieters found an extra gear I wasn't sure he had, hustling down the line so much that Infante didn't even bother to throw.
To the plate stepped Chris Davis, who had yet to homer in August. He's been in all kinds of a slump lately, his slash line plummeting, looking lost. When this happens, you sometimes forget just how strong he is, and then he does things to remind you. He took a pitch that had no business being crushed, muscled it opposite field, and it kept carrying, carrying, left fielder Andy Dirks giving chase all the way to the fence, carrying, and finally soared out of there by a safe amount. The Earl Weaver Special put the O's on the board with a 3-0 lead and would prove to be all they'd need on the night.
The O's only had two at-bats with runners in scoring position in the game. One of them was the Davis home run. Talk about coming through when it counts. On the other side, the Tigers had 9 ABs with RISP and they were only 1-9.
Detroit's runs scored in the 8th inning off of Pedro Strop, ending a scoreless streak that ran back to July 5. Sometimes Strop is just wild. That's part of the Strop experience. He has a 4.19 BB/9, tough for a set-up man or closer to sustain. It wasn't walks that did him in tonight so much as a hit-by-pitch and a wild pitch. Jackson led off the 8th with a single and advanced on an Infante groundout. Strop hit Miguel Cabrera in the forearm with a fastball that rode in.
That brought up last night's Oriole killer, Prince Fielder, but Strop blew a couple fastballs by Prince and then got him to chase a slider that bounced just in front of home plate. No hanging sliders, Pedro! He almost escaped with no damage, but the runners moved up to second and third on one of the wildest wild pitches you'll ever see. It caromed off the backstop towards the O's dugout - Strop was the one who fielded it as Wieters covered home.
With two men in scoring position, Peralta hit a liner just hard enough to go over Robert Andino's head at second base, scoring the two runs. When the throw in from Nick Markakis was cut off (probably because it would have been lucky to eventually roll all the way to home plate), Peralta was caught in a rundown and tagged out to end the inning.
No big deal, right? Then it was a one-run game - right where the Orioles want 'em. Jim Johnson pitched a perfect 9th. There was nothing remotely threatening about the inning. He notched his 36th save of the season, and the Orioles won their 65th game of the year. Last year, their 65th win came on September 21 and they had a 65-90 record. This year's O's are 65-55. Big difference, huh? The win was also the O's 12th-consecutive win in a one-run game, tying a franchise record that was last reached during the 1979 season.
I kind of like getting to make comparisons to years that aren't 2005. Speaking of which, I think we're very close to banishing them for good: the 2005 O's had 75 losses to go along with 65 wins, following up an 8-18 July with an 11-17 August. Our O's this year were 13-14 in July and are 10-6 so far in August. It's in the midst of a tough stretch of games against playoff contenders right now, with one more against Detroit tomorrow and then three in Texas, but I like their chances to improve upon the disastrous outcome of that season.
New York lost today, so the O's go back to a 6-game deficit in the American League East standings. Today's win over Detroit puts the O's back into the second wild card spot, with Detroit and Oakland a game behind.
The O's will look to put a little more room between them and the competition as they seek a series win tomorrow afternoon. The 1:05pm game will have Doug Fister (3.24 ERA) starting for the Tigers and Wei-Yin Chen (3.70 ERA) starting for the Orioles.