Orioles center fielder Adam Jones says he doesn’t know what his statistics are against opposing pitchers, so when he walked to the plate in the ninth inning Sunday he didn’t realize he had just two singles and four strikeouts in 10 previous at-bats against the best closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera.
After launching a one-out, two-run home run over the left field wall to give the Orioles an eventual 2-1 victory, stun the screaming, announced crowd of 40,218 and stop the New York Yankees from competing a three-game sweep, Jones admitted he won’t be forgetting that plate appearance against Rivera anytime soon.
“It’s off the greatest closer in the history of the game. I’ll always remember it,” said Jones, who hadn’t homered since June 18 against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. “You’ve got to win, and we haven’t been playing that well. We need to tighten up. We need to clean it up around here. Need to play better baseball as a team, as a unit.”
The Orioles (49-40) were two outs away from their third, three-game sweep by a division rival this season. Instead, they won for just the second time in a six-game road trip to Chicago and New York and dropped the Yankees (48-40) into fourth place in the American League East – just one-half game behind the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, who are currently tied for second.
“We know what division we're in. We know what teams we're facing. We know what we're up against,” said right fielder Nick Markakis, who had three of the Orioles’ six hits Sunday, including a single in the ninth against Rivera to set up Jones’ heroics. “We've got to battle. It's a long season. We play a lot of games against these guys, a lot of games against these teams in this division. Everybody's good.”
The Yankees and Orioles won’t face each other again until Aug. 30, when they’ll then play seven times in a span of two weeks.
After splitting 18 games with the Yankees in 2012 (and losing three of five to them in the American League Division Series), the Orioles are now up 7-5 in this season’s series. Of those 12 contests, 11 have been decided by three runs or fewer and five were one-run games, including all three this weekend.
“These games that we play in the division, those are a little bit more important because the way the playoffs are structured,” said closer Jim Johnson, who rebounded from his sixth blown save Friday with a perfect ninth Sunday. “You have to win your division to guarantee at least a series, so we’ll see where we are and we’ve got to keep trusting what we are doing, stay healthy and play good baseball.”
Heading into the ninth Sunday, only one run was scored – on a sacrifice fly by Eduardo Nunez in the second against Orioles starter Jason Hammel, who threw 102 pitches in five innings while battling the sweltering Bronx heat. Still, Hammel nearly matched zeroes with Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda, who allowed just three hits and a walk in seven shutout innings.
“Honestly, I felt I threw the ball pretty well,” said Hammel, who gave up six hits and two walks in his fourth no-decision in his past five outings. “Didn’t get deep into the game for the fact that they fouled off a lot of pitches.”
Rookie reliever T.J. McFarland, who had been battling a head cold all day and hadn’t pitched in a game since June 28, took over from Hammel and threw two hitless innings.
"I just found out he was sick as a dog today. Nobody told me,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of McFarland. “One of his bullpen-mates said, 'I don't know how he even got to the mound today.' Gave him a little better sinker, I guess.”
Troy Patton and Darren O’Day (5-0) combined for a scoreless eighth to match Yankees’ set-up man David Robertson. All the Yankees needed was a clean inning from Rivera, the likely first ballot Hall of Famer, to extend their season-best winning streak to seven games.
“Any time you're sitting there with Robertson and Rivera, you don't like your chances,” Showalter said. “But there was a good vibe in the dugout. The guys were grinding. And it's tough. Very challenging conditions.”
The 43-year-old Rivera has recorded more saves and games pitched against the Orioles than any other club in baseball. But he’s also lost more games to the Orioles – eight before Sunday – than to any other team.
With one out Markakis singled to center to make him 3-for-4 on the day after he learned he had not been selected for his first All-Star game, much to the disappointment of many of his teammates.
“He’s one of the guys that I’ve seen bring it for six years, every single day. He’s one of the guys that I’d give up my spot for,” said Jones, who was selected for his third All-Star appearance. “He can flat out hit. He can flat out play the game, plays a great right field. He was the catalyst of it today.”
Two pitches into his fourth at-bat, Jones homered – his first extra-base hit of his career against Rivera and his first extra-base hit, period, in 16 games. Jones had been so frustrated lately that YES Network cameras caught him swinging and crushing his own helmet in the dugout tunnel Friday.
“You go through those [stretches] at the plate,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay aggressive, trying to stay positive. The video that went viral of my soft-tossing my helmet, the hardest [thing] hit until today, the last 10 days.”
Rivera (1-2) recorded the final two outs, but the damage was done. It was Rivera’s second blown save of the year and first in Yankee Stadium since September 2010 – a string of 41 straight saves at home.
Johnson then took the mound and struck out Lyle Overbay and Luis Cruz before getting Nunez to ground out for his 30th save of the season. The 11-pitch perfect inning helped erase his last outing in which Johnson blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth Friday.
“You want the ball as soon as possible. Try to redeem yourself and get yourself back into a groove,” said Johnson, who thought he had better command and was more aggressive with his fastball Sunday. “You look at the game and you could tell the way it was, 1-0, a bad situation to be in. Nick, obviously, gets it started. Jonesy with the big home run. Kind of reminiscent of last year, it felt like.”
The Orioles, winners of 29 of 38 one-run games in 2012, are now 13-14 in those situations this year.
None was perhaps more dire than Sunday’s – with a demoralizing sweep just two outs away and a pitching legend on the mound.
“You don’t want to get swept any time,” Johnson said. “We lose the first two [games] of the series, you’ve got to try and find a way. And it came down to the last inning of the last game of the series. Obviously, it wasn’t the kind of road trip we wanted. But hopefully it gives us a little bit of momentum going home.”