Ah. It's nice to have a win in the books, isn't it? The Orioles avoided the sweep, evened their record on the homestand, and even managed to gain a game on both the Rays and the Athletics. The game wasn't without its stress, especially in the ninth inning, but the Orioles prevailed and the crowd of 28,323 went home happy.
Let's start with that ninth inning, since ninth innings have been such a disaster for the Orioles lately. The Orioles went into the inning up by a score of 4-2 and Darren O'Day, who had pitched an easy eight-pitch eighth inning, came back out to start the ninth. I liked that move a lot. O'Day looked great in the eighth and he had barely broken a sweat. Warming up in the bullpen were lefty Brian Matusz and righty Tommy Hunter. Closer Jim Johnson was sitting on the bullpen bench. Other than the whole not using his closer part, Buck managed this inning like it was the 7th game of the World Series.
O'Day's job was to retire the first hitter, Wil Myers. Not exactly an easy assignment. It was a tough battle but finally, on the eighth pitch of the inning, Myers hit a ball to center field for a single. The crowd at Camden Yards deflated; they had seen this happen too many times before. As the Rays announced a pinch hitter, lefty James Loney, Showalter went to the mound and called for Matusz. O'Day received a nice hand for the crowd after a great eighth inning and losing a fight against a very good hitter here in the ninth.
Just as O'Day had one job, so did Brian Matusz: get Loney out. It was a heck of at bat. Loney fouled off seven pitches; he didn't swing and miss once. Finally, on a 3-2 count and in the eleventh pitch of the at bat, Matusz missed for ball four. Loney hadn't even made it down to first before Showalter was back out on the mound to pull Matusz. The crowd was silent as he walked from the field. The doom was starting to creep in. Two runners on, no outs, go ahead run at the plate.
The last man standing was Tommy Hunter. All Hunter had to do was get three outs without allowing the two runners on base to score. The Rays were scheduled to send two righties and then a lefty to the plate, but Joe Maddon sent in two left-handed pinch hitters. Hunter has a drastic platoon split this season. Coming into tonight, righties were hitting .129/.182/.137 against him while lefties knocked him around to the tune of .293/.320/.504. All seven homers he's given up this season have been to left-handed batters.
First pinch hitter was Matt Joyce. Hunter went 2-1 on him before getting him to hit a routine fly ball to center field. The crowd exploded as the ball landed in Adam Jones' glove. Next up was Kelly Johnson. After dropping a curve into the zone for a called strike one, Hunter gave Johnson three straight fastballs between 97-98 miles per hour. The fifth pitch was another curve clocked at 87. Johnson tapped it back to the mound and Tommy went to second base for the second out.
The crowd rose to its feet to cheer Tommy on to victory. Runners on the corners, two outs, and Jose Lobaton stepped to the plate. It was the third straight lefty he had to face, and who knew how long he'd be able to keep it up. Would he strike him out with the heater? Give up a three-run homer? Well, we'll never know, because on the second pitch of the at bat, Johnson tried to steal second base. Matt Wieters nailed him with a fantastic throw, clocked by the Orioles a 1.75 seconds. Shortstop J.J. Hardy made an excellent tag, the ump threw up the out sign, the crowd went wild, and Tommy Hunter screamed accolades at Wieters from across the infield.
What a game.
The Orioles offense again looked like it might fail to come through in the clutch, but they did enough to get the job done. They loaded the bases with no outs in the first and scored two runs without getting another hit (RBI ground out, double steal, sac fly). They left the bases loaded in the second. But home runs by Adam Jones (#26) and Chris Davis (#46) extended their lead and starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen did the rest.
Chen wasn't without his flaws in the game. He walked three and gave up two home runs. But he thankfully didn't walk anyone directly before giving up the home runs; both were solo shots. He had just one 1-2-3 inning, the sixth, but he induced three double plays, two of which he started himself. The third was started by Manny Machado and while he made it look routine, it was a tough one. It's so nice having him in the field.
The scariest inning for the fans, of course, was the seventh. Chen started it with a reasonable number of pitches, but we've all seen him melt down in that case. And when he walked the leadoff batter, there was a sense in the stadium of "here we go again." But Chen struck out the next batter and then got the double play to end the inning. He walked off the field to a standing ovation. One that was, in my opinion, well deserved.
The Orioles will get to savor their win on tomorrow's off day before they welcome the Oakland Athletics to town for a weekend series. They will start the series three games behind the A's with a three game series ahead of them.