As I watched tonight's game I was mentally tallying all of their missed opportunities. When I wrote tonight's recap I wanted to have them fresh in my mind so that I could say that the Orioles lost this game due to A, B, and C. And they did miss a lot of chances to score against the White Sox struggling pitchers, and it did look like a good game by Wei-Yin Chen was going to go to waste. But then the Orioles did what the Orioles have done so many times this year, and they came back to win in an unexpected way. Came back to win by exactly one run, because that's what the Orioles do.
Both starting pitchers tonight gave up just two runs, but it was not an evenly matched performance by any stretch of the imagination. White Sox starter Francisco Liriano was all over the place while Wei-Yin Chen was fantastic for six innings.
After Chen retired the side in order in the first, Liriano gave up a single to leadoff man Nick Markakis. He retired the next two batters, but a two-out single from Matt Wieters put runners on the corners for Lew Ford. Yes, Lew Ford is still on the team. On the fourth pitch of Ford's at-bat, the ball got away from catcher A.J. Pierzynski and Markakis raced for home. The throw to Liriano covering got there just ahead of Nick and he was tagged out for the final out.
Chen turned in another easy inning in the second, allowing the first of four hits on the night, a one-out single by Alex Rios. Rios was stranded at first, though, as Chen got the next two batters. Since Ford was at the plate when Markakis was thrown out to end the first inning, he got to start fresh as the first batter in the bottom of the second. He battled Liriano for a long at-bat and finally connected for a no doubt home run onto the flag court beyond right field. It was Ford's first homer in the majors since July 2007, and it gave the O's a 1-0 lead.
Remember those missed opportunities I mentioned? After Ford's home run, the Orioles loaded the bases with just one out, bringing Markakis to the plate. Markakis hit a liner to shortstop that Alexei Ramirez caught in the air. The ball wasn't smoked, but it was hit just hard enough, and Manny Machado at second base was just far enough away from the bag that he was doubled up easily to end the inning. So in an inning when the Orioles had four base runners thanks to two hits and two walks, the only run scored was on the leadoff homer. Liriano threw 24 pitches in the inning.
Chen continued to sail through the game, giving up one single each in the third and fourth innings, and retiring the side 1-2-3 in the fifth. Similiarly, Liriano didn't give up any runs in the same span, but he labored. Thanks mostly to an eight-pitch walk to Matt Wieters, he threw 22 pitches in the third inning, and it took him 22 more to retire the side in order in the fourth. Despite his obvious lack of control in the previous two innings, the Orioles were free swingers in the fifth, managing only a two-out single from J.J. Hardy in Liriano's eight-pitch inning.
But in the sixth, that's when it hit the fan. Poor Chen, who needed to be perfect, wasn't. And the Orioles, again given a great opportunity, squandered it.
First, Chen. To that point he'd pitched five scoreless innings, giving up only three singles and no walks. The first batter of the inning, DeWayne Wise, hit a sharp grounder that Mark Reynolds made a good play on. He shuffled the ball to Chen, but he couldn't handle it and it dropped out of his glove. An error was called on him and the first runner was on. It was frustrating, but it was the first mistake Chen made all night.
With the tying run on base thanks to the error, Chen had to face longtime Orioles nemesis Kevin Youkilis. Ugh. I think in the short time he's been gone from the Red Sox I had forgotten just how ugly that dude is. But ugly or not, he can still hit. And he went the opposite way on the first pitch he saw for a two-run homer. That homer hurt for so many reasons. The Orioles had chances to score, chances to knock Liriano out of the game, and they didn't take advantage. And now they were losing 2-1. Chen got his act together after that, although he did issue a one-out walk to Paul Konerko. But he struck out Rios and Pierzynksi to end the inning and his night. Just a great game by Chen. His final line; 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 1 HR.
Could the Orioles come back and score some runs in support of Chen's great effort? Well...sort of. Liriano started the sixth inning but after walking Wieters and giving up a single to Ford, he was pulled in favor of Jesse Crain. Like Liriano before him, Crain struggled mightily with his control. He walked Reynolds to load the bases, and then also walked McLouth. McLouth was gutsy in taking the final pitch, which looked very close to the top of the strike zone. But the ump called it a ball and he trotted to first base as Wieters came in with the tying run.
It's a tie game and the Orioles had the bases loaded with no outs. Time to break this thing open, right? Wrong. Machado: grounded into a force out at home (that Pierzysnki didn't follow up with a throw to first for the double play. Weird). Robert Andino: strike out. Nick Markakis: slow ground ball to shortstop that he somehow didn't beat to first base. Just like that three outs, no more runs. Sigh.
The White Sox went ahead in the eighth inning with Pedro Strop on the mound. Strop gave up two singles to put runners on the corners with no outs, which brought Konerko to the plate. He hit a ground ball to first base, fielded by Reynolds, who tried to throw to first for the out....but no one was covering the base! Strop, where were you?? A run came in to score on the play, although in fairness a run would have come in even if they'd gotten the out.
Strop bounced back from his troubles with a double play ball and a strikeout, but the damage had been done. The Orioles were down 3-2 and they'd been failing at the plate the entire game. Missed opportunities.
It felt like a lost game. But that's when the Orioles Magic kicked into gear. Brett Myers, pitching his second inning in relief, walked Reynolds with one out, putting the tying run on. Nate McLouth, who had walked with the bases loaded to bring home the Orioles last run, had something a little more dramatic in mind for this one. He took Myers deep to right field for his second home run as an Oriole. O's take the lead, 4-3!
McLouth, who hadn't been good since 2009, who was cut by Pirates earlier this year, who spent a decent chunk of time in Norfolk, has found himself in the thick of things since his promotion to Baltimore. I don't know how he's doing it, I don't know what is happening. All I know is that the Orioles tonight got home runs from Nate McLouth and Lew Ford.
Armed with the lead, Jim Johnson came in trying to earn his 40th save. He gave us a little drama with a two-out single, a wild pitch to put the tying run at second, and an eight-pitch at-bat to Gordon Beckham, but as usual, he prevailed.
I don't know how much more my heart can take regarding this team. What I do know is that while the Orioles won tonight, the Yankees and Rays both lost. That means the Orioles are now in sole possession of 2nd place in the AL East, just 3.5 games behind the Yankees. And they are tied with the Oakland A's, who also won tonight, for the first wild card spot.