In looking at this weekend series against the Yankees before it began, if there was one game you were to circle and guess that the Orioles would not win, it would have been the one they played today. Ace starter Masahiro Tanaka would be pitching against the often-shaky Chris Tillman.
If I had told you that one team would shut out the other, even, you would have figured Tanaka pitched a complete game against the Orioles. Instead, it was the other way around, with the Orioles notching an 8-0 victory to take the series.
Tanaka is good, looking to be worth every bit of the $175 million that the Yankees spent to sign him this offseason. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any start, and coming into today, he'd only been the losing pitcher for one game all season. He was non-decisioned in the other game he had pitched against the Orioles this season, giving up three runs in seven innings. That's what he ended up surrendering today as well, only this time his offense did not do him any favors.
The O's started threatening early in the game, with both Nick Markakis and Steve Pearce getting on base with singles before Tanaka had even retired a batter. That turned into nothing after a flyout and a pair of strikeouts. The best that you could say is that they made Tanaka throw 23 pitches in the first inning.
After failing with their first inning opportunity, Tillman took the mound for the bottom half of the inning and gave up a line drive into the right field corner to the very first batter. The speedy Brett Gardner rounded the bases as the Orioles bumbled their way through retrieving and firing the ball in, but as he slid into third base for what looked to be a triple, his hand came off the bag before his foot touched it. Gardner was initially called safe, but after Buck Showalter asked for a replay, the umpires at the central office decided that Gardner was out.
On the whole, momentum does not exist. People believe in it anyway. That was nearly a crucial swing in favor of the Yankees and it ended up working to the benefit of the Orioles.
Jonathan Schoop broke the scoreless tie in the second inning by muscling a home run into the left field seats. He might not be peak Chris Davis for strength, but he is strong. He does not have to put a great swing on a ball to hit a home run either. That was the sixth home run of the year for Schoop, who has now hit two against Tanaka.
Both pitchers settled down past the second inning. No more runs crossed the plate until the seventh. The Yankees were set down in order in the second, fifth, and sixth innings. The Orioles went down 1-2-3 in the fourth and the sixth and had no one in scoring position at all from the third through the sixth. With Tanaka on the mound, you can always expect he'll do his part for a pitchers duel, but for Tillman to participate in one is surprising.
Especially after Friday's blown game, you're never going to be very comfortable with only a one run lead at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles did what it feels like they seldom do and got themselves some insurance runs in the seventh inning, the last that Tanaka pitched. J.J. Hardy led off with a single, which was followed by a double into the right-center gap from Manny Machado. It's the kind of swing he has not often taken this year.
That gave the Orioles second and third with no one out. How would they manage to blow it? Three straight strikeouts or popups? Some kind of TOOTBLAN situation erasing the lead runner, followed by a double play? No, my friends, the Orioles had something known as "productive outs" - Schoop grounded out and allowed Hardy to score and Machado to advance, then Caleb Joseph, after a failed squeeze play, hit a sacrifice fly to bring Machado in from third. My heart went pitter-patter. Who are these guys?
With Tanaka out of the game, the Orioles poured on the runs in the eighth inning against Adam Warren, who's actually been pretty good for New York so far this season. Today was not his day. Pearce and Adam Jones each singled to start the inning off.
That's when things got a little sticky. Nelson Cruz hit a grounder to third. Yankees third baseman Kelly Johnson stepped on the bag and fired to first, but he was taken out by a World Cup-inspired tackle from Pearce. It was the kind of slide that no one probably would have blinked at if he had done it heading into second, but coming in from the side going into third, it looked pretty bad. The third baseman can't defend himself as well from the side.
Pearce was out either way, but he caused Johnson to throw the ball into the seats. Replays showed Pearce never touched third base.
No one was hurt. The Yankees might have had an argument that Cruz should have been out due to runner's interference. That was not granted. So, with an open base, Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the curious decision to intentionally walk .216 hitter Chris Davis. Well, challenging Hardy isn't a bad idea. He made them pay, though, with a double to right-center clear the bases and blow the game wide open.
The ninth inning saw Caleb Joseph hit his first major league home run. The kind and benevolent Yankees fan who caught Joseph's home run tossed the ball back onto the field, asking for nothing in return, in order to allow Joseph to be given the milestone ball. That's a display of generosity and good sportsmanship that makes the world a better place.
Tillman pitched his way through seven scoreless innings, giving up only four hits. Some days you ride the BABIP dragon. He walked four and struck out only two - that won't work often. It worked today. T.J. McFarland added a couple of perfect innings of relief.
In a surprise for the often-moribund bottom of the O's lineup, the 6-9 hitters combined to drive in all nine runs.
With the O's win Sunday, they and the Yankees now sport identical 39-35 records. A Toronto loss on Sunday means that these two games are both 1.5 back of the division lead, and they're in a three-way tie with Seattle for the second wild card spot in the American League.
The team heads back to Baltimore, where they'll begin a three-game series against Chicago on Monday. Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Sale are scheduled to start the 7:05pm opener.