Sometimes, life gives you a gift. For the Orioles on Thursday night, that gift was named Yunel Escobar. The O's kept themselves in the game against the Rays thanks to miscues by the Rays shortstop, overcoming a rough outing by starter Bud Norris to take down a 5-4 victory.
Combined with a Yankees loss earlier in the afternoon, the O's are back up to a seven game lead in the American League East. Their magic number is 24 with 30 games left to play.
The Orioles trailed in the game before ever coming up to bat. Norris struggled through the first inning, throwing over 30 pitches and giving up a number of hard hit balls, including a leadoff double to Desmond Jennings, who would later score on a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist. Evan Longoria added a solo home run, his 17th blast of the season, to give the Rays a 2-0 lead. The Rays went on to load the bases before Norris escaped the jam, because that's what you're supposed to do when Jose Molina is batting.
Some nights that kind of thing can happen and the Orioles look like they basically roll over. This was not such a night. Steve Pearce answered in the bottom of the first inning with a home run of his own, his 16th of the season. Even more impressive, it came on an 1-2 count. Where would the O's be without Pearce? That is a world I don't want to contemplate.
After Pearce's homer, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz hit singles back-to-back, with Jones digging hard for third base on Cruz's single to set up first and third with one out. On an 0-2 pitch, Cruz took off for second base on what looked like one of those busted hit-and-run plays. As he approached second, he stopped. Molina threw down to second and as Escobar started to chase Cruz back to first, Jones broke for home. No, Adam! What are you doing?
Caught up in the excitement, Escobar threw home, high and wide of Molina at the plate, allowing Jones to score and Cruz to go back to second. It goes in the scorebook as a double steal, Cruz to second and Jones to home. The Orioles tied the game at 2-2. That was the first Orioles steal of home since Robert Andino swiped home in June of 2009.
Jones also walked in the game, an even more remarkable feat than his steal of home plate.
Norris settled down for a few innings after that troublesome first, but he ran into trouble again in the fifth. The top of the Rays lineup caused problems all night. Zobrist and Matt Joyce had back-to-back one out singles to set up a first and third situation, allowing Zobrist to easily score as Longoria drove a fly ball deep to center field for a sacrifice fly. The next batter, James Loney, doubled into the no man's land that is the left field line when Cruz plays in the field. Joyce also scored easily, putting the Rays back on top, 4-2.
Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson ran into some trouble of his own in the bottom of the fifth, with the Orioles sandwiching a walk between two singles to load the bases with no one out. Cruz scorched a liner right at Escobar, bringing up the slumping Davis. You had to wonder what would go wrong. The Rays even brought in lefty Jeff Beliveau to face Davis. Beliveau me, Davis grounded a ball to the right side, setting up a 3-6-3 double play.
Only, Jones, who was on first after a single, barreled towards second. He wasn't even going to slide. As Escobar caught the ball and went for the relay throw, he floated his relay ten feet above the first baseman's head. Since there were two outs, two runs scored on the play. Davis got one RBI on the fielder's choice because "you can't assume the double play" (even when you can and should), with another scoring on the error. Thank you, Escobar, for all of the gift runs.
In a game where you get so many gift runs, you'd better go ahead and win. Norris sent the Rays down 1-2-3 in the sixth to finish his night, not a great one with four runs on six hits, two walks, a hit batter and five strikeouts. He kept it from being worse, though. That's not for nothing.
Thankfully, the Orioles own shortstop is beautiful man J.J. Hardy. The Rays looked like they might threaten again after the seventh when Jennings got a leadoff single off of Brad Brach. A batter later, O's manager Buck Showalter summoned Andrew Miller from the bullpen to face pinch hitter Logan Forsythe.
Why is Hardy a beautiful man? Forsythe hit a liner at Hardy, who was savvy enough to see that the ball was almost on the ground, so he held back his glove long enough for the ball to bounce, allowing him to get an easy 6-3 GIDP. Jennings never even left first base, nor should he have, on a ball like that. Hardy just owned him.
In the bottom of the inning, Hardy became even more beautiful. Cruz hit a two out double, bringing up Davis, who
struck out was intentionally walked. Wait, what? Joe Maddon, what are you doing intentionally walking a .188 hitter? Thank you, thank you, thank you, for thinking way too much! That brought up the top of the inning's hero, Hardy, who poked an opposite field blooper that was able to score Cruz for the decisive fifth Orioles run.
Miller mowed down the Rays in the eighth inning, paving the way for Zach Britton to close the door with an easy 1-2-3 ninth against the bottom of the Rays order. The bottom four Rays combined to go 0-14. The win went to Miller, 4-5 on the year, while Britton picked up his 29th save. Tampa Bay's Kirby Yates took the loss and is now 0-2 on the year.
With the win, the Orioles took the four game series from the Rays. That's what you should do against a fourth place team. Next up is another four games at home against the last place Twins. You know what must be done, Orioles. The series starts on Friday night with a 7:05 scheduled start. Miguel Gonzalez starts for the O's in the opener, with Trevor May starting for the Twins.