Isn't baseball so much easier when your starting pitcher does a good job? The Orioles have not had a ton of examples of that lesson in the 2015 season, so whenever there is a well-pitched game by the starting pitcher it is a pleasant surprise. Wei-Yin Chen, who, to be fair, has been the only consistently good starting pitcher all season, held the Rays to one run over seven innings on Saturday night. This proved to be enough for the Orioles offense to overcome - never a sure thing this year - and the O's walked away 2-1 winners.
If only it could always be this easy. Starting pitcher goes seven innings and leaves with a lead, with Darren O'Day lined up for the eighth inning and Zach Britton lined up for the ninth. There's a reason why they're 57-3 when carrying a lead through seven innings, and that tandem at the back end of the bullpen is a big part of that reason.
The advantage of scoring first
The Orioles struck first with a run in the top of the first inning. Manny Machado reached base with a one out bunt. He took third but was unable to score when Chris Davis doubled off the right field fence. The Rays played the infield back, conceding the run on a ground ball, and Adam Jones got that ground ball. Machado scored and the O's held an early 1-0 lead.
That's been a good omen for the Orioles so far this season, as they came into the game with a 50-27 record when scoring first.
This was less of a factor tonight. Within two batters, the lead was erased. Rays leadoff batter Brandon Guyer opened with a single and when the next batter after him, Richie Shaffer, doubled, Guyer was able to score, unlike Machado. The score was tied 1-1 before an out was even recorded. This is the point where you expect the Orioles starter to fall apart, but from here, Chen shut down the Rays offense.
After allowing the tying run, Chen went through a streak of facing ten Rays batters and getting ten outs. From the second inning through the sixth, the Rays only got two hits and three baserunners total.
When the Orioles starting pitcher holds the other team scoreless, the offense will eventually score. Well, most of the time, anyway. The O's didn't score much against Rays starter Erasmo Ramirez, but they scored enough.
The second run, which proved to be the decisive one in the contest, came across the plate in the sixth inning. Davis led off with a double, his third hit of the night, putting himself in scoring position right away for Jones, who singled him in to give the O's a 2-1 lead. The two RBI by Jones gives him 82 for the year.
That was all they would need, and good thing too, because over the final three innings of the game the O's offense only mustered two hits and never again had a runner in scoring position. They were 1-5 in such opportunities in the game, which isn't great, but the Rays, at 0-8, were worse, so that will do.
Chen once again finishes a game strong
The decision to have Chen pitch the seventh inning did not, at first, look like a good one. Asdrubal Cabrera and James Loney opened up the inning with singles, putting the tying and go-ahead runs on base for the bottom of the Rays lineup. Chen held the line from here, however, despite a pitch count that was already up over 90, setting down the next three Rays batters in order.
The second out here was a hot shot line drive off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier that shortstop J.J. Hardy did very well to react and catch. He was close to being able to double off one of the runners. Chen followed up this piece of defensive wizardry by setting down pinch hitter Joey Butler on strikes. That closed the book on Chen - six hits, no walks, one run in seven innings of work, in which he struck out seven batters. That'll do.
Chen has actually done very well this season in the higher numbers of pitches - his OPS against is best by far in the 76-100 range, holding batters to a .620 OPS heading into tonight. He is that peculiar pitcher doing better the third time through the batting order.
With only a one run cushion, the game was never exactly well in hand, even with a dominant pair of relievers like O'Day and Britton lined up. In the eighth, O'Day lost control of a pitch and hit Grady Sizemore in the kneecap with one out, putting the tying run on base. Mikie Mahtook, he of the five hit game yesterday, came on as a pinch runner for Sizemore. Mahtook must be a fan of Bruce Springsteen because he was born to run.
Sure enough, Mahtook went for the stolen base almost right away - as Evan Longoria swung through a 1-1 pitch, Mahtook safely slid in to second base ahead of a throw from Matt Wieters. There was immediate confusion. The home plate umpire called the rarely-called batter's interference as Longoria stepped in front of Wieters, out of the batter's box, while Wieters made the throw. That meant that Longoria was called out and Mahtook was sent back to first.
Mahtook was undeterred and he ran again with Logan Forsythe at the plate. This time Wieters made a better throw and Mahtook was tagged out by Jonathan Schoop. Thanks for playing.
No Rays reached base in the ninth inning as Britton picked up his 34th save of the season, though Britton was not without a little help from his friends. The game ended as Schoop ranged far to his right to backhand a grounder and Davis was able to keep his toe on first base despite a high throw. In addition to this game-ending play, Schoop extended a hitting streak to twelve games with a fourth inning single.
The win pulls the Orioles back up to two wins away from .500 and leaves them needing to go 8-6 over the final 14 games in order to finish with at least a .500 record this season. They will look to get the first of those eight wins against these same Rays on Sunday afternoon with a scheduled 1:10 first pitch. Kevin Gausman and Jake Odorizzi are the expected starting pitchers.