It was a beautiful night for baseball at Camden Yards as the Orioles utilized superb defense and a flawless bullpen to earn at least a series split with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays couldn't help themselves on the basepaths and both starters failed to make it through five innings in this three and a half hour marathon game that Baltimore took. 4-2.
Despite the generally slow pace of the game as whole, the Rays came out of the gates on fire. Desmond Jennings led things off with a single to centerfield. Ben Zobrist followed with a double to left, advancing Jennings to third and things began to look ugly for Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen.The southpaw was lucky enough to be the benefactor of some questionable base running by Jennings.
With the two men on and no one out, Logan Forsythe grounded to third baseman Chris Davis. Davis came up with the ball, gathered himself, patted his gloved and fired over to Steve Pearce at first to nab Forsythe. Meanwhile, Jennings was headed home. As Pearce caught the ball he shifted towards the plate and tossed to Caleb Joseph who tagged a sliding Jennings in a close play. The initial call was out.
Rays manager Joe Maddon came out to argue. According to both the MASN broadcast and several Oriole beat reporters, the question was of whether Joseph was blocking home plate. Apparently, that is a case in which Maddon does not have to use a challenge to look at the play. In the play, which you can see here, it is pretty obvious that Joseph was not blocking the plate, but the argument can be made that Jennings squeezed his hand across home before he was tagged. Whatever the case, after the three minute and 16 second review, the ruling of "out" was upheld.
The extraordinary double play was not the end of the Rays threat. The very next batter, Evan Longoria would single into right field, beating the shift, to score Zobrist from third and give the Rays the first run of the night.
It was the Rays offense at it again in the top of the second inning. They managed to get two men on as Ryan Hanigan stood at second base; Sean Rodriguez, first with two outs. Jennings stepped up and singled into centerfield. Adam Jones scooped it up, crow-hopped and sent a rocket towards home plate as Hanigan rounded third. The throw skidded off of the pitchers mound right into Joseph's glove as Hanigan slid by. It was the second out at the plate on the night for the Rays.
Until the fourth inning, the only interesting thing happening with the Orioles offense was the review by the umpires to see what the count was for a Nick Markakis at-bat in the third inning. The Orioles right fielder had walked down to first base on ball three. According to the rules, you have to see four balls to earn that right. He returned home and was called out on strikes the next pitch.
But in that fourth inning the O's would get on the board with a clutch Joseph single. Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young had led off the inning with a single and walk, respectively. After two outs by J.J. Hardy and Davis, Joseph took an Alex Cobb change-up to centerfield. Jennings dove but couldn't come up with ball. Both Young and Cruz scored to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead.
Tampa struck right back in the fifth inning. A double off the bat of Longoria scored Zobrist, who had walked earlier in the inning. It's possible that if the Orioles had, say, anyone else on the team in leftfield, that Longoria's double would have been caught. Young seemed to get turned around. He was postioned well, but only managed to get about three inches off the ground. It was tied at two apiece.
This signaled the end of the night for Chen who did not have his best stuff. He struggled to find the strike zone at times and couldn't miss the Rays bats at all. When it was all said and done, Chen went 4.2 innings and allowed two runs on seven hits and three walks. If it weren't for the stellar defense, it would have been much worse.
It was a similar story to Tampa's Cobb. He couldn't even last as long as Chen. He was gone after four innings. He managed to K six in that span but also got into trouble with three walks and three untimely hits. The game would come down to who had the better bullpen.
Brad Brach was the first in line for the O's and he too would benefit from the Baltimore leather. He closed the book on Chen by striking out Wil Myers to end the fifth, but he loaded the bases himself in the top of the sixth. He did so with a pair of one out walks and a single. Then Jennings, who else would it be, bounced a slow roller towards Davis at third. Crush bare-handed the ball and made a nice toss to home to get the force out and the third out at home for the Rays on the night. Zobrist few out to end the threat.
Everyone's favorite Aussie, Grant Balfour, entered the game in the sixth inning and would be the first bullpen arm to crack. Davis and Joseph found themselves on base with two outs when Jonathan Schoop stepped up and singled to left field. Davis easily scored to give the Orioles back the lead at 3-2.
Tommy Hunter threw a perfect top of the seventh (*gasp*) and the Oriole bats were hot in the bottom of the inning. Pearce walked, Jones singled and Cruz doubled scoring Pearce. The Cruz double was also part of one of the funniest calls from Gary Thorne that you will every hear. It is a must listen. But that is all the team would get; kind of disappointing but they led 4-2.
Andrew Miller and Zach Britton both breezed through the eighth and ninth innings to seal the Oriole victory. No drama; perhaps that's boring but it is exactly what the bullpen is there for. They were fantastic as a unit with Brach, Hunter, Miller and Britton combining for 4.1 innings of scoreless baseball, allowing just one hit and two walks; all from Brach.
They showed a graphic on MASN that explained what a non-Oriole win this was. Entering the night they were 11-28 in games in which they did not hit a home run. No one went yard, yet the outstanding defense and great performance from the bullpen was enough to bring home the W.
The club will take their seven game lead in the AL East into tomorrow as they try to take the series from the Rays. The pitching matchup is slated to be Kevin Gausman against lefty Drew Smyly on Darren O'Day t-shirt night. First pitch is set for 7:05. See you at the Yard.