In addition to being on the skids a bit as of late (dropping five of their last six), the Orioles have struggled all year against poor-to-middling teams who they were supposed to beat, losing series to the Twins, Mariners and Royals. So it was refreshing to see the team start off a three-game series against the lowly Houston Astros with a win -- even if they made it seem closer than it should have been.
Wei-Yin Chen took the hill tonight, and got the win while allowing three earned runs in 7.1 IP. The truth is, Chen didn't even deserve that line, as he put forth a dazzling effort where he struck out nine and walked only one, keeping the Astros hitters reeling in every frame except for a third inning where he got BABIP'd to death. The Astros plated three runs on exactly one solid hit -- a clean single to left by Matt Dominguez that got things started. From there, Chen loaded the bases on a pop-up bunt into no man's land by Robbie Grossman, and a weak grounder through the right side by Jonathan Villar. Then the Astros plated two runs on another weak single, this time through the hole on the left side by Jose Altuve. Chen did put himself back in trouble with a walk to Jason Castro, but the third run scored when Villar stole home (a heads-up play) while nobody was looking. It was just a tough frame for Chen, that could've ended scoreless with a couple of bounces going a different way.
Meanwhile, the Astros sent Lucas Harrell to the hill for his first start since a June demotion to the bullpen. Mike Bordick mentioned early that Harrell had turned in nine solid starts (one of which, of course, was against the Orioles), and otherwise simply imploded on the mound, allowing too many walks and inopportune big hits. For quite a while, it looked like the Orioles offense was going to help Harrel back into form, not getting a baserunner until a Matt Wieters walk in the second inning, and not putting up a hit until the fourth.
But fortunately, that hit was at a critical time. Following three walks (to Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters), J.J. Hardy slapped a two-run base hit to left to get the Orioles on the board. Harrell settled back down for a three-up, three-down fifth, but got chased in the sixth Chris Davis home run, which gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead by scoring Nick Markakis, who had walked to lead off the inning. In all, the Orioles managed four runs on just three hits, by working seven walks. Perhaps they should take note of the potential offered by this approach at the plate.
Chen went into cruise control after the third inning, allowing three scattered hits before being lifted for Darren O'Day in the top of the eighth. O'Day and Jim Johnson provided a drama-free finish to the game, stranding Chen's last baserunner and allowing none of their own, with Johnson notching his 36th save on a 1-2-3 inning.
In all, this was a refreshing ballgame, not just in that the Orioles got back in the win column, but because of how they did so. A solid seven-inning start, patient at-bats, timely hits, a Chris Davis home run and a shutdown bullpen. These ingredients have only shown up one or two at a time since the All-Star Break. Tonight, the Orioles got them all, keeping a grip on their wild-card spot and keeping pace in the AL East, with Boston and Tampa also winning.