Thanks to an outstanding effort from Joe Saunders and the bullpen, today the Baltimore Orioles were able to overcome several missed chances on the basepaths to beat the Toronto Blue Jays by a score of 4-0. The win, combined with a loss by the New York Yankees, has pulled the Orioles to within just one game of first place in the AL East.
Joe Saunders didn't make the finest impression on the Orioles and their fans in his first start for the team, but he made up for it in a big way this afternoon. Saunders did not allow a baserunner until there were two outs in the sixth inning, which gave the O's offense plenty of time to build a lead. He induced lazy fly ball after lazy fly ball, and in fact the last five outs he recorded before giving up his first hit were fly balls to Adam Jones in center field.
As Saunders cruised through the first part of the game, Blue Jays' starter J.A. Happ had to work out of numerous jams. He put two runners on in the first inning thanks to a HBP and a walk, but they were stranded. Then to start the second inning Manny Machado hit a long fly ball to right field. There's no video of it on MLB.com, probably because it was scored an error, but it looked like a triple to me. Regardless of the official scoring, Machado was at third with no outs. Nate McLouth attempted to bunt his way on, but was thrown out thanks to a nice play by Happ. Machado came in to score, and so the play was scored a sacrifice bunt. Didn't look it though; he was trying to get a hit.
The O's wasted more baserunners in the third and fourth innings, but finally scored again in the fifth. Robert Andino singled to lead off, then back-to-back doubles from Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy knocked in two runs to make the score 3-0. Hardy was in scoring position with no outs, and a sharp single to center field from Jones moved him to third base. It was a huge opportunity for the Orioles to break it open, but Happ came back and struck out Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds, and Machado to strand both runners.
Another opportunity was lost in the sixth inning as the Orioles loaded the bases with just one out only to have Hardy ground into a double play. I tell you, the O's were lucky the pitching was on point, because they left a lot of guys out there today.
Speaking of the pitching, how about that Joe Saunders! He started the game with 17 up, 17 down before Adeiny Hechavarria hit a clean single into center field for the first baserunner of the day for the Jays. He followed that with a walk to Rajai Davis, but before I could panic too much about the tying run being at the plate, Colby Rasmus struck out.
The Orioles found themselves in a real bind in the seventh inning as a leadoff walk from Saunders and two seeing-eye singles into right field loaded the bases with one out. Buck Showalter called on Luis Ayala to clean up the mess, which makes every Orioles fan nervous. After all, Ayala lets inherited runners score about half the time. Not today, though. He went 3-0 on Sierra to get our hearts pounding, then struck him out on the next three pitches. A fly out from Jeff Mathis ended the inning and preserved the shutout.
After that close call the O's decided to tack on another run to give the bullpen a little breathing room. With two outs, Hardy singled in Nate McLouth, who had reached on a HBP to start the inning. Andino was on third base representing the fifth run of the day, but Jones grounded out to end the inning.
Four runs proved to be more than enough for Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson to close out the game. Strop had looked shaky in recent games, including Saturday against the Yankees, but none of that was here today. Strop mixed up his pitches so that he was throwing 84 mph sliders next to 98 mph fastballs and struck out Hechavarria and Davis easily. Rasmus followed up the performances of his teammates with a one-pitch ground out to end the inning.
Johnson followed Strop's performance with his typical fare. It wasn't a save situation, but he needed some work having not pitched since last Thursday. He threw 11 pitches and retired the side in order. That's JJ.
And so, here we are on Labor Day and the Orioles are one game out of first place in the American League East. Somebody pinch me.