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Orioles 9, Rays 2: Party Hardy, back into first place

The editor-in-chief of Camden Chat finds J.J. Hardy dreamy. Join the club, sister! (Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE)
The editor-in-chief of Camden Chat finds J.J. Hardy dreamy. Join the club, sister! (Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE)

They're not all going to be this easy. But man, it sure is fun when they are.

Squaring off against a division and wild-card rival that's nipping right at their heels, the Orioles leveled a resounding beatdown on the Tampa Bay Rays tonight, enjoying a rare blowout victory that was essentially decided by the third inning. The O's sat back and let J.J. Hardy put on a show with his most stupendous performance of the season, a four-hit, two-homer, five-RBI one-man slugfest that-- coupled with the Yankees' loss in Boston-- brought the Birds back into a first-place tie in the AL East. Only a Jason Hammel injury soured what was otherwise a magnificent night of Orioles baseball.

Tonight's game started off just swimmingly. Do people still say "swimmingly"? All right, let's rephrase: everything was just peachy-keen. Jason Hammel cruised through the first two innings-- six batters up, six batters down-- before he had his lone hiccup by allowing a Ryan Roberts solo homer in the third. Still, the Orioles staked him to a lead thanks to one run that was gift-wrapped by the Rays and two others that were earned by more conventional means.

In the bottom of the first, Adam Jones drew a two-out walk from Rays starter Matt Moore. Then Matt Wieters popped a duck-snort blooper to shallow right. The ball fell in safely just inside the foul line and just in front of right fielder Matt Joyce. Jones scampered to third and was prepared to hold there, but Joyce somehow muffed the ball, even though it had basically stopped moving by that point. Jones turned the jets back on and dashed home, crossing the plate before a bewildered Joyce had a chance to react. Ruled a single and E9, it gave the O's a 1-0 lead.

Two innings later, J.J. Hardy began his huge night by crushing a two-run blast into the left-field seats, giving him a 20-homer season for the fourth time. In fact, he parked that one just a couple sections over from where his biggest fan was sitting. That one's for you, Stacey!

Speaking of which, the whole left-field lower deck-- along with all other sections in which the O's are offering special discounted seats for this series-- was almost completely packed. The rest of the stadium? Not so much. The total attendance for the night was 23,828, though not many of them were in the upper and middle decks. Take note, Orioles marketing department: the fans clearly will come out to the yard when the price is right. Slashing prices in certain sections is a good start, but there's still a ways to go. The next step is-- oh, I don't know-- how about getting rid of that annoying day-of-game surcharge for fans who want to walk up and buy tickets?

Anyway...I teased earlier that there was some bad news for the Orioles, and it happened in the top of the fourth inning. After Hammel retired the first two batters, he walked Evan Longoria, and the Orioles saw something in Jason's delivery that they didn't like. Buck Showalter, Rick Adair, and trainer Richie Bancells jogged to the mound to confer with the right-hander. After a brief discussion, Hammel headed off the mound, finished for the night after just 3 ⅔ innings. His ailment was listed as a "right knee injury," which sounds vague but is unlikely to be good news, considering that it's the same knee on which he just had surgery. Without knowing anything more at the moment, we can only hope it was just a minor tweak and Hammel was only removed as a precaution. Otherwise, the Orioles are facing the prospect of losing their best starting pitcher just as the pennant race comes to a full boil.

Long reliever Steve Johnson inherited a 1-0 count on Joyce and walked him, but then struck out Ben Francisco to strand two runners. Johnson walked another in the fifth but again ended the inning on a strikeout. I would've liked to see Steve work another inning, but Showalter continued the bullpen parade in the sixth by bringing in Luis Ayala. Ayala and Brian Matusz combined on a scoreless sixth and seventh, so I guess Buck knew what he was doing.

Meanwhile, the Orioles continued to pile on the runs. They did a great job against the impressive young lefty Moore, exhausting him for an incredible 94 pitches in just four innings. Then they jumped on his replacement, Burke Badenhop, for three straight hits to start the fifth, capped by a Wieters two-run double that made it a 5-1 game.

There wasn't a single Rays reliever who had a scoreless outing tonight. Cesar Ramos coughed up a run in the sixth on a Hardy RBI single. J.P. Howell surrendered a Chris Davis solo homer in the seventh. And against Dane de la Rosa in the eighth, the amazing J.J. struck again. Hardy stepped to the plate already 3-for-4 on the night, a triple shy of the cycle. He didn't get the triple-- but he did one better. Hardy launched another fly ball deep into the night, again depositing it into the left-field seats for his second homerun of the night.

Are you kidding me?? What a night for J.J.! A 4-for-5 night with two homeruns, five RBIs, and 11 total bases. It's the first time he's driven in five or more runs since 2007, and it's his ninth career multi-homer game (his only other multi-homer game this year was the infamous Chris Davis Winning Pitcher marathon at Fenway on May 6).

Staked to a huge lead, for once the O's didn't have to sweat out their final few innings. Darren O'Day pitched the eighth inning-- with a meaningless Elliot Johnson homer his only blemish-- and Pedro Strop worked a scoreless ninth in a low-pressure, boost-your-confidence outing. The Birds did their part, and about 15 minutes after this game ended, the Yankees suffered a walkoff defeat at Fenway Park. Ladies and gentlemen, we're all tied up again atop the AL East, for the fourth time in the last week. On Wednesday the Birds will get another chance to take sole possession, and O's fans are granted full permission to absolutely flip out if they do.