Saturday afternoon, as they sought to break out of the mire of a four-game losing streak, the Orioles discovered a little-known loophole in the rules governing baseball. They learned that if a pitcher throws a batter four pitches that are outside of the strike zone, the batter shall be allowed to take first base. This obscure rule produces what is known as a "base on balls"; the batter is safe at first even if he walks, without ever having to swing the bat.
Orioles hitters took three of these bases on balls in a row in the top of the fifth inning, including two that came with the bases loaded. A base on balls with the bases loaded results in a run being forced home. This accounted for two of their runs in a 4-1 victory over the Houston Astros. It remains to be seen whether Major League Baseball will take action to close this loophole before it can do any more damage to the integrity of the game of baseball.
After watching the Orioles flail away against the underperforming starting pitcher tandem of Brad Peacock and Brett Oberholtzer in the previous two games, there was little hope going in of the Orioles managing to solve one of the possible breakout aces of the 2014 season in Dallas Keuchel. This was not a predictable day of baseball. Noodle-armed Nick Markakis led off the game with a double.
The play at second was close; Astros manager Bo Porter came out to stall for time, but declined to challenge the result. Replays showed on MASN indicated that Jose Altuve tagged Markakis before he was safely in to second base. An out later, Markakis would score on a sacrifice fly by Nelson Cruz, which gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead.
That sac fly represented the 50th run batted in of the season for Cruz, tying a record set by Chris Davis last year for most RBI before the end of May in franchise history.
Orioles starter Chris Tillman overcame some early shakiness to turn in a solid outing after some recent disasters. His problem inning was the second inning, in which he loaded the bases thanks to a double and a pair of hit by pitches. With one out, Robbie Grossman grounded a ball just along the edge of the grass down the first base line. Tillman was in position to field the ball, but opted to let the ball try to roll foul.
The ball stopped right against the foul line in fair territory, scoring a run to tie the game 1-1 and keeping the bases loaded. This was not a good decision. Still, Tillman managed to escape without any further damage, getting a shallow pop-up from Marwin Gonzalez followed by a Jose Altuve flyout to right field. Altuve's ball was tailing away from Nick Markakis and looked like it was going to end up as a bases-clearing double, but Markakis managed to chase it down in the air to end the inning.
The score stayed knotted at 1-1 until the fifth inning, which was when the Orioles made their curious rulebook discovery. Manny Machado and Caleb Joseph each reached on singles while others made outs. With men on first and third and two down, Markakis was the first to take advantage of the newly-discovered "base on balls" loophole to load the bases. Perhaps inspired by this, left fielder Steve Pearce did not swing at some of Keuchel's pitches outside of the strike zone, allowing him to walk to first base as well. This particular "base on balls" meant that Machado scored.
Cruz followed with another of these "base on balls", which forced in Joseph and gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead. Because some things never change, Adam Jones followed this radical back-to-back-to-back "base on balls" sequence by striking out swinging.
Staked to this lead, Tillman pitched through 6.2 innings with what didn't look to be his best stuff. However, he kept the Astros from doing any more damage in the game, helped out periodically by his defense. Pearce made a sweet play on a line drive off the left field scoreboard from Marwin Gonzalez in the fourth inning, bare-handing the carom and firing in to second base to throw out Gonzalez trying to stretch the ball into a double.
In the seventh, Tillman walked leadoff batter Grossman, then induced a double-play grounder from Gonzalez. He had thrown 110 pitches. That was enough for O's manager Buck Showalter, who has shown too much faith in his starters at times. He brought in Ryan Webb for the last out of the seventh and left him in for the eighth. What a concept. Webb struck out two while not allowing a baserunner in 1.1 innings.
Tillman's final line was one run on four hits and two walks in 6.2 innings. He struck out three. Some days, that's all you need. He was credited with a win for the game, improving his record to 5-2 despite a 4.63 ERA. Trade market starter Jeff Samardzija shakes his head.
The Orioles tacked on an insurance run in the eighth inning thanks to a solo home run by Cruz, his 20th of the season. That's even more than the 19 Davis had at the end of May last season. Adding two RBI on the walk and the home run gave Cruz 52 on the season, meaning he now holds the Orioles record for most RBI by the end of May. Just for fun, he hit a ground rule double in the game as well. The guy is slugging .675. Wow.
Zach Britton came on in the ninth to close out the game. He allowed a leadoff single to Matt Dominguez, but then he struck out pinch hitter Jesus Guzman on three pitches and got a double-play ball from pinch hitter Chris Carter to end the game and snap the Orioles losing streak. The win brings the Orioles back to a .500 record at 27-27. They are 4.5 games back of division-leading Toronto and 2.5 games behind the second place Yankees, both of whom won earlier on Saturday.
Sunday afternoon, the O's will be back in action with a chance to salvage a series split against the recently-hot Astros. Wei-Yin Chen starts opposite former Oriole Scott Feldman in the 2:10 game.