One night after facing a Cy Young contender like Chris Sale, the Orioles were tasked with another difficult matchup, a tough lefty in White Sox starter Jose Quintana. Still conditioned to expect the worst when the Orioles face the league's best, I did not anticipate good things. I forgot who we were talking about, though. These are the 2014 Orioles. Their opportunities were few, but they delivered in the clutch, driving to a 5-1 victory over Chicago on Tuesday night.
That win, coupled with Yankees and Blue Jays losses, means the Orioles gain a game on each of their divisional competitors, now leading New York by 8.5 games and Toronto by nine. There are 38 games left to play and the Orioles lead is closer to double digits than zero. They are 20 games over .500. This is not a dream. This is reality.
Buoyed by the pre-game news that Ubaldo Jimenez has been jettisoned from the starting rotation - actually, I don't think he was buoyed, but I sure was - Chris Tillman, who started the game, turned in a gem. The best thing to be said about Tillman tonight is that he made it a boring game. Over eight innings, he only gave up one run on three hits and a walk. The one run came on a first inning mistake to White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, who crushed a baseball into the seats in left center for his 32nd home run of the year.
Tillman never faced more than four batters in a single inning and he never faced a batter while there was a runner in scoring position in the whole game. He struck out nine batters. That is ho-hum dominance, the kind of thing you're just not expecting to see from Orioles starters. Tillman lowered his season ERA to 3.55 as he picked up his 10th win of the year.
"The curveball was there for me tonight," Tillman told MASN's Gary Thorne in his post-game interview. We've all seen those games where he can't find the strike zone with it for anything. When it's on, though, you get games like tonight. Any Orioles starter who goes eight innings while only allowing one run is going to have a pretty good chance of winning the game.
For Tillman, it was his 12th quality start in his last 14 outings. He hasn't allowed more than three earned runs since his one inning mess on June 5 against Texas.
As a team, the Orioles only had nine hits over the whole game. That's much less than some of the double-digit barrages they have unleashed in recent wins. They only scored a single run by a home run. There are a lot of ways to win a baseball game. The Orioles are finding many of them. On Tuesday, it was timely hitting that brought them to victory.
They got things started from the top of the first inning. Steve Pearce proved he isn't quite yet turned into a pumpkin by hitting a ground rule double over the left field fence. Pearce scored easily on an RBI single delivered by Adam Jones, who collected his 76th RBI of the season in the process. That gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead after half an inning, although the Abreu home run in the bottom half meant it didn't last for long.
Quintana locked them down for a while after that, sending the Orioles down in order in innings 2-4 and allowing only a single to Nick Hundley in the fifth inning. Hundley also somehow stole second base before the inning ended. Catcher speed!
Orioles bats will only stay quiet for so long. Sometimes they slumber for whole nights, but sometimes they wake up before the game ends, and if their starter has kept them close, then the game is afoot. Tuesday's game was the latter sort.
Whether Quintana tired or the Orioles simply figured something out in the third time through the order, they were able to break through in the sixth inning. Jones got himself on base with a one-out double. One batter later, it looked like he might score on a silo shot from Nelson Cruz, but the ball stopped carrying and died on the warning track. He just missed the mistake pitch.
That doesn't matter, because the Orioles have a bunch of guys who can get you. Delmon Young gave the O's a 2-1 lead with a single into center, easily enough to score the high-1954-socked Jones. The stripes give you extra speed, don't you know. They were not done there, either. The flurry of hits continued with a single by birthday boy J.J. Hardy, moving Young up to third. Sub-Mendoza Chris Davis even got in on the act, clearing the bases with a double that split the outfielders in right-center.
The 4-1 lead was all they would need, but just for fun, Hundley added a solo homer in the seventh, his third Orioles homer of the season, fourth overall. Why the heck not, right? In one of those stats that only could excite Jim Hunter, it turns out that the Orioles are 9-1 in games where Hundley has an RBI. They are also 1-0 when he steals a base. Hey, whatever works.
Tommy Hunter pitched a scoreless ninth.
Just about the only downer for the Orioles was that Nick Markakis had a hitting streak halted at ten games. He did his part last night. Others did theirs tonight. This team is 20 games over .500. They've won 72 games this year, something they only did twice from 2001-2011. No team in the division has allowed fewer runs than the Orioles. They are not messing around.
The Orioles go for the sweep against Chicago on Wednesday night for a scheduled 8:10pm game. After beating Sale and Quintana, they'll probably lose to Hector Noesi. That's life. Wei-Yin Chen starts the game for the O's. If nothing else, they're back to winning a series.