Wow, friends. Just wow. I've just returned from tonight's game and it was tense, nerve racking, and wonderful. Sure, the Orioles missed their opportunities early in the game. Yeah, starter Miguel Gonzalez didn't have his best stuff. But in the end, the Orioles got their 80th win of the year and kept pace with the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East.
Both the Orioles and the Rays scored two runs early in the game while squandering multiple chances for more. I don't think you can call what happened tonight a pitchers' duel even though on first glance at the score it may appear that way. The Rays struck first and quickly. Most of the fans hadn't even made their way to their seats (yours truly was in line for a beer), when leadoff hitter B.J. Upton hit a monster home run to left field. We're talking a homer that Mark Reynolds would be in awe of, as it landed near the back of the left field lower box seats.
After Jeff Keppinger flew out to center field for the first out, Gonzalez walked Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria, but got lucky when Ben Francisco hit a liner to J.J. Hardy at shortstop. The ball was smoked, but since it went right to Hardy he was able to double up Zobrist at second to end the inning.
The Orioles scored their first two runs in the bottom of the first inning, but just like with the Rays in the top of the inning, it could have been more. Nate McLouth and Hardy hit back-to-back singles to get things started, and after Adam Jones lined out, Matt Wieters and Wilson Betemit each singled in a run. Betemit moved to second base on the throw home, so the Orioles were up 2-0 with just one out, and had runners on second and third. But Mark Reynolds struck out (the beginning of a rough day for him) for the second out, but Chris Davis walked to load the bases ahead of Manny Machado. Machado grounded out to end the inning.
That was the last time the Orioles would score until the bottom of the ninth inning, but it certainly wasn't the last chance they'd have. Robert Andino got to second base with no outs in the second, but was stranded. Chris Davis led off the fourth with a single, but didn't go any further than that. They put on two more baserunners in the fifth, but no dice.
But if the Orioles were kinda kicking themselves for missing opportunities, the Rays had to be beating themselves up. As I mentioned before, Miguel Gonzalez was NOT at his best tonight. Not even close. But the Rays just could not capitalize. They put two runners on in the second inning with just one out, but Jose Molina grounded into a double play to end the inning. They did break through for the tying run in the third inning thanks to two singles and a double, but left two runners on. Gonzalez got himself together for a quick fourth and fifth innings, but again in the sixth the Rays couldn't make him pay for his mistakes.
After Evan Longoria grounded out to start the sixth, Francisco singled and Carlos Pena walked, and before you could say boo, Gonzalez had balked them both over one base. No! The chance for the double play was gone, two runners were in scoring position, and time was running out! But Gonzalez struck out Ryan Roberts looking for the second out, and after intentionally walking Matt Joyce, got Molina to ground out to end the inning.
Rays starter Alex Cobb lasted just 4 2/3 innings in the game, but the Rays bullpen is very good and showed it tonight. Jake McGee relieved Cobb and struck out all four batters he faced. Wade Davis followed that with a perfect seventh inning before Joel Peralta came in for the eighth and got into a bit of trouble (trouble that the Orioles could not cash in on). Wieters hit a one-out double and Reyonlds walked, but still the O's couldn't score as Davis flew out to end the inning.
The ninth inning was when the magic happened. Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop had each worked a scoreless inning in relief of Gonzalez, and with the scored tied 2-2, closer Jim Johnson came into the game. He got the first out quickly but then gave up a single to Jeff Keppinger, who was replaced at first base by pinch runner Rich Thompson. JJ was obsessed with Thompson. I didn't count how many times JJ threw over, but it was a bunch. In the middle of that, he managed to get Zobrist to fly out for the second out.
Finally, with Longoria at the plate, Thompson took off for second base. The O's knew it and pitched out, but still he beat the throw. It was a close play and Buck Showalter came out to argue, which of course was to no avail. What happened next, though, was one of the most awesome things I've seen all season.
Longoria hit a slow roller up the third base side. Even with a perfect play it would have been really tough to get him out at first. Machado charged, barehanded the ball, and FAKED a throw to first base. Thompson saw Machado start to throw and rounded third as Hardy snuck in behind him. Machado whirled and fired to Hardy, who started a rundown that ended with Thompson being tagged out to end the inning. Amazing play by Machado. Check out the video here. It wasn't Machado's only good play of the night as he flashed the leather a few times, but it was the biggest play for sure.
And wouldn't you know it? Machado led off the bottom of the ninth. Cue broadcaster voice: "And how many times do you see this? A player makes a great play to end one half inning and leads off the next!"
On the first pitch, Machado lined a single to left field, and was promptly bunted over to second base by Robert Andino. That brought McLouth to the plate, and it was his night to play the part of the hero. He lined a ball off of the wall just below the out of town scoreboard in right field, easily scoring Machado from second.
O's win! And for the first time this season, maintain a share of first place for more than one straight day. This game couldn't have been more different than their big win in game one of the series, so who knows what the finale will bring.