The ongoing struggle of Manny Machado at the plate has been one of the themes of this season for the Orioles, and one of the big factors that has held them back from greater success. Monday night in the mallpark in Washington, he finally had his breakout night, a 5-6 capped off by a two-run home run in the eleventh inning as the O's took the Nats out behind the woodshed in an 8-2 victory.
There are not many 11 inning games with that kind of margin of victory. When the Orioles finally struck, they did so in numbers. Another slumping Oriole, Chris Davis, actually got the extra-innings home run party started with a blast to deep right center off Nationals reliever Craig Stammen to break a 2-2 tie that had been in place since the game's sixth inning. J.J. Hardy made it back-to-back with a solo shot, only his third of the season.
It was enough to send the nominal home team's fans scurrying for the exits. Machado's home run made it 8-2 and send most of the remaining few packing. Nick Markakis also had an RBI double in the inning. When this team comes at you, there's not much you can do except duck out of the way.
Once, the game was something of a pitcher's duel, like an actual pitcher's duel, not just that label being applied to ugly, low-scoring games because they're low-scoring. Chris Tillman had one of his good days - although it didn't look that way after a leadoff walk in the first inning - and Stephen Strasburg did the kind of stuff that you'd expect a former #1 overall pick to do. Runs were hard to come by. So were hits.
Strasburg might have only made one mistake the whole night. Regrettably for him, he made that mistake to Nelson Cruz with a man on base and Cruz made him pay with a ball that cleared the high wall in right center field. That homer was Cruz's MLB-leading 28th of the season, which is more than he had all of last season. This put the O's up 2-0 after their half of the fourth inning. Cruz also leads MLB with 73 runs batted in.
The Nats are not without good players of their own, and Tillman, as we know, is not perfect. He also made a mistake that turned into a home run. That was hit by Nats second baseman Anthony Rendon in the sixth inning, tying the game at 2-2.
The two teams were mirrors of one another for much of the game. They came into the standings with records that were a half-game apart and they played ten innings of an evenly-matched game. Tillman and Strasburg both finished with seven innings pitched and two runs allowed, with similar pitching lines as well. Tillman allowed five hits, a walk, and struck out six hitters, while Strasburg only allowed four hits and walked none with nine strikeouts.
For the often-shaky Tillman, it's a good sign if he's able to match a strong starter with a good outing of his own against a solid team like the Nats. He still struggles with pitches nowhere near the strike zone at times, but when he gets close to the zone, the results are good.
From there, it was a battle of the bullpens, and the Orioles once again outlasted the other team's best relievers. Darren O'Day and T.J. McFarland each soaked two scoreless innings for the depleted relief corps, with O'Day throwing 34 pitches, his most in his Orioles career. McFarland went down as the pitcher of record, now 2-2 on the season.
Washington used a trio of one-inning relievers: Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano, and Drew Storen, all of whom have sub-2.00 ERAs. Nats manager Matt Williams did not try to get a second inning out of any of them, not even Soriano, who only threw nine pitches as he pitched the ninth inning. The more relievers you put into a game, the more likely that one of them will stink that night. Stammen was the one who stunk. He ended up surrendering five runs in only two-thirds of an inning.
Of all of the great O's moments in this game, it was the thunderous blast from Thor that proved to be the most unexpected and exciting. Davis did not look like a man who was primed to explode against an unfortunate pitcher as the night began. In his first four at-bats, he was 0-4 with a pair of strikeouts. Tillman made better contact than Davis his first two times up at the plate.
Davis even had his batting average dip below the Mendoza line (.200) during the course of the night's struggle. He had been heading the wrong way for weeks. Then, with an awe-inspiring display of raw strength, he righted the ship, crushed the homer, gave the Orioles the lead, and rode off into the sunset with his bat as his horse.
In the end, the O's notched 15 hits as they scored eight runs. Markakis and Cruz each added three-hit games in addition to Machado's five hits. Four of the team's hits were home runs. That's kind of what they do.
Adam Jones was the only Orioles position player in the starting lineup without a hit, taking an 0-6, including three chances with runners in scoring position. The team picked him up tonight. You never know who's gonna hear the call.
With Monday's win, the Orioles are a season-best nine games over .500. They've won seven of their past ten games and they now hold a 2.5 game cushion in the American League East, pending the outcome in Toronto's game in Anaheim.
The second of the two-game stop in Washington is scheduled to start Tuesday at 7:05. The Orioles are expected to activate starting pitcher Bud Norris from the disabled list before the game. The Nationals starter is listed as Doug Fister.