As the great Hall of Famer Ernie Banks used to say, "Let's play two, and let's kick the snot out of the Blue Jays while we're at it." And so the Birds did, kicking off their final homestand of the season with an efficient win over flailing Toronto in the first game of a doubleheader.
As part of the Orioles' ever-revolving seven- or eight-man rotation, Steve Johnson took the hill for the opener of the double-dip, making his first start in almost exactly a month (August 25). In his previous two starts (and his relief appearances since then), Johnson has fully embraced the old Ray Miller mantra: work fast, throw strikes, and change speeds. It's worked like a charm, as his 1.91 ERA in 28 innings would attest. This afternoon, Johnson tacked another five shutout innings onto his slate...but, quite frankly, it was the shakiest outing of his brief big-league career. His stuff wasn't sharp, he battled with his control, and if he'd been facing a lineup better than the lowly Blue Jays, he might have been in for a real early exit. Still, Johnson pulled off quite the Houdini act today, wriggling out of his self-created jams at every turn.
An ominous tone was set in the top of the first, when Johnson walked the first two batters of the game. Uh-oh. GameDay indicated that he might have been getting squeezed a bit by home plate ump Chad Fairchild, but Johnson was guilty of nibbling on the corners instead of attacking hitters. Now the stage was set for the Jays' top slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who-- last time he faced Johnson-- blasted a first-inning homer. Not today. Johnson blew a fastball past him for a swinging strikeout, and then retired Adam Lind and Rajai Davis to strand both runners.
There was more where that came from. With one out in the third, Brett Lawrie singled and Colby Rasmus walked, setting up another showdown with Encarnacion. Advantage: Steve. Johnson again racked up a huge K, getting Edwin so off-balance on the whiff that he threw his bat toward shortstop. Johnson then fielded a Lind comebacker for the final out, stranding two.
Never missing a chance to live dangerously, Johnson put two more runners aboard in the fourth on a pair of singles, only to escape the jam once more by retiring the final two batters. Through the first five innings, the Jays went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Johnson hung in long enough to pitch a perfect fifth inning, then departed with a pitch count of 96. That may be the ugliest five-inning shutout you'll ever see, but hey, he got batters out when it mattered.
Johnson left the game in line for a win, thanks to some long-ball power by the Birds. In the fourth, Adam Jones untied a scoreless game by absolutely clobbering a Henderson Alvarez delivery into the left-field seats, a truly mighty wallop with a runner aboard. It was part of an outstanding 4-for-4 game for Dr. Jones.
The next inning, Ryan Flaherty-- who's finally gotten to crack the starting lineup a couple times this week-- bludgeoned a solo homer into the O's bullpen that Luis Ayala caught in his hat. The Birds had a chance to really blow the game open in the sixth, loading the bases with no outs, but they managed only one run when Mark Reynolds grounded into a double play.
Still, a 4-0 lead was more than enough for the Orioles' stout relief crew. Troy Patton worked a scoreless sixth, and bullpen revelation Tommy Hunter was back to throwing gas in a perfect seventh. He didn't quite make it to 100 mph on the gun this time, but 98 is nothing to sneeze at.
Hunter got the first two outs of the eighth but then got BABIP'd to death. Encarnacion singled on a weak infield dribbler toward third, and Lind-- on a horrific looking check-swing-- accidentally made contact and fluttered the ball into shallow left. Geez, that's just rotten luck for Tommy. Nobody hit the ball hard against him until Rajai Davis lashed an RBI double to center, making it a 4-1 game and putting two runners in scoring position. But old reliable Darren O'Day squashed the Blue Jays' rally right there, fanning Kelly Johnson on a high fastball for the third out.
If nothing else, the Jays' fluke hits and run in the eighth made the game a save situation, allowing closer Jim Johnson to pad his impressive season stats. Johnson allowed a leadoff single but promptly erased the runner on a double play, then whiffed Anthony Gose to end it and rack up his 48th save. Ballgame. It's win number 88 for the Birds, and perhaps not their last of the day.