Deploying a Sunday forfeit lineup worthy of the darkest of Dave Trembley days, the Orioles on Sunday mostly looked about how you'd expect from such a squad. They are lucky that they included Nelson Cruz even in the forfeit lineup. Cruz single-handedly drove in all seven of the Orioles runs in a 7-5 win over the Rays that took 11 innings to complete. A win is a win.
The Orioles trailed for most of the game, looking like they were going to go quietly into the sweep. A barrage of home runs given up by Bud Norris over six innings seemed like it would be enough to do them in. And it was, for most of the game, until suddenly it wasn't, mostly thanks to Cruz.
It was Cruz who put the Orioles on the board with a two-run home run in the sixth, delivered a bases-loaded triple to give the O's a 5-4 lead in the ninth, and, with a chance to hit a double for the cycle in the 11th, instead mashed another two-run home run, putting the O's up 7-5. Cruz drove in all seven of the Orioles runs and now has 101 RBI for the season.
It's clear that O's manager Buck Showalter has used this series to play some sacrificial lambs. He spoke to reporters prior to Sunday's game about how turf takes a toll, referring to the carpet inside of Tropicana Field. It probably does take a certain toll, and so Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and J.J. Hardy all started out on the bench to rest their legs and stay off of that turf. You can take these liberties when you come into a game with an 8.5 lead, knowing that at worst you will end the day with a 7.5 game lead.
Jones would enter the game as a pinch hitter in the ninth. He sustained the rally that would end with Cruz's triple, reaching base with a single after Ryan Flaherty and Jonathan Paredes had done the same.
Weird plays were rampant throughout the game, including an inside-the-park home run hit by the Rays. If you read it in the box score, you will see D DeJesus inside-the-park home run to left center. That is a true statement, and it may conjure up an image to you of an outfielder diving for a ball, missing it, a runner scrambling around the bases. No, this was not the case.
DeJesus hit a sinking liner that looked like it would fall into the left-center field gap - with the Orioles normal outfielders it might have, but De Aza and Lough both scrambled towards the ball at top speed. They looked like they might collide with one another violently. De Aza managed to catch the ball, which landed in his glove just in time for Lough to crash violently into De Aza's arm. The ball flew all the way into the corner in front of the 315 sign in left field. Lough scrambled after it and fired home in vain.
DeJesus was running all the way and he got the inside-the-park home run on the play. It was the first time the Orioles had allowed an inside-the-park home run since September 19, 2011, when Jacoby Ellsbury hit one against Jeremy Accardo in Fenway. At this time, the Rays lead was 3-0 and it looked like the Orioles might never score.
That was the weirdest of the four home runs that Orioles starter Bud Norris allowed on Sunday afternoon. In a fair world, it would have been an out instead. That's life. Norris also gave up solo home runs to Evan Longoria and James Loney in the first inning, then topped off his afternoon by surrendering a solo shot to Kevin Kiermaier in the sixth inning of the game.
Fly ball pitcher Norris had only allowed two home runs in his last nine starts. Giving up four in one game is what we might call regression to the mean. The Loney home run was on the cheap side, barely clearing a fence in right field. Cheap still counts. Norris allowed the four runs on eight hits and two walks in six innings. He left the game with the Orioles trailing 4-2, and if it wasn't for Cruz, that's where things would have stayed.
Cruz's ninth inning triple actually provided excitement for Orioles fans, as it gave them their first lead of the game, a narrow 5-4 cushion that suddenly made all of their other failed opportunities in the game more frustrating. Particularly, following Cruz's home run, the O's loaded the bases on a hit batsman and two walks, but then Flaherty hit an infield fly pop-up and Jonathan Schoop struck out, so the O's got nothing more out of that chance.
Chris Davis' failure to get Cruz home from third with only one out in the top of the ninth also proved crucial at the time. A sixth run would have proved to be the difference by the end of the inning. Davis hit a weak grounder to a drawn-in infield, keeping Cruz from scoring on the play.
Longoria, the very first batter of the bottom of the ninth, hit a fairly routine grounder to short that left Flaherty, the substitute shortstop, unable to make a clean throw to first base. That E-6 put the tying run on base.
A single and a sac bunt later and Longoria was on third base. Pinch hitter Sean Rodriguez hit a chopper to third. It wasn't a deep chopper, but it was close enough to the line that third baseman Johnson must not have felt confident about throwing home; the RBI groundout tied the game at 5-5, the first blown save for O's closer Zach Britton after 18 consecutive saves. The tying run was unearned. The game headed into extra frames.
As it turned out, it was all just marking time, waiting for the chance to have more heroics from Cruz. Owing to the kind of lineup chicanery that occurs in a 4.5+ hour game, Nick Hundley batted in front of Cruz in the 11th, drawing a walk after working the count full. He scored on Cruz's MLB-leading 39th home run of the year, the one that gave the O's the 7-5 lead that finally stuck.
Having already used their closer for the ninth, the O's called on Andrew Miller to face the bottom of the Rays lineup. Of course it couldn't end normally. The game even ended on a fluky kind of play. With two out, Miller hit Rodriguez with a slider. That brought up Logan Forsythe, representing the tying run. He took Miller to a full count, then swung at a slider that hit him in the thigh - an honorary Jake Fox. the ball rolled back to the backstop after hitting Forsythe, and Rodriguez actually came around to score.
But, swinging at the third strike that hits you is a dead ball strikeout, so the game was over, despite the vehement argument put up by Rays manager Joe Maddon. The Orioles were shaking hands while Maddon still stood on the field pleading his case in vain. The umpires left. The game was over. The Orioles won.
It was a wild one, but it all worked out in the O's favor. Coupled with a Yankees loss earlier on Sunday afternoon, the O's lowered their magic number to 12 by avoiding the sweep. Brad Brach, who pitched the 10th for the O's, got the win, raising his record to 6-1. Cesar Ramos, who surrendered Cruz's 11th inning homer, took the loss, falling to 2-6. The save went to Miller, the first of his MLB career.
There are 20 games to play and the O's hold a 9.5 game lead in the AL East. They head next to Boston, where a three-game series against the Red Sox starts on Monday night at 7:10. Miguel Gonzalez is scheduled to start the opener for the O's, with Joe Kelly starting for Boston.