The Orioles stared down yet another heavyweight of the AL East, schooling the Rays with a 4-3 comeback win in the opener of a three-game series. The Birds' offense once again did all its damage with the long ball, capped by a clutch two-run, go-ahead homer from the unlikeliest of sources: Nick Johnson. The much-maligned veteran's seventh-inning dramatics helped the Birds take over sole possession of first place in the division.
Here we go! It's on! A pivotal AL East showdown between the two clubs battling for the top spot. And both teams brought out their big guns tonight. For the Rays, it was last year's Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson. And for the Orioles, it was...Dana Eveland??? Ah, nuts! I give up.
But maybe I'm being too hard to Eveland. You know that old saying-- some of the best players in baseball history really don't put it together until they get to their seventh major-league team. (Nobody says this.) Eveland pitched a perfect first inning with help from Ryan Flaherty and J.J. Hardy (who made nice defensive plays on the left side of the infield) as well as Carlos Pena, who inexplicably tried to bunt (?) with two strikes (??) and struck out. But in the second inning, it became apparent that Eveland didn't have much of an idea where he was throwing the ball. His wildness led to a Luke Scott walk and a hit batsman. A single loaded the bases with nobody out, though Eveland did a nice job of limiting the damage by inducing a double-play grounder (which scored a run) followed by a flyout to center. Could've been worse.
The O's promptly tied the score on a prodigious blast into the left-field seats by Adam Jones, his 10th of the year, in the bottom of the second. Jones is now fourth in the AL in homers. But Eveland continued to live dangerously. He walked two more in the third, escaping when Scott flied out to the warning track in left. He wasn't so fortunate in the fourth. Yet another walk preceded a pair of singles, loading the bases again.
Then came a simultaneously ugly and awesome play. Elliot Johnson smashed a drive to deep right field. Nick Markakis tracked it to the right-field scoreboard and attempted a leaping catch, but the ball bounced off the wall. The Rays runners, who had to hold up to make sure the ball wasn't caught, starting making their way around the bases. As it turns out, they didn't get very far. One run scored, but Markakis delivered a strong throw to Robert Andino, who in turn fired to Matt Wieters at the plate. Sean Rodriguez, trying to score from second, collided headlong with the immovable wall that is Wieters. You're out, son!! Wieters, as always, coolly held his glove up to show that he had the ball, giving that awesome smirk all the while. I love that.
Eveland, though, wasted the chance to cut the rally short. After an intentional walk to re-load the bases, he drilled Pena on the first pitch, forcing home the Rays' third run. It's safe to say that Eveland's control was not his strong point. He surrendered SIX walks (one intentional) and also plunked two batters. Yet, somehow, he was able to squeak his way out of bigger trouble. He left the bases loaded on a B.J. Upton flyout in the fourth, then stranded Scott after a leadoff double in the sixth. It's amazing to think that Eveland is credited with a "quality start" for this, but there it is-- he held the Rays to three runs in six innings despite 13 baserunners.
A 3-1 deficit looked like it would be tough to overcome against Hellickson, who cruised into the sixth inning pitching an excellent game. But never underestimate the Orioles' ability to hit homeruns, at all times, on command. Markakis did the trick in the sixth with a solo blast to the bleachers, his sixth, to make it a one-run game.
Hellickson got the first two outs of the seventh, but the horribly struggling Chris Davis managed to sneak a single up the middle. Rays manager Joe Maddon interestingly decided to pull Hellickson there, even though he was at 95 pitches and still seemed to have something left in the tank. It's not like Maddon was playing the percentages, either-- he replaced the right-handed Hellickson with a fellow righty, Joel Peralta, to face the lefty-swinging Nick Johnson.
As you know, Nick Johnson has not exactly endeared himself to Orioles fans this season, looking washed up and starting the year 0-for-29 before finally stringing together a few hits. Tonight, though, Nick played the hero. He worked Peralta for a fine at-bat, running the count full...and then unloaded a blast to deep right field. OUTTA HERE! Johnson's two-out, two-run homer over the grounds crew's shed turned the Birds' one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Talk about picking a great time for your first homer as an Oriole. We loved you all along, Nick! I swear!
From there, the Orioles' bullpen took care of business. Darren O'Day retired all three batters he faced in the seventh, on just six pitches. Pedro Strop matched him with a perfect, six-pitch eighth inning. And Jim Johnson closed the deal in the ninth, needing just eight pitches to retire the side in order. These guys were just flat-out dominant tonight. Well done all around, and the Orioles are back atop the standings. What do you say we stay there for a while, huh guys?